I’m not generally a person to notice hands. They are useful tools, and the opposable thumb helped humans to get us to where we are. If I want to look at the aspects of someone with respect to how they communicate, I look at their face. Their eyes, their mouth, eyebrows, if they wrinkle their brow.
Not in Italy. I’ve been here about a year now, and I have realized something: It is ALL about the hands. I found myself wondering today exactly how an armless Italian would communicate. Or how someone who was handcuffed behind his back would talk. See, I just don’t think they could do it. They would be at a loss for words, because for Italians, their words originate in their hands, and then travel to the mouth, and come out. Sometimes something is lost in that travel, but the message still comes across, clear as day, because it is all about the hands- they say everything. The first couple of times I tried watching American movies dubbed into Italian, I was confused. I should have been able to understand what they were saying, but I couldn’t. I was just completely and totally not getting a word, and couldn’t follow the story. It was only later that I realized why- they don’t move their hands! The expressions were all wrong. Italian language isn’t just words, it is movements, which generally all originate in the hands. Now, a ‘hand movement’ might actually be a whole body movement, with them flailing around and jumping and such, but it is just an extension of their hands moving.
Italians are funny. I see them riding their bicycles through rush hour traffic, cigarette in one hand, mobile in the other. They somehow manage to maneuver through crazy Italian driving, and smoke and talk on the phone. But they aren’t just talking into the phone. They are gestering like crazy, somehow managing to smoke, hold the phone, and not fall off the bike or run into a tree, pedestrian, car, or Roman ruin. I get the bajeezus scared out of me sometimes when my husband drives, because he likes to talk on the phone, as he is a bit of a social butterfly. He follows the law and has his mobile in hands free mode, but you know what that means for an Italian? One more hand to gesture with! I often find myself squeeling because of the certain death that will soon befall be because his hands are flying through the air (not at 10 and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel), making wild gestures, unseen but certainly somehow felt by the person on the other end of the phone, to illustrate and punctuate his points. Somehow we haven’t died yet.
I do it now, too. I DARE you to try to properly say something in Italian without moving your hands. Or without even imagining moving your hands. Really, try it. You can’t do it.
By properly saying something in Italian, I am not even talking mainly about the pronunciation. It’s the enunciation. The expression. The emphasis on certain words, and the enjoyment of saying them. A certain… flair, that only someone (in the mind of an American, mind you) with a name like Fabio, Giancarlo, or Massimo can pull off. Savoring certain parts of the word, holding them, round and warm in your mouth like a delicious chocolate truffle, or spewing them out like sharp bits of ice, punctuating the warm fullness. Like a rollar coaster, and adventure, the word building up to a climax before you fall perhaps to your death, or perhaps to another undulating phrase. The more exciting the word, the more important, the more beautiful or fun to say, the bigger the hand movement.
Say ‘Spaghetti’. That was the first word I learned to say correctly. I don’t mean say ‘spagedi’ like an American. But, ‘Spah-GHETT-ti’, with the first syllable building into the next, and ending on a sharp note. Touch your thumb to your middle finger (some touch to the index- you can choose!), moving your hand slowly away from you on the ‘spah’, and then faster has you get to the ‘GH’, and punctuating the air sharply as if your connected fingers where plunging deep holes into the atomosphere because the word is just THAT important (as they all are) on the ‘ETT’, and then gradually coming back towards yourself on the ‘ti’. Alternatively on the ‘ti’, you can puncture the air again, but with slightly less emphasis than the climatic ‘ETT’.
Every word has a gesture that goes with it. You take that away, and you’ve taken away the best part of the language. It isn’t even the look of the movements, it is how the movements make the sound come out. Actually, it is about the look. Today, I was in a meeting with my department at work, and instead of calmly discussing things, hands in our laps, like Americans, everyone was throwing their arms up in the air to elaborate on their points, patting each other on the shoulders to say ‘I agree’, or ‘good job’ , or ‘excuse me, I must go to the bathroom’, depending on the kind of pat. with your hands you can say everything. To learn Italian properly, one must also learn their sign language. How else would you say ‘this meal is so incredibly delicious I have no words for it!’ other than putting your fingertips together on your right hand, kissing it, and then bursting your hand backwards as if the deliciousness from your mouth created an explosion that threw it backwards? Alternatively, how could you properly and concisely put into words, ‘I don’t care about you because you are a dick, and you can go screw yourself. But, on the other hand, since I don’t care, do what you want but get out of my sight. Not like I care,’ rather than tilting your chin up and sharply drawing your thumb away from the soft spot behind your chin until it goes into the air and reconnects with your hand? Sure, people usually shout words along with these gestures, but you KNOW what is going on based on these signals!
The hands of an Italian conduct an orchestra of their vocal cords, and put on a symphony for everyone listening, whether they want to listen or not. The hands are the maestro, the director, the genious behind the musical language.
They also knock over a lot of glasses. Take note of who gestures the widest, and with what arm they gesture with, before sitting next to them at dinner. Because trust me, you will end up with wine covering you from head to foot as a part of that symphony. I, for example, know to never ever EVER sit on the right of my maternal (in-law) Nonna Maria. I specify maternal because my husband’s other grandmother is also Nonna Maria. But, yes. She is Italian. And I was inducted into the family with a baptism of fine local red wine as she was making a (not so) elequent point, as only an Italian does.