Feynman Learns Italian

There was an Italian radio station in Brooklyn, and as a boy I used to listen to it all the time. I LOVed the ROLLing SOUNds going over me, as if I was in the ocean, and the waves weren't very high. I used to sit there and have the water come over me, in this BEAUtiful iTALian. In the Italian programs there was always some kind of family situation where there were discussions and arguments between the mother and father:

High voice: "Nio teco TIEto capeto TUtto . . ."

Loud, low voice: "DRO tone pala TUtto!!" (with hand slapping).

It was great! So I learned to make all these emotions: I could cry; I could laugh; all this stuff. Italian is a lovely language.

There were a number of Italian people living near us in New York. Once while I was riding my bicycle, some Italian truck driver got upset at me, leaned out of his truck, and, gesturing, yelled something like, "Me aRRUcha LAMpe etta Tiche!"

I felt like a crapper. What did he say to me? What should I yell back?

So I asked an Italian friend of mine at school, and he said, "Just say, 'A te! A te!'—which means 'The same to you! The same to you!"

I thought it was a great idea. I would say 'A te! A te!" back—gesturing, of course. Then, as I gained confidence, I developed my abilities further. I would be riding my bicycle, and some lady would be driving in her car and get in the way, and I'd say, "PUzzia a la maLOche!"—and she'd shrink! Some terrible Italian boy had cursed a terrible curse at her!

It was not so easy to recognize it as fake Italian. Once, when I was at Princeton, as I was going into the parking lot at Palmer Laboratory on my bicycle, somebody got in the way.

My habit was always the same: I gesture to the guy, "oREzze caB ONca MIche!", slapping the back of one hand against the other.

And way up on the other side of a long area of grass, there's an Italian gardener putting in some plants. He stops, waves, and shouts happily, "REzza ma LIa!"

I call back, "RONte BALta!", returning the greeting. He didn't know I didn't know, and I didn't know what he said, and he didn't know what I said. But it was OK! It was great! It works! After all, when they hear the intonation, they recognize it immediately as Italian—maybe it's Milano instead of Romano, what the hell. But he's an iTALian! So it's just great. But you have to have absolute confidence. Keep right on going, and nothing will happen.