The Friday Five: Useful Words When in Rome

2 Nov

For NaBloPoMo, I’ve decided to do a “Friday five” where every Friday I’ll come up with a list of five things in some category. Today I figured we could take a look at five of what I consider to be useful words for when in Rome. Of course, I look forward to your suggestions as well as I know you’ll have some great ones!

And, I’m going to try to avoid the basics like ciao, arrivederci, etc., since you can find those in your guidebook or maybe already know them. These are helpful in everyday situations and maybe no one will tell you about them before you visit.

1. Scende? (SHEN-day?)

I found this to be very useful on public transport. Granted, with body language and context you could probably figure out the meaning, but when you’re on the bus and particularly when you’re standing in front of the exit doors (which are technically the middle doors, not the front and back doors, but find me a bus where everyone obeys this rule). If someone behind you plans to get off at the next stop, and you’re in front of the doors, they might ask you this. It means, “Are you getting off?” Kind of a courteous way to say, hey there, you’re blocking the doors so if you’re not getting off at the next stop, outta my way. You can say either sì or no, and if it’s no, plan to move. If the bus is really crowded, you might even have to hop off and hop back on.

2. Dica or Mi dica. (DEE-kah)

You’ll sometimes hear this when you go into a bar, or a gelateria, and it can take the place of “Prego.” When I first got here I thought it sounded so rude and abrupt! Basically it means, “Tell me [what you want].” It’s in the formal Lei form (otherwise it would be “Dimmi”). You probably won’t ever need to say it, and again, you could probably figure out from context what it means, but still, I’ll never forget the first time I ever had to order a sandwich at a bar and I was startled with the simple and direct command “Dica!” I got all panicky and had to point at the sandwich.

3. AHO! (AH-oh)

This one is certainly tongue-in-cheek. It’s like the all-purpose Roman way to say “Hey!” and I’ve mentioned it in prior posts, but it’s such a great typical phrase that I can’t help but include it here. You’ll here it when people are saying hi to each other, when they’re yelling at other drivers, when they’re surprised, when they’re confused… it runs the gamut. I myself have even been known to use it once in a while… which amuses everyone around me.

4. Cono and coppetta (COH-noh, cop-PEHT-tah)

Oh, please. As if one could go through an entire trip here without knowing how to order gelato in either a cone or a cup. I guess you could point. But knowing the words helps. Does anyone come to Rome and not try the gelato? Thinking back, when I got my first gelato I had no idea you could get more than one flavor. Seems absurd to me now, but I was so used to paying more in the States for extra flavors, that it seemed like such a treat! I think I did something like choose lemon and chocolate, which freaked out everyone around me. I hadn’t yet learned that you’ve got your fruits section and your chocolate/cream section, and very few of them can mix well. But I don’t remember it tasting that strange.

5. Spicci??!! (SPEE-chee)

Man, if this isn’t the most annoying one. As you know if you’ve been here, and as I’ve mentioned at least once in a former post, Romans are literally OBSESSED with exact change. Spicci is coins. Just try paying for something that costs €4.37 with a €50 note. They’ll love you for it! You’ll undoubtedly get the question at the supermarket, at bars, and maybe even at ticket windows. “SPICCI??” “HA SPICCI??!” If you don’t have the 37 cents, or better yet the two 2-Euro coins and 37 cents, you might get a disgusted look, a sigh, or any number of passive-aggressive reactions. I won’t even get into how puzzled I am that grocery store cashiers expect ME to be their bank. In Rome there’s a bank on like every corner! But if you’ve ever had a bank account in Rome, then you know that you can probably only do transactions on your account at the exact branch location where you opened your account. And did I mention my bank’s hours? (8:35 am to 1:15 pm, then 2:35 pm to 3:15 pm…. no comment).

Help me add on to my list… what are some of your most essential words in Rome, especially ones that aren’t commonly listed in guidebooks?

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22 Responses to “The Friday Five: Useful Words When in Rome”

  1. squiggy November 2, 2007 at 12:09 pm #

    Prego… as simple as it may seem prego has 1 million and one uses that can sometimes confuse a newcomer. Prego is not only “you’re welcome” but it’s also:
    May I help you?
    Go ahead.
    After you.
    Your turn
    etc.

  2. eva November 2, 2007 at 12:13 pm #

    I love the comment on spicci- you’re too funny!
    I actually got up the nerve once to politely ask a storekeeper why they never had enough change even in the early morning when they just opened. His response: “I open the store before banks open so I can’t get change”…. UHHH, yeah but there are two of you working here, couldn’t one of you go stand in line at the bank to make change while the other tends to the store?
    His response “It’s not that easy”.
    Okay, smile and leave.

  3. Robert November 2, 2007 at 1:16 pm #

    Yeah, I remember all to well my first shopping experience in Naples, having to leave my stuff at the counter and leave the store to go make change because the woman on the till would not accept my 20 0000 Lire note for something I was buying. She just stared at me – did not even say a word…

    Another useful one when standing in queues is ‘permesso’. Used commonly as a polite way to cut in front of you. Don’t fall for it.

  4. Robert November 2, 2007 at 1:16 pm #

    Ok, that was meant to be 20 000 Lire…

  5. nyc/caribbean ragazza November 2, 2007 at 3:47 pm #

    I don’t know why but every time I hear dica! I feel like I’m at the start of a race and someone yelled Go! Then I freeze for a minute as I try to remember why am I in the store and how to ask for it in Italian. ha

    So Shelley if I open an account at a bank in/near my neigborhood, I can’t use another branch of the bank? What if I move?

  6. Shelley, At Home in Rome November 2, 2007 at 5:14 pm #

    Squiggy: Excellent point. Prego tends to be very confusing in the beginning. I also got a bit confused with “magari” — meaning both “perhaps” but can also be used as a sort of “I hope so.”

    Eva: That’s hilarious. I love it: “OK, smile and leave.” Yes, I’ve had to use that tactic many times. Have I ever told the story about the woman who refused to sell me a €1 loaf of bread because I only had a €20? OMG. I was so ticked! The nerve! So, solution? “OK, smile and leave.” Actually, on that occasion the smile was definitely not a part of it. I was astonished.

    Robert: Permesso is an excellent one, and good tip on people cutting in line. It’s also so useful when you need to squeeze past people. I find it so odd here how people will see you, you can be standing practically right in front of them and they see that you can’t pass until they move, but they won’t move until you say something, like the oh-so-useful “permesso.” Permesso with a little push or elbowing is sometimes necessary too… LOL.

    NYC: This is such a great description of the feeling that I also agree “dica” gives. Like I said in the post, the first time I heard it it made me feel all panicky for no reason! Can you imagine if that’s how people asked “may I help you?” in the States? Even though it’s the formal form and isn’t rude, it still comes across to me as something akin to “What the hell do you want?!”

    As far as the bank goes, I really don’t know since I’ve always done all of my transactions at the branch where I opened. In any case, you can’t open a bank account unless you have a permesso di soggiorno. So if you have one, and you open an acct., make sure it’s a convenient location for you. If you move neighborhoods, as far as I know, you still have to travel to that particular branch. It’s totally lame. Has anyone told you about how much it COSTS to CLOSE a bank account here?? It’s insane. People keep inconvenient accounts open just to avoid the closing costs, it’s usually more than €100. Monthly charges are insane too. Can you say NIGHTMARE? As bad as the dreaded post office.

  7. Janie November 2, 2007 at 5:30 pm #

    Thanks for all the helpful language hints! Your post back in Sept. about mistakes not to make in Italian recently saved me on an exam in my Italian class! I had to write a paragraph using the conditional and subjunctive and after I was all done I looked it over and remembered what you said about “never use the conditional after se” and I realized I had gotten it backwards but thanks to you I changed everything and got it right!

  8. Sara, Ms. Adventures in Italy November 2, 2007 at 7:11 pm #

    I want to second the “permesso” use instead of Scusi scusi scusi scusi scusi scusi scusi that well-meaning tourists use to get by someone. :)

  9. qualcosa di bello November 2, 2007 at 7:41 pm #

    you’ve covered the only 2 i need to get by…cono e coppetta!!

  10. Janavi November 2, 2007 at 8:00 pm #

    I’ve also found VAI VIA helpful when I’m being hassled by someone,usually a guy.
    HOW About a post on the way Roman women dress?

  11. Francesca November 2, 2007 at 8:18 pm #

    I remember all of those words!! So true! I always liked “Dai!” or “Ma Dai!” complete with hand gestures, and so helpful in Roamn traffic.

  12. Jeni November 2, 2007 at 11:15 pm #

    Great post. I, too, find “mi dica” rude. It is very subtle and I know it is completely acceptable, but it still rubs me the wrong way. And I agree with the annoyance of the money/spicci thing (it seems to be all over Italy.)

    Appropriately enough, my Italian husband takes offense to some of our commonplace and innocent English terms because when literally interpreted would not be as nice as they are in our language. Yes, we’ve had a few fights over these inuendos!

  13. Brendan November 3, 2007 at 1:21 am #

    The attitude towards spicci in the UK is quite the opposite. They hate it, with a passion. I learned it the hard way, when I spent 4 minutes fishing 14 cents out of my pocket to “make life easier” for the clerk at the supermarket. I wound up being shot down and receiving a very strange look, and the response was “just keep it mate, here’s your change”. I felt like he was trying to get rid of me.

  14. SWT November 3, 2007 at 9:18 am #

    I’ve had to explain “buste?” to a lot of my visitors. When you go through a grocery store line the first thing the cashier says to you is either “quante buste?” or just “buste”….meaning “how many bags do you want” (and are you willing to pay for!). So then it’s helpful to know your numbers!

  15. Beth November 3, 2007 at 10:35 am #

    I once thought ‘cono o coppetta?’ as in gelato were the most important words to know–but living here I discovered ‘sciopero’ was a more valuable word to know (if not understand). Last Friday I tried to make reservations for Galleria Borghese–sorry we will be on strike–and then there are the bus and taxi strikes….
    and by the way you only need a codice fiscale or a social security card (the actual card–not just the number) to open a bank account and if you are persistent you can use another branch–I use the one in my neighborhood and my husband uses the branch at work where we opened the account.

  16. Shelley, At Home in Rome November 3, 2007 at 3:34 pm #

    Brendan: Ci manchi!!

    SWT: This is a great point. I’ve seen tourists struggle with this one in the supermarket. Sometimes the cashier switches to English and says “Bag?” but sometimes not. In any case, the grocery store merits an entire post of its own…has been on my list for while.

    Beth: Sciopero, yes, indeed! If you were able to open a bank acct. with just a codice fiscale, I’d say consider yourself lucky. It’s not *supposed* to be technically possible. Actually beyond having just a permesso I was also asked for proof of residency here in Rome. I couldn’t even get an account at the stupid post office without a permesso. I had a codice fiscale for years before I had a permesso but it didn’t get me far for things like the bank account.

  17. blacklightblue November 4, 2007 at 9:01 pm #

    Ha! The French are much worse, because the French cashiers are permanently grumpy, at least the Italians will go back to a smile after they chew you out for not having exact change. On our last trip to Rome, we witnessed an absolutely beautiful cashier freakout when the guy (Italian, to boot) dared present himself sans proper coinage at the checkout. She lashed him up and down good and threw a few licks in to her manager (who sat – strangely – in a small cubicle not far from the checkout stands, doing god knows what, but not much to the visible eye), who seemed to calm her down with a few words. ‘Shut up or I’ll fire you’, maybe? Haha. The beautiful part was how quickly and completely she went back to being more or less congenial with the rest of us. In France, you’d probably want to switch cashiers after a scene like that. No telling what the fallout could be…

  18. Marta November 10, 2007 at 10:39 am #

    What about ‘Uffa!!’ – this is an expression used to show people that you’re tired/annoyed at something that’s happening. A lot of people use it a lot, and it’s kind of funny because it somehow sounds like what a little girl would say if she’s upset. :)

  19. Shelley, At Home in Rome November 12, 2007 at 1:10 am #

    Uffa is a good one! I used to live near a town with Norwegian origins in Washington State, and they used to say “Uff-da” for the same kind of thing. So when I started hearing Uffa here it reminded me of that, and seemed so funny.

  20. Roberta March 30, 2012 at 7:44 am #

    I have a tough one for you! MICA!!
    ‘Non sono mica stato io!’ ‘Mica lo mangerai!’ :)

    • Un'americana a Roma March 30, 2012 at 10:03 am #

      That’s a great one. It emphasizes the value of “not” in the phrase, from what I’ve been able to pick up over the years. Kind of like the “at all” in “not at all”. What do you think?

  21. Paul February 5, 2014 at 7:27 pm #

    My favourite Italian word is “Boh”. I don’t know if it’s a real word or not, but they use it here in Rome to mean “I don’t know” but sometimes the connotation is “What the hell are you talking about?”

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