Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Exploring language difference in Venice

Everyone knows that Venice is a city of tourists: recent estimates suggest 60-80,000 each DAY. I have read about proposals/actions to limit tourists to Venice, including, especially, cruise ships (here's a great video of locals discussing the crisis; it's in Italian, but you can get the idea by watching and taking in the Venice atmosphere).

Yesterday I treated myself to a brief trip to Venice (only 30 minutes away by train) in order to visit the famous islands of Murano and Burano. More on these charming little towns shortly… first, some adventures in bilingualism.

Because the whole world is basically in Venice on any given day, you never know what language to speak. Right outside the train station, on the Grand Canal, I bought a 12-hour vaporetto pass and begrudgingly got into a huge line for the Murano-Burano route. I tested the translingual waters with a well-prepared, young couple who had a vaporetto schedule. I asked to see it, in Italian, and we then discussed our options for getting on a boat sooner.

This couple definitely had an "accent", so I asked where they were from. It turns out they were Italian, visiting from Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot. "Oh, right", I realized, "this is how Italians talk in the South!" Although I have never been to the south of Italy (but really want to go!), everyone has been warning me about regional linguistic differences, not to mention region-specific dialects. As we continued our conversation, I realized that their Italian had the familiar rhythm of some Italian-Americans I have met, for example, in the Italian class I took last summer in Boston's North End, and even my great-grandparents, from Sicily. These families immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800's, bringing southern Italian dialects that have been preserved in families for generations.

Of course, the word "dialect" can be thought about on a continuum: simple, mutually-comprehensible regional differences in words or prosody, vs. a completely different linguistic system. Think, in U.S. terms, the differences among regional variations in words (hoagie vs. sub vs. grinder) as opposed to systemic grammatical differences in, for example, African American English. Here's a good article about Italian dialects, including links to videos of each dialect being spoken.

Interestingly, on my brief stop in Murano, I visited the public library, where I bought a book of poetry written in Venetian dialect (Veneto), the local dialect of this region (more or less readable, but notably different -here's an example). I sometimes think I hear it around town (people tell me to listen to the older people).

At any rate, Italian dialects are alive and well, and can be observed in Venice, among so many other world languages. Yesterday I was also able to speak Spanish, a rare event as here I generally avoid doing so because it confuses me! I met a friendly couple of Uruguayos on their dream vacation to Paris, Venice, Florence, and Rome. It took a couple minutes to pull the Spanish out of me, but I more or less was able to do it. My Spanish will definitely need some resuscitation when I return to the U.S.

So, Murano and Burano! Quick summary:

Murano is famous for its glass. Other than glass factories (you can watch!) and many glass gift shops, it is basically a sleepy town with quiet pedestrian streets and canals (like Venice, no cars!). Sadly, I missed the glass museum, but did enjoy my conversation with a couple of locals at the public library.

A small glass "garden" in Murano

Burano is known for its outrageously colorful houses, and reminded me of a real-life Candyland. In this very charming, no-vehicle town, the sun beats down and the bright sky highlights the colors of the houses and laundry hanging out to dry. Burano is also historically famous for lace (still made here today), and they have an excellent Lace Museum to explain everything. Getting to Burano is a bit of a hike (two vaporettos are required and it's at least an hour away from Venice); however, it's well worth the trip. Overall, I recommend visiting Venice and its islands in the winter/early spring to avoid the intense crowds of the high-tourist, summer season.

Burano: Bright sun, sky, and candy-colored houses

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