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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Italian word of the day: ‘Passeggiata’

It's not just a word. In Italy, it's an art form.

Italian word of the day: 'Passeggiata'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

It sounds like a simple enough concept, but I got this all wrong when I first arrived in Italy. So let’s talk about the passeggiata.

Fare una passeggiata means to go for a walk or stroll.

– È andato a fare una passeggiata.

– He went out for a walk.

– Andiamo per fare una passeggatia

– Let’s go for a walk

– Fa una passeggiata ogni sera.

He takes a walk every evening.

But when Italians talk about la passeggiata, they’re not usually talking about just any old walk.

The passeggiata is a time-honoured tradition in which the whole town participates, on Sunday evenings and holidays, if not most nights of the week. Usually while dressed up in their fanciest designer clothing, and shoes which are not made for walking at all.

It’s a word that’s very much associated with leisure and ease, and the feeling of having plenty of time.

In most towns the usual route would involve a stroll down to the main piazza (square) or the centro storico (old town), or perhaps along the lungomare (seafront).

This was all a new concept for me. Growing up in the UK, Sunday walks were a long and muddy affair, probably involving climbing up a hill and being splashed with dirty river water by the dog. You’d come home red-faced and windswept, and eager for a hot bath and a cup of tea.

So the first time an Italian suggested what I thought was “a walk” one Sunday, I assumed we were going to explore the nearby countryside – and I dressed accordingly.

Well, you won’t be trudging through any mud on la passeggiata. 

In fact, you’ll barely even be walking; everyone’s too busy checking out who’s with who, and who’s wearing what. If you really want to do it properly, you’ll stop to admire the view or chat with a neighbour every ten steps, before sitting down for an aperitivo.

Italians tell me the movement and fresh air helps with digesting dinner or an enormous Sunday lunch, or working up an appetite before those meals.

But most of all it’s a chance to see and be seen, show off your new relationship or designer handbag, and generally fare una bella figura, or look really good. I suppose it’s how people used to show off before social media was invented.

Once upon a time, this kind of leisurely walk was called a “promenade”. And the noun can also mean a promenade, as in a long street.

– una passeggiata alberata

– a tree-lined promenade

And it can be used figuratively to mean a “walk in the park” or a “cakewalk”

– Questo esame non sarà una passeggiata.

– This exam won’t be a walk in the park.

So, when an Italian friend suggests “andiamo per fare una passeggiata”, you probably don’t want to grab your oldest trainers and scrape your hair back, as I did on my first week in Italy, thinking “hey, I’m only going for a walk.”

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Alle prime armi’

Here’s an Italian expression for the ‘uninitiated’.

Italian expression of the day: ‘Alle prime armi’

At the risk of being chastised for resorting to well-worn clichés, if each Italian teenager had a cent for every time they were scorned on account of them being ‘alle prime armi’, Italy’s youth unemployment would likely be less of a cause for concern right now.

But, what does ‘alle prime armi’ mean and why are youngsters the most likely (and most unfortunate) targets of this peculiar expression? 

Well, as some of you might have already guessed from the presence of the word ‘armi’ (weapons), the expression comes from the military world and refers, in its original meaning, to any young recruit being handed their weapons at the start of their training in the forces. 

As such, the idiom’s literal rendition into English would be something along the lines of ‘[someone] holding their weapons for the first time’.

But, nowadays, the expression is hardly ever used in its first intended meaning as its scope has extended to encompass practically anyone who’s recently started a new job or craft and has little to none experience in the relevant field. 

So, in its more recent interpretation, the idiom would actually correspond to English adjectives such as ‘fledgling’, ‘inexperienced’ or ‘green’, or expressions like ‘wet behind the ears’.

Alternatively, the Italian expression could also be replaced by nouns such as ‘beginner’, ‘rookie’ or ‘novice’. 

Here are some examples of how Italians use ‘alle prime armi’:

Cosa ne pensa del mio lavoro di oggi?
Penso che sia proprio il lavoro di uno alle prime armi.

What do you think of my work today?
I think it’s the work of a novice.

Questo progetto di bilancio è un disastro. Si vede che sei alle prime armi. 
This draft budget is a mess. It’s evident that you’re inexperienced.

Il vino non va aperto così. Sei proprio alle prime armi, ragazzo.
You don’t open bottles of wine like that. You really are green, boy.

As you can see from the above examples, the expression is often used in a rather patronising, slightly demoralising way, which, take it from an Italian born and bred, is sadly the default attitude of most Italian people over the age of 50, regardless of whether they are family members, long-time friends or just your superiors at work.

But, if it’s any comfort, you should know that this is just one of those hard and fast aspects of Italian culture that have been there from time immemorial and most people using the expression actually mean well. 

But, should you feel particularly disinclined to be described as a person ‘alle prime armi’, you’ll find no shortage of witty comebacks in the Italian language.

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