Morning Forum speaker relays the quirky culture of Italy – with her hands

Written by Kathryn Tomaino

Anne Robichaud, an official Umbrian regional tour guide, brought the sunny culture of Italy to rain-soaked Los Altos Feb. 17, telling a Morning Forum audience that there’s only one true way to speak Italian – with your hands.

Robichaud, a Wisconsin native by birth and an Italian by choice, has lived in Italy since 1973, adopting the Umbrian culture.

“In my years living in Italy, I came to realize that culture is not something you acquire but something you are,” she said.

She presented an outline of the qualities that characterize Italians and demonstrated the accompanying gestures to communicate each one.

The hierarchy of Italian community begins with the family, then moves to the section of town, then to the town, then to the region and, finally, to the country – especially the country when the World Cup is involved. Nearly 70 percent of the wealth in Italy is from small to medium-sized family businesses. It is not surprising that the most offensive Italian hand gesture is found in this realm, Robichaud said. It is the extension of all the fingers of the hand but the middle two, which communicates to a man that his wife cuckolds him.

Although 26 percent of Italians are self-proclaimed Catholics, only a fifth of them attend Mass, Robichaud said, adding that usually it is the older Italians praying for younger family members. Robichaud related an amusing anecdote about a cloistered nun that seems to sum up Italians’ attitudes about authority. A member of the public wanted to view a “Miraculous Tree” in the cloistered convent garden. Completely contrary to the principle of cloistered isolation and without a moment’s hesitation, the nun permitted the viewing. She confidently explained her actions: “If you follow laws too closely, you might be considered stupid!”

Robichaud said a hand signal indicating boredom with pedantry would be the stroking of an imaginary facial beard, while uttering “Che barba!” This translates roughly to, “It was so boring, I grew a beard while listening.”

Italians have the longest life span among Europeans, with a life expectancy of 83.9 years for women and 79.9 years for men. Older citizens are respected and younger citizens adulated, Robichaud said. The simple gesture of saying goodbye signifies hope and optimism. Instead of waving a hand at a person, the hand is waved toward oneself – like a beckoning – and the sentiment is, “Arrivederci,” or “See you later,” not goodbye.

Robichaud offers trip-planning assistance, tours, cooking classes and more. For more information, visit