Visiting Bologna? Impress the locals with these 5 words in dialect

(Photo by author)

Perhaps this is your second trip to Italy, and you’ve already seen the major tourist cities (you know, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples). And so you’ve decided that, this time, you’ll go and see the parmesan pearl in the center of the peninsula. Or maybe the wafts of fresh tagliatelle with ragù have compelled you to disembark from the train. Or maybe you harbor a fetish for skinless wooden statues.

Whatever your reason for stopping in Bologna, we’re thrilled to have you, because since the endless COVID travel restrictions, we’ve had way too much lasagna and tortellini to finish ourselves.

(Photo (and pasta) by author)

Bologna is a city for learning, for eating, and for learning about eating. In fact, the city has been called “la grassa, la dotta” (the fat and the scholarly) dating back to the 12th-century. Letters from Parisian scholars who traveled to Bologna to study recount the brilliant minds and bulging bellies as “le gras, le savant”. (Then, after WWII, Italians starting adding “la rossa” to the end, due to the extreme left-leaning politics, thus completely the epithet: “la grassa, la dotta, la rossa” (the fat, the scholarly, the red).)

Like every region in Italy, people here speak Italian functionally, but the true soul and spirit of the city comes out in the dialect. So if you really want to fit in with the cool kids (and be understood by their grandparents), here are 5 words that inhabit the everyday language of Bologna.

umarèlls

Classic group of umarells

Umarèlls are old retired men who dedicate their free time to finding and then watching construction sites. You can see them circling construction work in corduroy trousers and a cap that’s either with a bill in the front (in the style of a 1940s newsie) or flared out on all sides (in the style of a 1990s rapper named LL Cool J). Their hair, if any, is white. Perhaps the most indicative trait of the umarèll is his posture: shoulders hunched and hands interlaced behind his back.

Umarèlls provide priceless commentary, advice and criticism about the construction — to which absolutely no one listens. This is likely because, typically, umarèlls have never worked in construction.

A nativity dedicated to umarells at the local hospital

In the nearby town of Riccione, umarèlls started to pose a liability. Geriatric flocks were distracting workers, blocking crucial entrances, and obstructing the operation of heavy machinery. Furthermore, the often contradictory — and, of course, unsolicited — advice was beginning to create managerial chaos.

To resolve these safety issues without stripping the umarèlls of their dearest pastime, a local organization (Cooperativa Unitaria Sociale Pensionati Srl) convinced the construction companies to put the umarèlls to good use. Thus they formed an arrangement in which, for a small stipend and the privilege of watching the construction work, the umarèlls would guard the equipment during manager breaks, and count the number of sand-carrying trucks entering and exiting the site (apparently sand is a big issue in construction work, with some sites illegally taking sand off beaches when they need some, or illegally dumping it beside the site when they have too much).

Whenever I feel discouraged that I could never transform my hobby into my full-time gig I remember the umarèlls of Riccione. They give me hope.

This designated area for umarells is actually in a small town in Lombardy… word has spread beyond Emilia-Romagna and has become part of the Italian language

In Bologna, we’ve decided to contain the umarèll masses with designated watching sites, from which they can observe without impairing the workers’ ability to do their job. In fact, the umarèlls’ peering gaze from these peepholes likely inspires them to work harder. I know I would certainly work harder if I had an old man critically observing my every move.

Andrea demonstrating the correct position of the umarell

zdora/ zdoura / azdora / arzdora

(Photo credit: La sfoglia della Zdora — Pasta fresca Emme)

Often the wife of an umarell, a zdora (yes, there are a lot of variations on the spelling) is a grandmother who rules the kitchen as her sovereign state. She typically has short gray-white hair, but it can also be dyed an orangutan red. (If she does have longer hair, it’s tied back with a handkerchief). She is of a small stature with an impressive layer of muscle protected underneath a plump layer of fat.

The best attribute of the zdora is that she has zero fucks left to give. Whatever she’s thinking, no matter if it’s kind, cruel or politically incorrect, she says it loudly in a mix of Italian and dialect. She wears an apron at all times. Whether walking in the park, having a coffee with some friends, or shopping in the supermarket, her apron is tied around her hips. You never know when you’ll need to spontaneously start kneading dough.

A fantastic zdora GIF

The best part of the zdora is that she will gladly feed you, your friends, and your friends’ neighbors’ friends while telling you that you’re too skinny. But don’t cross her, because she’s trained to use her rolling pin as a lethal weapon.

rusco

In Bologna, a trash can is a rusco, or russc. Even though Italians already have an absurdly inordinate number of words for trash (pattume, rifiuti, bidone, spazzatura, indifferenziato, cestino, immondizia…), the Bolognesi only use the word in dialect: rusco. The rusco can also be the person at the dinner table who finishes their portion of food (wiping their plate clean with the bread, of course) and then promptly goes on to finish the plates of all the other diners. They’re affectionately called the rusco because they dispose of all the leftovers in the best possible manner.

This word derives from the Latin Ruscus, a bush better known as butcher’s broom in English and “pungitopo,” or mouse-stinger, in Italian. The Ruscus plant has natural anti-microbial and anti-pathogenic chemicals that make it excellent for cleaning. This is why their leaves — which also happen to be conveniently flat, small, and stiff — make excellent handbrooms for sweeping away nasty bits on butchering blocks (and somewhat sterilizing them too).

Ruscus aculeatus, or Butcher’s Broom (credit: Infosante24.com)

These anti-microbial properties also make the plant toxic to most animals, and their spiny leaves sting rodents. For this reason, Ruscus bushes were typically planted around the refuse pile outside the house, as a way to keep away pests.

Thus it likewise makes sense that the person who consumes the leftovers is called the rusco. After all, before single-use containers and the invention of plastic, the refuse pile was primarily comprised of food scraps.

che dû marón!

You can understand why they’re a euphemism for testicles (Photo credit: Fir0002, Wikipedia Commons)

The region of Emilia-Romagna is covered in chestnut trees. They’ll stab your feet in their prickly green jackets when you walk down the sidewalk. Their sweet-nutty smell will fill your nostrils as street vendors roast them in steel vats before shoveling them into paper bags. If you’re not careful, they’ll even hit you smack on the head as they pummel down from trees.

Chestnuts are so ubiquitous here that the Bolognesi just call them “maroni,” or “browns.” As in the color.

And when something aggravates them enough to bring out their saltier language, Bolognesi don’t moan “che due palle!” like the rest of Italy (which roughly translates to “what balls!”).

In Bologna, they say “che due marroni!” (or, in dialect, che dû marón!).What two chestnuts!” (Granted, in this context as well the marroni refer to testicles.)

Example:

The train has been cancelled because of union strikes. Now I have to rent a car and drive to Rome at five o’clock in the morning. Che dû maron!

Another variation is “rompere i maroni,” as in, “to break the chestnuts.” This is fairly equivalent to the English idea of “breaking balls”:

Example:

They disrupt traffic with their protests and are filling all the hospital beds… these anti-vaxers really rompono i maroni!

Il tiro

In English it’s “push,” but in Bolognese it’s “pull.” Confused yet?

During my first week in Bologna, a friend invited me to her house for dinner. “When you arrive, I’ll give you a tiro” she told me. Tiro is the noun of the verb tirare, to pull. I had no idea why she wanted me to pull me or what that implied. But I just nodded and smiled, assuming that I’d figure it out sooner or later. After all, it was my first week in Italy and my Italian was at about the level of a second-grader.

Eventually I reasoned to myself that “give a pull” was some idiomatic way of saying “let-me-know-when-you-arrive.” Sort of like “give me a heads up” in English; if you think about it too literally, it’s bizarre and makes zero sense. But it’s a thing that people say all the time without ever trying to understand why someone would want to recieve a head, and if that head is somehow more oozy and delicious up instead of down, like a fried egg.

So I arrive at her condominium that evening and call. She picked up before the first ring.

You’re here? she asked me.

I’m here.

Great! Shoud I give you a pull?

I’m giving it right now, no? I responded.

Huh? I just gave you a pull. Did you hear anything?

I can hear you fine.

I’ll give you another.

Another what?

Another pull! Pull!

This went on for a solid three minutes before I realized that she wanted me to ring the buzzer to her apartment, after which she could push the button that opens the door. Because, in Bologna, to “pull” is to push the door open.

The reason people from Bologna will tell you to give them a pull goes back to at least the 1700s, before there were buzzers and buttons. Instead, there was a knob connected to a rope, connected to a bell, connected to a pulley, connected to the door. When you pressed in the knob, it would move the rope and ring the bell to announce your arrival.

The original doorbell of Bologna

Upon hearing the bell, a doorman would then pull on the rope which was connected to a pulley system that would swing open the gate. These gates were ridiculously heavy, often made of solid wood with ironwork, not to mention designed with a width and height for admitting horse-drawn carriages to the inner courtyard, so the pulley system was probably a welcome invention for the doormen that hadn’t yet discovered protein shakes and Crossfit-bro culture.

Anyway, if someone in Bologna asks for a pull, push.

Now you’re ready to enjoy this magical little city, where the wine is as red and sparkling as our communist debates, and our towers actually lean away from each other in order to respect social distancing. If you have some free time, be sure to watch some construction with the umarèlls and complain about how inefficiently the construction workers are building. At this rate, the street will be closed until the next pandemic! Che dû marón! Afterwards, if they invite you to their place to eat, ask them to give you a tiro so you can help roll some pasta with the zdora, before eating all of it as the designated human rusco.

(Photo by author)

Secånnd al frè a si fà al capózz!

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If it involves words, count me in. Currently living in Bologna, Italy. www.elisezell.com

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Elise Wanger Zell

Elise Wanger Zell

If it involves words, count me in. Currently living in Bologna, Italy. www.elisezell.com

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