People come to study in Milan for a variety of reasons: proximity to easy and inexpensive travel, the fashion culture, Italian food, the business industry, and myriad other topics. At the base of Italy’s multi-faceted beauty lies the Italian language. Unlike English, Italian’s lyrical phrasing and carefully structure assonance lends itself well to idioms, everyday phrases, and metaphors. I hope you enjoy my favorite Italian phrases that I’ve learned this semester—if you’re coming to Milan in the future, don’t forget to try these out with your host family or local shop!
La bella figura
Literally: The beautiful figure
Figuratively: A good first impression
Italians, especially the Milanese, are obsessed with making a good first impression. Unlike the States, where a good first impression means a good handshake and arriving on time, Italians also care greatly about how well you are dressed and how polished you look when you first meet them.
Me la cavo
Literally: I can extract myself from this situation.
Figuratively: I can get by
This is a great phrase for anyone learning Italian. Instead of saying that you speak a little bit of Italian, using “me la cavo” is a great way to communicate that you know enough to handle most situations. A must for travelers and people meeting lots of Italians!
Literally: Have a good appetite.
Figuratively: Have a good meal, everyone!
No matter where you are, people will say this before every meal. More elegant that the American version (“Dig in!”), this phrase truly exemplifies Italy’s long and rich culinary history and commitment to sitting down and eating meals with one’s family.
Fare la scarpetta
Literally: To make a little shoe
Figuratively: To use a piece of bread to catch the last flavorful traces of sauce on your plate.
It’s unclear exactly how this phrase got its name, though some people think that a small piece of bread looks somewhat like a shoe. I disagree but will suspend my disbelief for the sake of cultural sensitivity. In any case, it’s the perfect phrase to describe the last few minutes of dinner when everyone grabs a piece of bread and uses it to catch all of the last drops of sugo, ragu, oil, or other flavorful sauces of your plate. Italians don’t waste food, and this is just one of the many delicious ways to make sure that no food goes wasted.
Chi dorme non piglia pesce
Literally: Who sleeps doesn’t catch fish.
Figuratively: The early bird catches the worm.
Study abroad is all about enjoying every minute and living it up! Use this Italian phrase as encouragement when you take yet another budget flight at 7am out of the Bergamo airport or wake up early to make it to the train station for a quick day trip to Florence.
A cavallo tra
Literally: At the horse between
Figuratively: The space between two events
I’m not exactly sure of the origins of this phrase, but in any case it’s a great way to describe when you’re in limbo between things both simple (e.g. Sono a cavallo tra le lezione—I’m between lectures right now) and complex (e.g. Sono a cavallo tra i lavori—I’m between jobs).
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<p>Kinsey is a Biochemistry major and Italian minor from Tufts University near Boston, MA studying in Milan for Fall 2016. Everything she does is to learn more about food; catch her studying cheese microbes by day and reading cookbooks by night. She caught the travel bug the minute she tasted her first crepe in Paris way back in 2006, and hasn't looked back since.</p>