Piano, piano

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!


10 thoughts on “Piano, piano

  1. ciaobologna Post author

    Ciao, Clare! Glad you like it. And thanks for spreading the word! It would be great if America was a little bit more chillax when we return.

    1. ciaobologna Post author

      I can’t think of many people who couldn’t use some! And I imagine a daily dose of “piano, piano” is needed for those planning a wedding 😉

      1. Anne Piano

        Hi, my name is Anne Piano. My father was from Calabria, Italy. I love my name soooo much that when I married I could not bear to part with it, so I kept it. The world is so crazy I would love to get lost in Italy and maintain a slow, soft way of living. I am 60 years old, a teacher, with a degree in multicultural and bilingual education.

      2. ciaobologna Post author

        Thanks for the note, Anne. I understand why you wanted to keep your last name… it’s great! Life in Italy can be tranquilo but even here I need to constantly remind myself of the mantra “piano, piano”. I do hope you get to come to Italy and get lost sometime soon. Take care!

  2. Graham

    What a great article and so nicely written. I have suffered from anxiety attacks since I was 13 AND I’ve also been learning Italian; So I know the lovely expression ‘Piano, Piano.’ It is such a great reminder in this ‘Time means Money’ World.

    I only wish I’d known of it when I was trying to settle my kids to sleep, too. 🙂

    1. ciaobologna Post author

      Hi, Graham! Thanks for stopping by. It is somewhat funny (or scary, depending on how you look at it) how often I have to remind myself to slow down. I guess you can take the New Yorker out of America but it’s hard to get the New Yorker out of the girl. Keep calm and carry on 🙂

  3. It's A Roman Thing

    This post was so wonderful and so helpful!! I’ve shamefully let my Italian slip away and an Italian friend just sent me a message that finished off with “piano piano.” I could not for the life of me understand what he was saying, so this post was a lifesaver! 🙂

    Grazie! Love your blog!

    xo Elle

  4. Adrianne

    I can’t thank you enough for this beautiful explanation on the meaning of “piano piano”. The phrase is near and most dear to my heart. My Grandmother recently passed away at the wonderful age of 90yrs. Although most definitely not a woman of Italian descent, she often recited the phrase, piano piano. I would get a kick out of it. I knew more of less just by when she used it what it meant…to her. I never actually knew until now that the phrase is an actual phrase used by Italians. It’s one of the last things she said to me on the [unknowingly] final day that i visited with her few days before she passed. I was impatiently (NY’er) bustling around her house trying to get things done, and she reminded me… piano piano. Makes me cry now with wonderful memories of her wisdom. I miss her dearly, and wish i had taken her advise more often, especially when spending time with her.


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