A phrase that you hear often if you spend a good amount of time in Italy is “piano, piano“. Though, I may hear this phrase more often than others considering that I am A) an American, B) a New Yorker, C) frequently overanxious. This will make more sense when I tell you what it means.
I first heard it on one of our first social outings in Bologna. I was speaking to the Italian boyfriend of another expat, in Italian, and I was trying REALLY hard. It must have showed. Scratch that. It definitely showed. All over my face. I was closing my eyes as I conjugated verbs and grimacing when I wanted to say something but knew the vocabulary needed was nowhere in my brain. The guy gently stopped me and with a smile said, “piano, piano.” He went on to remind me that one can’t learn a new language overnight, and he told me the story of how he taught his girlfriend Italian little by little, piano, piano.
At first, I thought the phrase was “piano a piano” and translated to “step by step”, as “piano” is the word used for “floor” (like the floor of a building). However, when I recently told an Italian friend how much I liked the phrase, he taught me that is not the case. In this context, “piano” comes from the world of musical terminology and translates to “soft”, like in “fortepiano” or “mezzo piano”. And so, “piano, piano” translates to “softly, softly” or “slowly, slowly”.
Since that first time, I’ve heard the phrase used in a variety of contexts.
- An Italian couple I met while WWOOFing at Dulcamara was spending a week at the farm in Bologna and then driving down to Lecce (the heel of Italy’s boot), piano, piano.
- Before we started clearing weeds in the garden (which can be back breaking work), we were told to work piano, piano in order to protect our backs and avoid damaging the crops.
- I heard a mother on the train from Milan to Bologna explaining to someone on the phone that the babysitter says “piano, piano” when it’s time for the kids to settle down and get ready for bed.
- “Piano, piano, pieno” (“slowly, slowly, full”) is the title of Tuscan cookbook advocating slow food. Spend time preparing your food and eating together, and you will feel full and satisfied.
Piano, piano. I love this phrase because it is an onomatopoeia. It sounds like what it means. Upon hearing these words uttered by an Italian, like a reflex, you take a breath and relax a bit. Another phrase that falls into this category, is “con calma” , which means “calmly” or “easy”. I hear this frequently too…
Shouldn’t we all have an Italian in our lives that reminds us to take a chill pill from time to time? (I’m picturing a miniature Italian hovering over my shoulder like the good conscience shoulder angel from Looney Toons).
In a nutshell
What I heard: “Piano, piano” = “Slowly, slowly”
What I think: In this time when Luke and I are surrounded by potentially anxiety-inducing changes, we are lucky to be surrounded by Italians doling out such wise and lovely words on a regular basis!