Pills Of Italian Daily Life: The Phone Call

If you've ever heard Italians speaking loudly on the phone but wondered what they're talking about, we've got you covered!

Phone Call
Photo by Heather McKean, Unsplash.

If you’ve ever heard Italians speaking loudly on the phone but wondered what they’re talking about, we’ve got you covered!

Most probably, you have heard Italians speaking loudly on the phone on a train, in an airport, in the streets.

The phone for Italians is almost a prolongation of one’s body. An Italian without a phone is like a tree without leaves. I cannot imagine how life was in the village before the spread of phones and landlines.

Of course, even us Italians sometimes get annoyed at other Italians speaking loudly on the phone in public spaces. But most probably, not being an Italian speaker, you have always wondered: “What are these people speaking about?”

No worries, I am here to satisfy your curiosity. One can distinguish three main typologies of calls in public: 1) the call out of boredom; 2) the actually urgent call; 3) the call to family.

The call out of boredom

Regarding the call out of boredom, I have been a victim of it quite often in my life. Due to various vicissitudes, I have very often found myself on a train in Italy, sometimes taking long journeys (4-5 hours).

The calls out of boredom are the calls that you do in order to have the impression that you’re productively employing your time or to escape from an obnoxious spouse. In that case, the lucky people receiving the call are usually your old classmates you haven’t talked to since the 3rd grade they stole you the eraser, or the friend you haven’t talked to in a while because you never thought about them (and it’s reciprocal). 

The opening line is always “Hey XYZ, how are you doing? Long time no see!” The conversation progresses following these topics: reasons for your travel, minor nuisances you had while traveling, how your life is great and then you ask about the person you are calling. This is why the guy next to you on the train is speaking without stopping, if not briefly to then interrupt the other person again.

You have probably heard at the end of the call those sounds “ciàh ciàh.” It means “ciao ciao” or “bye bye.” So next time you hear that, be reassured. Although, “ciàh ciàh” is not a proper way of ending the call if it is not repeated at least 10-15 times. In fact, the American habit of saying “bye” and ending the call appears almost rude to Italians.

The actually urgent call

The actual urgent call is the most engaging if you understand Italian: something important and urgent happened. There you can learn about dirty affairs, angry girlfriends, industrial secrets, explosive gossip, bad bosses, incredible stories of bad luck and so on and so forth. No worries, when Italians speaking loudly on the phone in public it means that either they are very angry or that nothing tragic has happened, as great pains are often silent. 

The family call

The last call, the family call, is an old tradition in Italy: as you move from one place to another, your family will immediately worry that something horrible will happen to you no doubt! Therefore, once you arrive, you have to call (as in the case of an accident, your family would never know about it). It is also an occasion to get in touch with relatives you have not had the chance to speak to or say bye properly. These calls are light and boring: “Where are you? Have you arrived? Are there a lot of people? How is the weather there? Was the journey good? Have you eaten? Call me when you arrive home!”

Then, before WhatsApp, for the old people there was the landline: I still remember my grandma making prolonged calls to her daughters, relatives and friends. I am sad that I didn’t hide somewhere to overhear what she was saying, I would have more funny stories and better recollections of my own past. All this happened under the amused sight of grandpa, who used to say that he did not understand the phone, as he would understand only the physical person standing in person in front of him. He of course thought that all of that was useless chit-chatting and gossiping. It was more important to be face to face to communicate.

The phone strike

So grandpa always did some sort of strike against the phone calls. If you called the landline in his apartment, he would never ever pick it up. Not once in a thousand million years. Therefore, one had to call someone else and ask this person to put you in touch with grandpa. Our conversations were very standard and never much different than the following:

“Hi Grandpa, how are you doing?”

Amor mio, fine. When are we going to see each other?”

“Soon.” Or I would tell him the exact number of days before my arrival.


“I love you.” 

“Uhm.” In recent years he would reply back “Me too.” 

Then the call was over because all the important information had been delivered.

“Good night.”

“Good night grandpa.”

Variations were rare: I may have asked him about a recent mischief he got into, or how his weekly bath was for him, “a torture.” Sometimes I sang old songs for him, and he would sing along: “I love you, do not ask me how much, the enchantment of our love will never finish,” or “In my dreams again I will see you, if you were to call me, I would come to you.”

Birthday calls

Special calls were birthday calls. There he would sing to me “Buon compleanno a te, buon compleanno.” Grandpa loved other people’s birthdays: he would write long and well-thought cards, full of love and best wishes. He would start announcing my birthday at least 20 days in advance and reminding people daily. I still have all his cards, which I found every morning of my birthday next to the door since I was 10. Old-fashioned men do not give gifts in person, they put it under your eyes and let you find them in your way.

I have re-read them all after he passed away. The structure is similar: a brief assessment of my growing up, major accomplishments, best tracts, a description of the new responsibilities and adventures that this new year would bring to me, some recommendations (go to mass, pray, study, do not fear anything) and all his and my relatives’ love.

A few days ago it was my birthday. I was on the phone with my sister, the line was interrupted and I heard his voice. I was not that surprised: rules never applied to him, especially when he had something he believed important to do. This is why he was described as “an amusing and amused bearer of cheerful confusion.” He simply could not be a proper and normal passed-away person, as he had never been an ordinary living person.

And this is how, using a tool he always felt uncomfortable with, the old rascal for once in all eternity returned a call and found a way to once again wish me “Happy Birthday!”

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