Here Are Some Basics
Buongiorno: Good morning
Salve: Be well
Buonasera: Good evening
Buona giornata: Have a good day
Buonasera / Buona serata: Have a good evening
Arrivederci: See you later (usually to strangers whom you don’t know if you will see them again)
Ci vediamo dopo: See you in a while
Ci vediamo domani: See you tomorrow
It Starts with an Apology
When I arrived Venice in July, the Italian words I knew were only “buongiorno”, “buona giornata”, “ciao”, “grazie”, “scusa”, and “buona notte”, and the last one isn’t helpful at all for greeting our visitors. It means “good night”.
I was fine for the first few days with these words, but soon I faced my first challenge. Quite a lot of visitors asked me questions in Italian, and I could only reply them with a smiley-sorry face, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian.” Feeling I could do better, I went to ask Francesco, one of our great Italian colleagues, how to say the above sentence in Italian. Ta-da! I learned my first Italian sentence: “Scusa! Non parlo Italiano!” Francesco explained to me, when Italians mention themselves in daily conversations, they usually omit the subject “I”. Now I felt less guilty because I could at least say “Scusa, non parlo Italiano” which seemed to make the apology more sincere.
Sonia (left) and Francesco (right) were talking in the courtyard. Courtesy of Maggie Yim.
Since then, I realised what I knew was far more than enough, and I started to pay more attention to the language visitors would use. Two weeks went by, I noticed some visitors would greet me with “salve” instead of “buongiorno”. I went to ask Francesco again for the meaning of this word.
“It was a more polite and traditional way to greet people. It means ‘be well’,” he said.
The advantage of using “salve” to greet people is that you can say it anytime in a day, unlike “buongiorno” which you can only say it in the “daytime”. (“Daytime” is a mysterious and ever-changing concept of time for the Italians. I will further explain it in the latter part of this blog post.)
The Venice Biennale opens till 8 pm on Friday and Saturday, and on one of these days, I heard Francesco greeted visitors with “buonasera”.
“So ‘buonasera’ means ‘good evening’?” I went up to him after the visitors left.
“And I guess ‘have a good evening’ is ‘buona serata’?” With Francesco’s positive response, I tried to push it a little forward.
“Brava!” Francesco clapped for me. (“Brava” is the feminine, singular form. It should be for a woman. While “bravo”, the masculine, singular form of the word, would only be addressed to a man.)
Another one or two weeks went by, I recognised that some visitors would say “a-vi-der-ci” to me as a farewell. I asked Francesco, he didn’t get it at first, but after a thought, he said, “Oh! Arrivederci! It should be ‘arrivederci’!” With those two Rs in the word, you can imagine how difficult it was for me to pronounce this word. In Italian, they pronounce every alphabet in a word, so double-r means even more rolling of the tongue, which I couldn’t do it at all and Francesco would tell me to give up and just pronounce it with an English “R”.
Are You Confused Yet?
There are various greetings and farewells in Italian. It may seem confusing when to use which, but please don’t worry, there isn’t just one formula of doing greetings and farewells. It is rather fluid, as language has always been. You would hear some Italians saying “buongiorno” instead of “buona giornata” as “goodbye”, while other Italians don’t agree with it. You may know that “ciao” is an informal greeting and farewell which you would use for someone you know, but people in shops and cafés would sometimes greet you with it. You would see Italians arguing between themselves when to start saying “buonasera” instead of “buongiorno” as it’s no longer the “daytime”. The answers I have received so far were either after lunch, after 4 pm, when the sun sets, or when you feel tired.
(From left to right) Vanessa, Sonia, Francesco, and Jacopo (our another Italian colleague) were having fun in the gallery in front of Negotiated Differences. Courtesy of Lau Sai Wing.
Why Does It Even Matter?
Learning Italian greetings and farewells to me is more a gesture of respect and friendly welcome that I would like to deliver to the visitors as a worker in the Hong Kong exhibition venue at Venice Biennale. It’s a tiny thing, but it’s the tiny things that help fortify perceptions. By working in the Hong Kong exhibition venue, as I faced visitors, I also recalled my experience of visiting museums or seeing exhibitions in the past. I realised how the slight discomfort induced by the judging eyes or careless faces of museum workers partly constructed my perception of what art is. Your emotions, your facial expressions, the words or phrases you choose to use, the tone you speak in, your body language, all these tiny things easily reflect your perception of what art is and who can access the meanings. These ideas go into the construction of visitors’ perceptions of art because you work there, you represent the authority that held the exhibition, and therefore you hold the power. The issue is of course way more complex than just saying hello in Italian, which I also wouldn’t be able to cover in the length of this blogpost, it nonetheless serves as an entry point to the issue.