Many tourists are so sure that Italian businesses are going to rip them off right and left that they peruse the handwritten bills they get with hawkish eyes and a thumping chest. It is then they discover the unreadable glyphs left by an enigmatic culture obsessed with the quality of food.
How do you write a “1” in Italian? If you’ve never been to the boot, you might think this is a trick question. In America you draw a naked stick, a perfunctory slash of pen upon paper, and that’s it. You’re done writing a 1. Or an l.
But this is not the way it goes down in Italy.
Let’s head on down to the little supermarket and see what wine is going for these days.
Ah, Sweet Malvasia (not the name of a pop tune, but a wine) is going for, um, what? It’s 1.99 euro. That “1” is a little funny, eh? It’s often mistaken for a “7” by Americans. The decimal point also seems strangely elongated.
The “offerta” sign tells you brilliantly in Italian racing red that it’s on sale.
But enough about cheap wine. Compared to say California, Italian wines made for everyday drinking are quite a bargain. Any drunkard could save the cost of a small house in the Italian countryside simply by coming here for a year and drinking copious amounts of wine.
But there are fancy wines that come all gussied up, their curvy bottles slid delicately into a designer sheath for shipping. Let’s look at some superiore Prosecco.
Now that you know your 1’s, you can guess that the bottle is “litro 1.5” and the cost is 17.90 euro. Yes, that stick is an “l” in front of the number. You see the seven? Since the number “1” hastily written comes off as a “7”, the Italians have had to graft a dash into the middle of the “7” to make it clear what number it is, exactly.
Have you noticed something else that is different in these two supermarket signs? The price of our New Years Eve sized bottle of bubbly is € 17,90. Yes, that’s a comma. No, it isn’t a typo. Where we would use a “decimal point” we all call a period and the geeks call a “radix character”, Italians use a comma.
Now, before you start hooting so everyone in the house thinks you’ve gone mad as you mutter, “Gol danged Eye-talians gotta get everything screwed up so nobody can understand nothing!” be aware that only the “U.K. and U.S. use a comma to separate groups of thousands”. Yes, Italy is in the big group. Ta-Da.
So this is important why? Well, if you are programing a database for folks to use an International ATM, you gotta get this exactly right, or the people who put in a cool thousand euros, or € 1.000, don’t want to be credited with adding a mere single euro to their account. Hey, it happens.
So database maker Oracle has made a big chart for you, where you’ll find out that some countries don’t bother with characters at all, they just leave a space for a thousands separator.
If you’re a real traveler, you probably love diversity and thrive in unfamiliar places. It’s travels’ big gift to you. Go forth and prosper.
And know that € 1,000 probably won’t get you a decent bottle of vino.