Parlez-vous l’amour?

Passing off as a romantic from another country can prove fruitful—if you have the confidence

illustration by jayme mcgowan, roadside projects

The classroom is full of attentive students, sitting in a circle and focused on the overhead projector full of staged dialogues that they hope will help whip their English-speaking tongues into submission. The Italian for Travelers class at the Sacramento Italian Cultural Society instructs the room full of soon-to-be paisanos in helpful phrases for their journey. However, I wait in mounting anticipation to hear a much more specific kind of instruction.

Unlike the rest of the circle, my mission was not to learn practical phrases such as “Where is the nearest pharmacy?” or “What is the house special?” It was instead to learn the passion of this supposed romance language—and use it to my advantage. True, I speak no Italian, nor do I speak any other language (high-school Spanish was a long time ago). But I will be the first to admit there’s something about the worldly, well-traveled tongue that can trap the heart more effectively than even the most flattering English pickup line. Learning the basics, or at least feigning knowledge of the basics, could go a long way.

It didn’t take that long to find some romance, even in this most basic of Italian. Thumbing through the textbook, I found that a section giving helpful tips for driving in Italy also came with a photo of a traffic sign directing wayward travelers to sesso, which translates to “sex” in English. This little discovery, along with the realization that a back seat might come in handy while exploring Italy, validated my hypothesis just a little.

Even though the rest of my classmates did not attend their weekly class for exactly the same reason, instructor Patrizia Cinquini Cerruti offered some phrases that could be used in the event that conversation requires more than asking for directions. A handout titled “Pick Up Lines for Italian Lovers and Wannabes” can help any traveler do as the Romans do. While Cerruti warns that results may vary since there is no guarantee (that depends on charisma), it certainly doesn’t hurt to try.

However, a few of Cerruti’s students returned from a Euro trip claiming to have tried the phrases in eastern Europe, in the hopes of passing as Italian, and got some dates with Russian ladies as a result. While there’s no way to really prove this steamy tale, it’s hard to deny that lines such as “Hai da fare per I prossimi cent’anni?” would sound much better with an Italian inflection (translation: “What are you doing for the next hundred years?”).

However, the romance of Italy can be found more in the people than the language alone, or as Cerruti puts it, in its passionate tone.

“The Italian passion and romance are a state of mind,” she says. “Italians are inspired by the beauty around them … not just the physical attraction to another person, but the beauty which is everywhere.

“They are not afraid to express their love and their appreciation of beauty. They kiss and embrace when meeting others, and they make it a point to say goodbye with warmth. … I believe that to live with passion brings out everyone’s inner Italian.”

Such passion and love can be found in many places, and not just in Italian. French also ranks as one of the most romantic languages to have been whispered in lovers’ ears, and for good reason. Beatrice Hildebrand, executive director of the Alliance Française de Sacramento, also emphasizes the ability for French to convey passion.

“It’s definitely a romantic language, particularly the written French,” Hildebrand says. “It has beautiful literature. It has a particular way of saying things that is perhaps a little bit more complicated, more tricky than English, which is a business language (and a) very efficient language. French is a little more complicated, but it seems to convey emotions perhaps a little better than some other languages.”

The art of picking someone up with French may not be quite as direct as Italian, however. When asked for some French pickup lines, Hildebrand was lost for words. Rather than having an arsenal of the cheesy, oftentimes laughable lines, the would-be French lover is better off playing the game with subtlety. In fact, you may be better off asking: “Quelle heure est-il?” (“What time is it?”) with confidence and a French swagger.

“There is an elegance that French people have that other people don’t. … But you don’t find this everywhere,” Hildebrand says. “It’s in the demeanor.”

And like any good bit of romance, it’s never a bad idea to delve into the unexpected. Even the languages which would not be considered romantic at first glance have something to offer. German is a relatively easy language for English speakers to pick up and comes complete with cultural events that, like the language itself, offers the unexpected. Just try bringing a date to Oktoberfest, where there are enough pints of social lubricant to make any occasion memorable. Other holidays offer similar opportunities for romance.

“May Day in and of itself is very romantic,” says Ed Broneske, president of the Sacramento Turn Verein German Language School. “It’s an old pagan tradition where you have the maypole, which is a phallic symbol, and you wrap ribbons around it. So, basically, it was a love dance between young girls and young men who are looking to find a mate.”

With all this knowledge at my disposal, I can go out in to the real world and try out my newfound worldliness on the opposite sex. Sure, there are no guarantees that any of these techniques will work, but where there is risk, there is reward—in the Italian amore or the French amour or even the German liebe. While there are plenty of languages with which to romance that special someone, there’s only one way to say “ooh la la.”