A quick one today, as I’m on holiday – at least until this evening, when we’ll be back in Bologna and back to the usual routine.
It’s a lovely, bright morning here in Glasgow (Scotland), but I’ve written about visiting this city before and so won’t dwell on it.
Other than to mention something that disorientated me and made me feel like a total foreigner (which of course I am.)
The point, I suppose, is that when learning a foreign language, you are not just gradually accumulating knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and so on, but also getting used to new ways of being, and doing.
For example, I’d argue that, apart from the writing system, Japanese isn’t a particularly hard language. The grammar and pronunciation seem straightforward, at least.
But in learning to speak and understand Japanese, you’d come across all sorts of things that might prove difficult to get used to, from the food (strange pickled things) to the way that cities are organised.
Someone once told me that Japanese homes don’t have adressess – who knows if that’s true, but if it were, it sure would complicate things if you were invited to someone’s place for dinner.
And of course the manners, in the sense that the way people behave in different places is broadly the same, but sometimes utterly peculiar!
I once spent a year teaching English to groups of Japanese teenagers, which was, at first, the weirdest experience.
I quickly learnt, for instance, that you couldn’t just direct a question at a student, or at the whole class, and expect them to answer it.
For to volunteer, to put your hand up to signal that you know the answer, would be risky behaviour from a social point of view.
You’d risk embarrassing your classmates, who perhaps hadn’t been paying attention. And you’d be acting in such a way as to suggest you were better than the others, which would be a faux pas.
“Who can tell me what British people eat on Christmas Day?”
Blank looks from all twenty faces.
Getting a response to what was supposed to be the beginning of a friendly conversation with the class meant learning a new didactic approach:
“Now, I am going to test the whole class by asking each person a question, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t answer correctly. Akihiko! What do English people eat on Christmas Day?”
But back to Italy and Italian, by way of Glasgow.
So we’ve been walking around the city quite a bit.
Which of course means regularly crossing roads at junctions regulated by what we Brits called ‘traffic lights’, Americans call ‘stop signs’ and Italians, for some strange reason call ‘semafori’.
Picture two major roads crossing. There are four places that a pedeestrial can cross, right? The four sides of an invisible square.
You’ll know when to cross ‘your’ side of the square, so as continue walking down the same side of the street as before, when the red man becomes a green man.
With me so far?
But suppose that, having reached this junction by walking up the left-hand side of one street, you now want to turn onto the other road and proceed on the far side of that one?
You would need to cross both roads, right?
Which previous experience of ‘semafori’ has confirmed means waiting twice for the green man to show, or cheating and crossing one or both streets even though the red man suggests that this is inadvisable.
So in Glasgow, it appears not to be like this.
At the junction, everyone waits politely to cross the street, eyeing the green man opposite so as to know when it will be safe to do so.
So far, so standard.
All four streams of traffic stop AT THE SAME TIME!
Pedestrians cross from one side of the road to the other in the usual way, no suprise there.
Anyone needing to cross two (or more) streets strides DIAGONALLY RIGHT ACROSS THE MIDDLE OF THE JUNCTION.
It looks suicidal, but everyone seems to do it.
There are people crossing diagonally from four different directions, as well as those moving along the square’s four sides.
Think of the Scottish flag, with its big white X on a blue background,and you’ll get the idea.
In fact, perhaps that’s it? Crossing the road as a patriotic act!
Obviously, this is a cultural norm rather than something that is officially supposed to happen.
But finally! I’ve come across something so anarchic (albeit practical) that it makes Italy look well-organised and law-abiding!
At which point, I must mention my top tip for not causing an accident when you rent a car in Italy.
It’s ‘semafori’ again.
And this one caught me out, again and again, for years – still does, sometimes.
I’m on my large, powerful motorbike, waiting impatiently in the rain at an unfamiliar junction for the red light to turn to green.
When it eventually does, I select first gear, twist the accelerator and roar off around the corner…
Only to see an elementary-school class strung out across the pedestrian crossing!
I’m certain that the green light meant that I have right of way. Surely these damn kids are crossing the road illegally?
But no, the pedestrians have a green light too, AT THE SAME TIME as traffic turning left or right.
And theirs gets priority, apparently.
The consequence of which is the usual Italian chaos.
Careful drivers, turning the corner and catching sight of someone striding confidently into their path, hit the brakes – forcing those behind them to do the same.
So fouling up the entire junction.
One slow-on-her-feet old lady, or a mother pushing a pram and dragging a toddler that doesn’t want to walk, and and you’ll be stuck there for ages waiting to get by.
Which of course is a massive incentive to accelerate rather than brake when approaching ‘semafori’. Who knows? They might change and, unless you’re willing to risk a fine by ‘passare col rosso’, you’ll be forced to wait.
If Italian road planners had actually been trying to design the least safe system, they probably couldn’t have thought of a better way to organise things.
So there you go.
No matter what your Italian teacher tells you, there are things to know that are more important than the ‘congiuntivo’.