• 2018.03.07
  • Tradition
Most Westerners tend to be friendly, but the Italians are particularly so. When I first got here, everyone did their best to immerse me—a Japanese who spoke almost no Italian—in their local culture. They invited me out for drinks, to the movies, to evening gatherings with friends, and made several other truly friendly gestures that I appreciated.

But! While I was moved by all the invitations, I soon ran into some difficulties that went beyond what I had anticipated. When I was out with friends in the evenings, for example, they’d start by being especially kind to me. Knowing I didn’t speak Italian, they’d make sure to direct questions my way, and even carefully translate the conversations for my benefit. That lasted about an hour.

After that, they’d race ahead and leave me in the dust. Everyone would be having a blast and doubled over with laughter when someone would smile at me and say, “just let us know if there are any words you don’t catch!”. It was kind of them, but there were too many words to count…

There was nothing else to do but stuff my mouth full of the delicious Italian pasta they had made and keep saying buono (delicious). All of the Italians would look at me chowing down and proudly say, “Italian food is the best, isn’t it?”. They looked so happy. But I could only fill the time that way for so long, so I’d drink some Italian wine, smack my lips, and say buono again. I’d just keep repeating the magic word that made it seem like I was joining in the fun. Then, as they kept pouring the wine, I’d gradually stop caring about the disconcerting situation I was in, not being able to follow the Italian conversations. Maybe that’s why the Italians decided that I was simply wild about food, constantly making puzzling remarks about how much I loved to eat…

It was at those gatherings, then—when I was tired of eating, tired of drinking, and tired of being completely lost amidst the Italian conversations—that the Italians engaged in a rather upsetting tradition: telling barzellettas, or funny stories.

I lost count of the number of times I wondered why we couldn’t all just go home, but the fact is that the Italians don’t truly start having fun until they get going with the barzellettas. Turns out that tossing these short, funny stories back and forth is actually the main event. “Do you know about barzellettas?” they’d ask. “What? You don’t? Well…” And on they’d go, proudly and enthusiastically telling them.

The Italians were so nice to translate for me as I sat there with my language barrier! After all of them had already burst out laughing, they took the time to tell a translated version for me. I tried really hard to pay attention, my focus wandering after having eaten too much and drank too much, and then came the punchline at the end—at which point I was supposed to have a hearty laugh all by myself. Not to mention that everyone else was staring at me waiting for my reaction, pretty much holding their breaths to see how hard I would laugh. I couldn’t believe how long they spent on these barzellettas, and it felt even longer considering this heavy responsibility I had. Tell two or three funny stories, have a good laugh, and that’s it, right? Oh, no. This would go on for an hour or two.

If I gave them an exhausted expression to tell them I was tired of all this and to please give me a break, they’d decide that they couldn’t let me get bored, so it was time to hear a Japanese funny story. “They have barzellettas in Japan, right? We want to hear one!” So now it was my turn. There was no way out. “We don’t have funny little stories in Japan like you do in Italy,” I’d tell them. “We have rakugo wordplay and konto stories with punchlines designed to get an audience to laugh, but they’re delivered by professional performers. We also have…” But nobody bothered to listen to my explanation. They were just chanting, “Story! Story! Story!”

I’ve now lived in Italy for more than twenty years, and though I’ve gotten a pretty good understanding of barzellettas, I still don’t get them quickly enough to laugh at the same time as my Italian friends. More often than not, I laugh a moment too late.

I guess when you think about it, I’m perfect for being the butt of a barzelletta joke myself!


  • Yuriko Mikami
  • AgeDog (INU)
  • GenderFemale
  • JobMusician

A cellist based in Milan. Performs solo and ensemble concerts, as well as produces multi-style stage performances that combine theatrical shows, images, dances and live music.

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