Scattered amongst soaring mountainous terrain; pulsating snow covered cliffs, surrounded by climbing forests in multiple shades of green, lies a small bilingual community, whom have found common ground in their complicated history, and pride themselves in both their language and heritage.
A few months ago I had the pleasure of visiting Bozen/Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol, a state in the very north of Italy, where history, geography and language have created division for nearly a century. You won’t sense the tension that scathed the land following the annex of the region from Austria post World War One. On the most part; it seems a thing of the past. What you may see though is an identity-crisis struck from living between two nations and two languages as the population attempt to identify their true mother country.
I was lucky enough to get the local experience as I was staying with some Südtiroler’s. What I found interesting was that although they were all bilingual, and we were in Italy, Deutsch seemed to be the language of choice between them – though, from what I heard, it certainly wasn’t German *tongue in cheek*. To me it’s the equivalent of an English speaker hearing someone from very Northern Scotland, perhaps even speaking Glaswegian. Although my German is still in the works, I was told that indeed many native German speakers struggle when understanding Südtiroler’s, which made me glad I wasn’t alone.
From the conversations we had, most locals seemed to be quite proudly Italian, yet preferred to speak German, which I found fascinating. I have to say though; this conversation came about when discussing football. They didn’t seem too keen on the Austrians. Funny that. But either way, they do of course speak Italian, most of them natively, and this caused a cultural experience I had seldom come across, whereby my limited Italian and decent German were at war with one another. Depending on the bar, cafe or restaurant we went to, the greeting and conversation would be mixed, so one really had to be alert. In fact the venue was wüscht (doesn’t make a difference) as they would say, rather each individual had their own preferences of language.
Quick side bar: anyone from Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, or many other countries I am sure of, this experience is probably quite normal. But coming from a country (Australia) isolated from the rest of the world, surrounded by English, this is really an experience.
So there I was sitting in an Irish bar. Of course an Irish bar. The ambience was yellow; the lights were dim, the temperature was warm, the music was soft and mellow, I felt quite gemütlich [cozy]. Having driven for over 7 hours, my stomach was running on empty, so being in Italy – pizza was the fuel of choice. Your man came over – this is an Irish place after all – and gave me a good ole, “Bitteschön” i.e what are ya after. He’s speaking German I thought, beautiful! I ordered in my best German accent, he walked away with a face full of comprehension and I thought ‘hey this isn’t so hard’. Next thing I know, your man, well another man this time, comes over holding a pizza and starts ranting away in Italian. It was „Bolognase“ this and „Berlusconi“ that…at least that’s how it sounded to me. I stared at him for a few seconds, mouthed a „waaaaas“ to my friends, before he switched to German and I was back on it. I even gave him a cheeky „Grazie“ to finish the job.
Language aside, the mountains were gorgeous and I was lucky enough to be taken on a hikking tour with one of the locals the following morning. The winding drive up the mountain was not one to miss, with a new view of the mountainous countryside after every bend. The friendliness of the locals was definitely not lost on me, with motorists passing by all smiling and waving their hands. The best was when a tractor steaming along at full throttle, attempted to overtake us up the steep climb. That’s when you know you’re really in the country.
After reaching the near top, we disembarked from our car and began the apparent ‘leisurely’ two hour hike to the summit. The incline was steep, and after the first fifteen minutes, ‘leisurely’ started seeming strenuous, causing me to rethink my fitness. An hour and a half in we wandered passed a group of elderly Nordic walkers. You know those dorky walkers with the ski-pole-style sticks. To be honest though, at that point I kind of wish I had a set too. Seeing my slightly struggling they mouthed off a cheeky, “don’t give up you’re almost there” in Südtirolien German, which I was amazed I actually understood. This definitely gave me some motivation. If these old geezers can do it, why can‘t I!?
I was surprised as well at the amount of snow towards the top, it being the end of April and all. I was informed that had we attempted the hike a few weeks early it would have been a lot tougher, so I took grace in the fact that I got the advantage of seeing the snow, but not needing to trudge a few miles in it.
After a couple of hours we finally made it to the summit, with a brilliant view of the mountainside. At the top lay a perfectly placed lodge, calling our name as we were dying for some nourishment to heal ourselves from the journey. We sat outside and admired the view whilst ordering some Kaiserschmarrn, a delicious Austrian delicacy, some bacon and eggs, and of course Weißbier. Content barely gives the experience justice
Südtirol really is Italy’s little Austria. Whilst both Austria and Italy share the Alps, Bolzano definitely screams more Austrian, with German the language of choice and Austria culture highly noticeable.
Where else can you get real Austrian Kaiserschmarrn and real Italian pasta in the same place? I will be coming back!