Words on the Street, Revisited #15: “Piano, Piano” and Other Italian Charms

Bi-weekly chatter about how looking closely at some of the most common expressions in everyday life can prompt new ways of thinking about our writing.


My husband and I recently returned from a long-awaited trip to Sicily. It was where we spent our honeymoon thirty years ago and so we’ve used the past few years or so tossing around the idea of going back to congratulate ourselves on thirty years of wedded bliss, wedded discontent and everything in between. (Isn’t the in-between where some of the truest acts of love reside?)

Two weeks in Sicily is a lot longer than one. Two weeks means savoring, steeping and sensualizing. We drank the Kool-Aid, except in this case it had names like Vino Bianco and Vino Rosso.

Two weeks also means listening and looking. Closely. With intention and attention.

So, for this week’s column I offer Words on the Street Sicilian-style. I’ve come to think of them as tiny souvenirs I carried home with me that offer ways of thinking about writing. Maybe even about living, too.


“Piano, piano.”

As with many expressions in all languages, context matters. Sometimes “piano, piano” can mean, slowly, slowly or softly, softly and other times it is used to convey the little-by-little approach. All these meanings certainly applied when Marco, our tour guide and walking encyclopedia of Mt. Etna facts who repeatedly referred to the the active volcano as Mama, used the phrase when I stood in an underground cave and glared up at the steep, slippery stone steps, lit only by the flashlight in my right hand. “Piano, piano,” he said and I listened.

Things started coming together for me. There’s a reason the Slow Food Movement started in Italy back in the 1980s and still has a firm hold in culinary circles. Dish by dish. Bite by bite. Flavor by flavor.  But what about when the dark cave is a blank page? Taking it slow and soft can work wonders. Now it makes sense to me why two of my favorite writers also embrace this approach. Check out Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections of Time, Craft and Creativity and Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

Slow and steady. Bird by bird. Word by word.



I lost count with this one. “Provo” means I try. Whether I was ordering food, asking for directions or figuring out which stamps I needed to purchase for postcards, I found myself saying it over and over to the kind and amused Italians on the receiving end of my attempts. “I try to understand. I try to speak. I try to use the language, but I forget words sometimes,” I’d note to anyone my husband and I encountered along the way. The usual result: a smile and an appreciative nod (sometimes even a hug!) At one point, I texted our kids: “Literally not conjugating any verbs but somehow finding our way to four-course meals and Sicilian black bee honey.”

I try.

This can work when we write, don’t you think? Try to just try. Be more forgiving than usual and see what happens. Here’s an example: On tough days, when I sit at my laptop or notebook, I don’t get anything down on the page because I tell myself I know precisely what I want the scene or story to look like, feel like and sound like but I haven’t figured out how to create it with language. So, the page stays blank. Honest writers know that we tend to “throat clear” with words, sentences and paragraphs before we get to the stuff we hope to articulate anyway. (How many times have you been in a workshop and most of the people critiquing your work agree that “the piece actually starts on the bottom of page one?”) Try to give trying a try. And trust that what you put on the page will get you where you want to go.

This beautiful Italian word stares at me now when I sit at my desk and write. Provo is stuck to an old coffee can filled with my favorite pens and pencils, thanks to a very American-looking Post-it note. I try!


These were my two shiniest, most memorable souvenirs of the word variety. Of course, there was an assortment of other types—Ionian Sea rocks and beach glass, rosary beads, two ceramic bowls, some art from Siracusa and honey. (My husband did not stop talking about the Sicilian black bee honey. He is still talking about the Sicilian black bee honey. I don’t think he will ever not talk about the Sicilian black bee honey.)

But whether sweet or savory, all these charms have staying power, what I have come to think of as a magical mystical endurance. By keeping them close to body and mind, I’m reminded: savor, steep, sensualize. Both on the page and off.

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