Italy is a country with a rich history, and over the thousands of years of its existence it’s picked up a few pearls of wisdom, which it has been passing down from generation to generation.  I’ve always been fascinated by proverbs and the way different languages can take the same idea and skew it ever so slightly.  Italy stands out from other western cultures through its wealth of age-old sayings, many of which unsurprisingly use food as a metaphor for the wise, amusing, and sometimes downright confusing lessons of human existence.

A key difference between Italian and English culture is evident in the saying, l’arte di non fare niente.  The English equivalent is “killing time,” which has a neutral connotation at best, suggesting shiftlessness, that the time-killer would be better off doing something productive.  But the Italian translates to, “the art of doing nothing.”  It refers to the beauty of taking it easy once in a while, letting go of your responsibilities and just enjoying life, an important value in Italian culture.  Similarly, sbagliando s’impara, or “one learns by making mistakes,” is the more forgiving version of the workaholic’s “practice makes perfect.”  Even the Italian parallel to “my way or the highway” is friendlier: O mangi la minestra o salti dalla finestra.  (Eat this soup or jump out the window.)  While it’s still bossy and threatening, you’re at least getting soup out of the bargain.

Some Italian proverbs can seem bizarre and weirdly specific to English ears.  For example, a common way to say “good luck!” is in bocca al lupo! or “in the mouth of the wolf!” to which one would respond, crespi il lupo! or, “may the wolf crack!”  The Italian version of, “He wants to have his cake and eat it too,” would be, Volere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca, (He wants a full wine barrel and a drunken wife,) suggesting that Italians value wine and women over cake, which is sound thinking.  Other proverbs that demonstrate staples of Italian culture include Nella botte piccolo c’e il vino buono (the small bottle has good wine,) for “good things come in small packages,” and non e’ pane per i miei denti (it’s not bread for my teeth,) to the English “it’s not my cup of tea.”

And then there are those proverbs which are uniquely Italian, such as Chi e’ sordo, orbo e tace campa cent’anni in pace, which translates to, “He who is deaf, blind, and dumb lives in peace to be a hundred.”  This ominous proverb hails from Sicily, where the principle of omertà is highly valued.  Omertà, (which can be traced back to the Spanish hombredad, meaning “manliness,”) is the code of honor requiring silence and noncooperation with authority figures in the case of local affairs, often used to cover up Mafia crimes while justifying Sicily’s tradition of vendettas.  Somewhat more heartwarming is A tavola non s’invecchiar; this saying refers to Italians’ love of good food, good company, and good conversation—at the dinner table, where one can enjoy all three together, one does not grow old.

Italy’s fondness of proverbs is so thorough that they even have a proverb about proverbs: I proverbi sono come le farfalle, alcuni son presi, altri volano via.  “Proverbs are like butterflies; some are caught, others fly away.”  As always, the Italian language has managed to take an abstract idea and illustrate it effortlessly by a vividly poetic image, a tradition which is evident in every aspect of Italian life.