Tag Archives: italian

Romulus and Remus

The informant is a second year student at the University of Southern California, studying History. He is from Chicago, IL, and he lived abroad in Rome when he was younger. At USC, he is involved with student affairs and television production.

This piece is a legend regarding the founding of Rome that the informant learned while he was living there.

“So, these two twins named Romulus and Remus are born and then set adrift in a river and, which is common in these sorts of legends and such. So then they end up going into the forest and a wolf, a she-wolf, sees them and she decides that she’s going to raise them for some reason. And so they suckle at her teat, uh, is the actual language used, um, and they are essentially raised by wolves.

And then, so they grow up and they’re, they want to found a city. Right? And Romulus wants to found it on the Palatine Hill and Remus wants to found it on the Esquiline Hill, which are two completely separate hill in Rome. So what they decide to do is say, “Okay, let’s see how many birds fly over each hill, and the one with the most birds wins.” Mkay? So, basically they sit there all day with an auger. And birds start flying over these hills.

Eventually, a flock of 11 blackbirds fly over Remus’ hill. And Remus thinks that he’s won and that he’s gotten the right to build at Esquiline, or to build the city on the Esquiline. And Romulus is like, “Well, there’s still time in the day yet.” And at the last second, 12 blackbirds fly in over the Palatine Hill. So it’s decided that it be build on the Palatine Hill. And Remus is very upset about this.

So when Romulus starts doing the ceremonial task of plowing the boundaries with a plough, uh, Remus goes up to him and jumps over the line. He crosses the line, literally. And so, Romulus, incensed by this, because this is a really sacrilegious thing to do, Romulus basically beats him to death. And then Romulus becomes king of Rome.

Now, that’s what the Romans say. But then there’s also the Sienese version, which is that Remus just left in disgrace and went North and founded Siena, which they’re claiming so that they can say that they’re great. Because they were founded by Remus. So that’s that story.”


In this version of the legend, it matters very little that Remus and Romulus are set adrift at birth and raised by wolves. Aside from establishing their background, it plays no role in affecting the rest of the story. It may be that the informant is most interested in what happened after the brothers left to found the city than in what led to that point.

It’s also notable that the Sienese and the Romans tell this legend in different ways; though this legend typically refers to the birth of Rome, it makes sense that the Sienese would seek an origin story for their city as well. The informant was not aware of other Sienese legends about the birth of Siena, but it would be interesting to see how other legends might compare.

For another version of this legend, see the “Romulus and Remus” entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica online.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Romulus and Remus.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/, n.d. Web. 9 Apr. 2016.


Original Script: “Meglio tardi che mai”

Literal Translation: “Better Late than that never”

Meaning: “It’s better to do a thing later than not to do it at all”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: “When I came to America, I realized how different it is…Like the driving part. Americans are so angry when they are driving! They can be so impatient. Especially during, busy time, what is it called? Oh! The rush hour. I mean you cannot go anywhere, so just chill out and listen to music in the car. This is where I thought of the saying. Because you will get there, but you might be a little late.! People need to understand that! I have seen more accidents here than all my life in Italy!”

Silvia recently came to America about three weeks ago as an intern for an Event planning company. She grew up in Parma, Italy—which is a small town in Italy. She has adjusted greatly to the American culture but there are still some things that she is questionable about. The roads there are usually only one lane and even though it can get busy, people generally remain calm according to Silvia. She also said that compared to Italy, people are very reckless drivers in America.

Context of the Performance: Keeping Patience in the Italian Culture

Thoughts about the piece: When I first heard this saying, in the original Italian, and having learned Italian this semester, I knew the literal translation of the saying but not what it actually meant. In fact, I heard Silvia, murmur it when we were driving during rush hour, and that is when I conducted the interview with her.

Firstly, I believe this saying speaks volumes about the attitude Italians have. As the quote above suggests, not to stress about being on time, or to worry about things you cannot have control over. It is interesting how the translation is literally “that never” which means that there is only on never, and that it is singular. Thus, this also shows that Italians persevere in their everyday life and challenges that may come up during the day.

This saying, and the way it captures the Italian people’s attitudes, was encompassed my Silvia, again, during an event for the company we work for. During the event, Silvia kept repeating, “Meglio tardi che mai, Meglio tardi che mai, Meglio tardi che mai,” and while everyone was stressed out, Silvia kept calm and collected throughout the whole ordeal. Hence, this quote while encompassing Italian’s people way of life, it also perfectly encompasses Silvia’s personality. I can also vouch that many Italian people—specifically on the countryside, and where Silvia is coincidently from—are very much personified as being relaxed people because I had visited Italy in the past, and compared to the busy chaos of the big cities, like Verona and Venice, the countryside was very peaceful and seemingly stress-free. Perhaps, this would be a good saying for American’s to adapt to, particularly while driving. While it is not a proverb, but a saying, I believe the American people can benefit to making it a proverb, because as Silvia had mentioned, we do have a lot of car accidents precedent here.

Stress Free Life

Original Script: “Ma cosa vuoi che sia”

Literal Translation: “But what you want it would be”

Meaning: “Don’t worry about a thing that is not important”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: “How do you say, I noticed, Americans can get very…stressed out…crazy…easily. Like the rush hour traffic I was telling you about! Pessimo! [very bad] And little things they cannot control. I mean your life is more important than wherever you are trying to go! If you are stressed in California, go to the beach! It’s very relaxful! But the food, come si dice [how do you say], I understand when they get mad about the food, when the order is wrong, or when it is gross tasting, because food is important in the Italian culture.”

Silvia recently came to America about three weeks ago as an intern for an Event planning company. She grew up in Parma, Italy—which is a small town in Italy. She has adjusted greatly to the American culture but there are still some things that she is questionable about. Like the amount of stress Americans carry to that in Italy.

Context of the Performance: Stressing in the Italian Culture

Thoughts about the piece: In accordance with another interview I conducted with Silvia, (please see the article titled Italian…Proverb?), this Italian saying furthers the implication of the stress free environment of the Italian people. Do not worry about things that are not important, or the little things, implies that to worry about such, is a waste of energy, and not only that, but time as well.

It is also important to look at the literal translation, “but you want, it would be” suggesting that one does have control over their life, and to make the best out of it, if you look at the meaning to Italians, it would be to not stress over the small things; the things that are not important in the big picture.

Please take note of the background information Silvia had provided that was in accordance to the Italian quote. She uses stress and anger interchangeably, which makes me wonder, if in Italian they mean the same thing. So, I asked Silvia in a follow up interview and she said, “yes, they do, even though we have different words for them, they do mean about the same thing.” Which is interesting since the Italians have many different words for calm and happy (positive attitudes such as allegro, calmo, simpatico), thus this furthers the notion that Italians try their best to keep “stress” out of their lives, even by doing something simple, as Silvia had noted, like going to the beach. Additionally, she states something specifically that both Americans and Italians have in common, and which they both “stress” about—food. Food is a very prominent cultural item in both the Italian and American culture in which it not only creates a social environment but also holds roots in the past. (For example American’s Turkey on Thanksgiving and Wine or Pasta—which different regions are known for different Pastas—for the Italians).

Liars in Italy

Original Script: “La bugie hanno le gambe corte”

Literal Translation: “Liars have short legs”

Meaning: “if you lie, you will be caught soon”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: “My mother use to tell me this when I was a child. I have not heard anything like it in the English language. But in Italy…we do walk a lot…almost everywhere in our small towns…which may have something to do with it, I don’t know. But you hear this when mother’s our scolding their children, or an everyday expression when you think someone is lying”

Silvia recently came to America about three weeks ago as an intern for an Event planning company. She grew up in Parma, Italy—which is a small town in Italy. Her mother use to tell her this phrase all the time (as she noted in the background she provided), and she grew up always remembering that phrase. To this day, she tries her hardest not to lie. She has adjusted greatly to the American culture but there are still some things that she is questionable about.

Context of the Performance: Lying in the Italian Culture

Thoughts about the piece: I thought this was an interesting proverb, considering the comparison Silvia had made to the American culture in the background information she had provided. She had noticed that she does not know why Italian culture uses the term “short legs” except for the fact that they walk everywhere. This does not seem like a ridiculous claim seeing as in Europe, in general, people mostly walk. When I was in Europe, I noticed not only how much I walked but also how much everyone walked compared to that in America. Furthermore, I noticed how small there cars were, which could be correlated to the fact that most people do not use a car—seeing as America consists of big SUVS, and even the “small” cars have a decent amount of room.

Additionally, this made me question if short people, in general, were considered liars. In a follow up interview, Silvia had laughed and said that not usually, just that your legs shrink when you lie. This initiated me to compare to the common tale of Pinocchio, and while his legs do not shrink, his nose grows every time he lies. Thus it is interesting, that in both stories, there is a physical disfigurement of a person when they lie, showing their lie to the world—a marking of sorts. Hence, they are not only branded a liar but their body is branded as well.

Moreover, both stories are used to scare children into not lying, as a societies way of showing social control. So while this proverb has the obvious sentiment of not to lie, there is also the aesthetic of social control that lies within it.

A Fishy Christmas

Original Script: “Okay…so…you know how traditional Americans have ham or even turkey for Christmas? My family does Fish. We get a ton of it. Shell fish, Salmon, trout, everything….We have always done it that way. The first time your mother, Cheryl, came over for Christmas…she thought we were nuts! But after she had the smoked salmon…damn…your mother’s face was like, ‘oh I need to get more of this.’ But, I do understand why some people think it is strange….when I went to school and we all talked about what we did over the holiday’s, I always talked about the fish dinner we had, and kids thought it was strange…but not to my family. Everyone helps out…I make the shrimp cocktail, my sister makes the smoked salmon, my mother cooks the lobster and crab…my brother brings some trout…hell…even your mother participates and she brings the shrimp scampi…that stuff is good. Oh…and we can’t for get the good ol’ wine. I drank that stuff when I was a kid every Christmas…and I will drink it to the day I die..haha.”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: Chuck Lanzer grew up in up-state New York and currently resides in the tri-state of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York with his wife, Cheryl Lanzer. Chuck grew up in a predominantly Italian Catholic home. Every year, the family—about 20 people or so—gets together to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. Chuck says that this tradition has continued throughout his family for generations, even his great-great grandmother had participated in it. It is something he has always grown up with, and the wine, he presumes, is from his Italian heritage. The family even has a wine cellar on their ground floor.

Context of the Performance: Christmas Dinner with the Lanzer family in Upstate New York (Newburgh, New York).

Thoughts about the piece: After interviewing Charles Lanzer II, I found this tradition to be quiet interesting and did some extended research on the topic. I had question Chuck’s mother, Carol Ann, about the tradition. She had told me that Chuck’s father’s, Charles Lanzer’s, family had come from a town in Italy that was famous for its fish. This town was called “Genoa.” (For more information about Genoa, see an article by Peter Davison published in the 1999 issue of the The Atlantic Monthly titled “Italy’s Greatest Seaport).1

Here, fish was something often eaten in by the locals, after all it was, and is, one of the most notable seaports in Italy. Furthermore, Carol Ann mentioned that after immigrating to upstate New York, the family had missed their Italian town and wanted to keep some of their heritage with them. After reading this, it makes sense that Chuck’s family use fish during Christmas. It is something that holds ties to their past—to their heritage. In this case, it is particularly interesting that heritage and tradition collide. Wanting to instill their Italian heritage in their new, American life, the family had used a tradition to do it—a mode of activity to reflect their past of their ancestors in which they utilize fish. Additionally, the family also drinks wine, in which Chuck had mentioned that he drank it when he was a child. Even though not common in the Unites States—even having a law that a person may not drink until they are twenty-one—Chuck’s family still gave the children wine, because that was a common Italian tradition to do.

It is also interesting to note that the family has a kinship system in which my mother, Cheryl Lanzer, cooks in order to gain entry into the family; in order to gain acceptance from the group, Cheryl performs a ritual in making Shrimp Scampi. It is an initiation in order to gain access and recognition from the group as one of their own. This tradition is also related to aesthetics of folklore; the reason why Chuck and his family use fish in their Christmas dinner is related to their identity as Italian folk. Furthermore, while Cheryl can never be invited into their heritage, she is invited into their tradition.

Additionally, while Chuck and his family do have an emic view of why they use fish during Christmas dinner compared to those of an etic view (like Chuck’s old classmates), it is a way Chuck and his family create a link to the past and their original heritage. While Chuck and his siblings might not of necessarily known why they used fish for Christmas dinner instead of the traditional ham, they did participate in the tradition every year, which is a prominent trait of folkloric traditions. In which Chuck, his siblings, even his father and grandparents, are not necessarily from Genoa, Italy, but do perform traditions that represent their past heritage from Genoa, Italy.

1 Davison, Peter. “Italy’s Greatest Seaport.” The Atlantic 1st ser. 284.1999 (1999): 32-37. Rpt. in The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 284. N.p.: n.p., 1999. 32-37. Ser. 1. The Atlantic. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

Absence of baby showers and wedding showers to ward off the evil eye

The following family tradition/belief was told to my by the informant while talking about some of her family’s customs and traditions.

“When people get married or have children, we don’t have bridal or baby showers normally because it’s like, we think of it being bad luck because it’s something really good happening and to draw attention to that really good thing in your life is like asking for trouble, and so there’s this idea of the evil eye that’s watching and the evil eye, if it sees that you’re too happy or just ‘oh everything is just so perfect, my life is so great, I’m gonna have a new healthy baby’ or ‘I have a beautiful new marriage,’ it’s like drawing attention to that goodness is gonna make someone take it from you, and so our tradition is not to have a bridal shower for like a wedding or a baby shower… I think it stems from my grandma who’s Italian and Italian people will even wear around their neck or put on their baby’s christening robes little charms and there’s different ones; there’s like a little monkey fist, there’s a gold horn… there’s a bunch of different ones, and that’s supposed to ward off the evil eye so that even after the marriage or after the baby’s born, after these good things happen in your life, it keeps the evil eye from taking them away from you.”

The informant didn’t know what the different charms like the monkey fist or the gold horn symbolized when I asked her about it; she just knew that they were an important aspect of Italian cultural beliefs. She also mentioned that it was ironic that Italians tend to be quite Catholic (including her own family), but having lucky charms and believing in the evil eye is somewhat of a pagan custom.

The evil eye is a folk belief that’s shared amongst many different cultures, but it’s interesting to see that it even exists in Catholic culture. Maybe it’s an inconsistency in belief, or mutually exclusive from peoples’ Catholic beliefs. The informant also mentioned that if someone in her family married someone who insisted on having a baby or bridal shower, that they wouldn’t oppose it too much. So, this seems to be a loosely followed tradition, in the sense that the family prefers to follow it, but is not too strict about it if someone marrying into the family considers it an important part of their family tradition.

Early family dinners on Sundays

My informant was telling me about some customs his family in New Jersey celebrates, and he seemed particularly fond of early Sunday dinners at 2pm.

Informant: “Every Sunday you eat dinner at like 2pm, and you have like a really big dinner that someone cooks. And you always have bread at the table, salad, pasta, and your whole family is expected to be there.”

Collector: “And then you wouldn’t have dinner after that?”

Informant: “Yeah, it was really dumb, like ‘why are we eating dinner right now?’… Italians really like to cook, and when they have a guest, they always try to feed them”

When I asked the informer if he knew why his family chose to do early dinner at 2pm instead of just a regular large dinner at the “normal” dinner time around 6pm, he was unable to recall how this tradition started. My personal hypothesis is that it’s a way for the Italian side of his family to reconnect to their European roots, since many European cultures eat a large meal at around 2pm, and then dinner is typically late at night, around 10pm or so. However, a 10pm dinner would probably be too out of the ordinary for this Americanized family to handle, so they just chose to stick to an easier option, of having a large family meal at 2pm.

Il Malochio

Informant: “So, in Sicily, there’s this thing called the Evil Eye, or in Italian ‘Il Malochio’. Someone could give someone the evil eye just by like looking at you, and it’s almost like they’re sending bad… stuff to you. Like, someone would give you the evil eye, and then bad things would happen to you. It was usually older people, I remember there would be these really old men and women, like old widows wearing black, who would give you the evil eye. And it was like they would just look at you or the stuff you have, and them just looking at you would bring you bad luck. Actually, a part of this is why a lot of Sicilians, especially older Sicilians, wouldn’t talk about what they had. Like, if something good happened to you, you weren’t supposed to talk about it because that would bring the evil eye to you, or at least people who would then give you the evil eye. And there were things you could do to protect yourself from the evil eye. Like there was this hand gesture you could do to ward it off

[informant begins making a hand gesture, extending her pointer finger and pinkie, and curling her middle fingers into the palm of her hand using her thumb. The two extended fingers are pointing down, and she is gently waving her hand. It is very reminiscent of the “rock on” hand gesture, except directed downwards]

and you would make this gesture and that would ward off the evil eye. Otherwise, there were charms you could get, like necklaces or pendants in the shape of a horn called ‘Il Corno’ which could protect you from the evil eye. Otherwise you could get a golden charm in the shape of the warding hand gesture, and that would also protect you.”

Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.

Collector Analysis: The Evil Eye is a very widespread and popular folk belief over a variety of different nations and cultures. The idea that someone could give you bad luck just by looking at your or your belongings enviously, or even that you could bring this bad luck upon yourself just by talking about the positive things in your life, is an oddly popular one. It is also interesting that the informant specified that the evil eye tended to be associated with older individuals. It is possible that older Sicilians are more traditional and thus more connected to their superstitious beliefs, and thus are more likely to either be concerned with warding off the evil eye or maliciously give the evil eye to someone.

Two charms capable of warding off ‘Il Malochio’. The charm on the left is called ‘Il Corno’. The hand shaped charm on the right is the same hand gesture that one could use to protect themselves from the Evil Eye. Image courtesy of www.lifeinitaly.com

“Bread and butter”

“You can’t walk, like if there are two people and there’s an inanimate object in between them, um, you go like this [demonstrates people splitting up to walk around object], you have to say, ‘bread and butter’ . . . My dad’s best friend, there’s a rumor that like he didn’t do it with his twin and when he was younger, when he was a baby his twin died. So they put, there’s like, they say that that was the reason why, they didn’t say, ‘bread and butter.’”


The informant was a 22-year-old USC student who majors in English and minors in genocide studies. Although she grew up in Santa Monica, she comes from a large Jewish family and travels to Israel twice a year to visit her older brother and other extended family there. The interview occurred when we were sitting in the new Annenberg building and started talking about superstition within her family. She said, “There’s a lot of things I have no idea why I do them, but I do them because someone might die if I didn’t do them. Like, that’s how we’re taught . . . It’s kind of a life or death situation.” The informant says she learned this practice from her father, who she thinks learned it from his best friend. She swears it is an Italian superstition, and is commonly practiced in Italy. Her roommate was sitting with us during her interview, and she commented that the informant makes her say this phrase whenever they are walking together and they are briefly separated by an object.


It was fascinating to me that such a seemingly whimsical practice and phrase could be associated with something as serious as the death of a twin. While I have no idea about the reliability or origin of the anecdote, it is suggested that the family knew about this superstition and that it is one that is particularly old and respected. Indeed, it was one of a few superstitions that the informant told me about that, when she was asked what she thought it meant, she would tell me not doing it meant sure “death.” She would then ask me why I would ever think about not doing it.


It is interesting that the informant claims this superstition has Italian origins, as it is based around English words. While they very easily could have been translated from Italian, the phrase “bread and butter” seems like a particularly English one. It is difficult to determine what exactly this superstition means or from where it came. It is easy to see how a simple action such as two people walking around a stationary object would become a source of anxiety for a particularly superstitious person. The phrase “bread and butter” represents two things that are commonly associated with one another. They are also fairly basic items that are considered staples in many western/European diets. It might reflect the trouble seen being caused by separating two things that should inherently be together, although it is difficult to say. This superstition also might have started as a sort of joke and evolved over time into something more serious for those performing it. Whatever the case, the informant certainly takes it seriously now.

La Befana

The legend: “In Italy theres this old woman called La Befana who has magical powers and she gives children gifts on January 5th. If you’re nice you get gifts but if you’re mean you get coal. January 5th is the Epiphany Day, I don’t know what it is but it’s some type of like God revelation or something.”

The informant is half-Italian (mom) and half-German (dad) and grew up in Belgium. She moved to the United States at 11 years old, and now resides in Canada where she attends a university. She heard this legend growing up from her mom and Nonna (her grandmother). I asked her if she ever believed in La Befana’s existence, and she said that she “did at one point because once Nonna brought it up and I was scared of her because she’s a scary old woman witch.” La Befana sounds like other gift-giving figures around the Winter Solstice, such as Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, etc. January 5th is just around Christmas, so it matches with other Winter Solstice celebrations. People already celebrated the Winter Solstice, before Christianity made it a Christian holiday, so it makes sense for Italy to have its own version of the celebration. It’s also just after New Year’s Day, which means that Epiphany Day also represents a celebration of new beginnings; good children can celebrate the past year by receiving gifts and going forward into the next year being good again. Bad children can reflect on their bad decisions in the past year in order to strive for better in the coming year. Although La Befana can be a benevolent figure, she is presented as an old witch, which scares children into being “good,” reflected by the informant’s fear of the witch.