When Japanese people meet for the first time, they always introduce themselves by their family name. Don’t you find, though, that they often get in the habit of calling each other that even after they’ve known each other for a long time and have become quite close? Westerners, on the other hand, introduce themselves using their first names.
What I found a bit awkward when I got here was that even though everyone shakes hands and says their name when they first meet, nobody actually bothers to remember anyone’s name. As I watched more closely, I found that because nobody has any intention of remembering names when they’re introduced, they toss them out casually like secret codes. The conversation will go on, but no matter how animated everyone gets, they’d typically part ways still not knowing each other’s names. Shortly thereafter, they’d end up asking me, “Hey, what was that person’s name?” First of all, I’m not even Italian—and second, I’d just be there staring into space because I couldn’t participate in the Italian conversations.
What got difficult as I gained more acquaintances was entering people into my contacts. I’ve got tons of people in there with the same name. It’s extremely common for people in Italy to be named after Catholic saints, so I know a ton of Simones and Giovannis. Sometimes I’d get a phone message and even after listening to it have no idea which Simone or Giovanni was speaking. The more people I met, the more important it became that I got their last names as well.
Italian last names are actually pretty interesting, too. They’re so interesting that it’s fun to just walk around reading them off the high-rise intercoms. It’s too bad I didn’t take a picture of some of the more interesting nameplates I saw back then. Take Volpintesta, for example, which means “fox on the head.” It’s so strange that I couldn’t help imagining that if I called him on the intercom, he’d actually appear with a fox draped over his crown. I was a little jealous of Ms. Belladonna (“beautiful woman”), since she’d have to have the air of a beauty about her even if she wasn’t much to look at. Mr. Boccadoro (“Money Mouth”) was surely a silver-tongued orator. But these are just some of the least interesting among my top 100 Italian last names. Some are hardly believable, like Senzaquattrini (“flat broke”), Chicchirichì (“cock-a-doodle-do”) and Tetta (“breasts”). The list goes on and on. Japan also has its strange names—ones that are so perplexing that you hesitate to even say them—but I actually don’t know anyone with those kinds of names personally.
Apparently, there was a time when an Italian government agency had ministers named Piccoli, Storti, and Malfatti—names which taken together mean “petty, crooked, and incompetent.” No doubt the citizens had very little faith in their government with those three at the helm!
It’s now election season in Italy, but apparently there aren’t any candidates with especially strange names.