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One night while I was out and about in Florence, an American student asked me if I speak Italian. I answered truthfully. I can understand more than I add to the conversation, but I tend to put on that I know a lot less than I do. “So you do know Italian! What are the MOST important phrases in Italian I need to know!?” Her eyes bright, searching my face for an answer from an “older” role model. Truthfully, I was only a few months older than her most likely, though I felt like ages. Having been living in Italy for 6 months at this point, nonstop travel, and nonstop work, and nonstop living the lifestyle I dreamed of – it was refreshing to look into the eyes of someone who was me the year prior.
I rambled off my most used phrases in Italian.
“Wow! You sound so fluent, I would never know you weren’t Italian. Why do you act like you don’t know any then?”
Honestly, because I was embarrassed. I just told her to eavesdrop and avoid getting out of talking to the taxi driver at 5 am on the way to the airport.
The cat is out of the bag. By no means do I consider myself fluent in Italian, but I do manage to get along, and I’ve even had a few Italians not realize I was Italian until there was a certain word I didn’t understand. (I particularly remember getting hung up on the Italian word for “initials” a few years ago.)
After thinking about it for a few nights, this is the list of what I think are the most important phrases in Italian for travelers.
Useful for planes, trains, busses, taxi services, and any other meeting time. If you learned Spanish in grade school, the numbers are fairly similar, so you shouldn’t have too difficult translating the response. But to freshen you up on your Italian:
The most important phrase in Italian to know…ya know…so you don’t pee yourself. I’ve thought long and hard about the fated question: “Dov’é?” – “where?”. Mostly because if you ask this in Italian, then you’re going to get a response in Italian, which requires you to know directions in Italian. Let me just say that any time I have ever asked an Italian for directions, I’ve been more lost than had I just searched on my own.
But when you ask for the bathroom, the only response needed is a point, and maybe a few words. However, most of the time it isn’t particularly important to get all of the words if you can get the gist of where the restroom is from gestures.
“Posso avere un litro di vino rosso della casa?” Can I have a liter of red house wine?
“Posso avere le chiave per il bagno?” Can I have the keys for the restroom?
“Posso avere un po’ di piú?” Can I have a little bit more?
The list goes on. This is a very useful phrase in Italian to know when in restaurants, bars, or anywhere with customer service.
If you are going to an event and trying to find your group you might need to address yourself to a host. If they don’t speak English the best way to tell them is I am here with… or I am here for… and then name the group or event. Usually, at that point, they can just lead you to where you need to go.
Buona Sera- Good Afternoon/Good Evening
Buona Notte– Good Night
Please do not walk into a cafe, restaurant, gelateria, or whatever in the afternoon and say buongiorno. This means good morning. After 1 pm you should say buona sera, and the only time you say buona notte is when parting for the evening or to go to bed.
Most people know this word, and most people not Italian don’t know how it’s spoken. Grazie is pronounced graht-zee-ay NOT graht-zee. (In Italian, every vowel in the word is pronounced)
Also note, if someone has done something very kind to you, you can say Grazie Mille! Thanks a thousand! (graht-zee-ay mee-lay), but this isn’t usually something you go around saying to your grocery store clerk.
Again, something most people know, just not how to spell. Chou, chau, chiou, and my personal favorite, chow.