It’s A “Nones” Life
Nones. What’s that word?
It’s a people, a subgroup, a culture wedged in the Non Valley (Val di Non), far off in Italy’s northernmost region, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol. The dialect that people in Val di Non speak is called Nones (pronounced No-nez), while the people are known as Nonesi (Noneso for singular male, Nonesa for singular female).
Italian grammar aside, Nones is the type of dialect that precedes Italian, meaning: Italian speakers can’t understand it.
Confused yet? It’ll get easier….
Jason and I lived in Val di Non for two years, and I can attest—it’s not really very Italian. When the Nonesi talk about the rest of the country, they refer to it as, “laggiù in Italia” (down there in Italy). They hardly consider themselves a part of the country they’re in.
For the Nonesi, Italy is another world; a drastically, drastically different one. The only thing that really qualifies them as Italian is that most are capable of speaking passable Italian. But for the ones born and raised in Val di Non—they feel more comfortable speaking in Nones. Bon di, formai, and ciasa come more easily than the Italian equivalents of these words (buongiorno, formaggio, and casa).
In fact, in valleys all over Trentino-Alto Adige (and throughout Italy), dialects are still the primary means of verbal exchange. Jason has a friend who lives in nearby Val Sugana (he moved there thirty years ago from Puglia), and he explained to us that he had to learn the valley’s local dialect, Levego.“If you don’t,” he said, “You’ll never be accepted by the people. You’ll never find your way in.”
The Nones people are less Italian in other ways, too. They are reserved, but not because they don’t like you. Because it takes them a while to get to know a person. Especially if you’re not from there. Especially if you’re new.
You might say they’re a little multiculturally gun shy.
So…why might the Nonesi be like this?
Let’s think about the economic/political history of the place:
Prior to the onset of modern tourism, the Alps were one of the poorest areas of Europe. Val di Non was especially poor, subject to all kinds of invasions and political land swaps. Beginning with the growth of The Holy Roman Empire, the valley’s Pagan inhabitants were “civilized” rather violently by The Catholic Church. During WWI, Trentino was part of the Italian battlefront, and later German-occupied territory in WWII.
Poverty was the norm, invasions were a plenty, distrust of outsiders built up and a lot of “holding on to what’s ours” has been ingrained in the people, as a result. (I don’t blame them.)
Let’s think about the area’s terrain (and therefore isolation):
Val di Non is smack in the middle of The Italian Alps. It lies on a plateau, surrounded on all sides by mountain peaks and passes—rendering it nearly unreachable for most of it’s history. Tunnels were built in the 1960s/70s, but prior to that, the valley’s remoteness made importation of outside goods difficult. “Passers through” were rare (unless they were there to cause trouble).
For millennia, the people have pretty much kept to themselves in their isolated mountain valley, and the Nonesi have developed a healthy suspicion of outsiders.
Let’s think about the climate:
Winters are very snowy, and the growing season is short. People spend a lot of time preparing for winter. Then surviving winter. Then cleaning up after winter. Steep, forested hillsides limit agricultural production, and for centuries the only real options for income came from cattle products, grain, and potatoes. Life in Val di Non has mostly been austere.
Let’s think about the Germanic cultural influences:
Germanic culture* is infamous for its order and efficiency, and its adherence to rules. When you drive in to Trentino from neighboring regions, you pass over a line in the road where Trentino’s road maintenance begins. And you notice the change. The roads are superiorly maintained. Gardens and houses are well tended. The buildings take a peaked roof, Austrian feel.
Suddenly, you’re no longer in Italy (although you are); but you’ve arrived in a Bavarian village.
The Nonesi are hardly an exception to Germanic cultural norms. They save money religiously and reuse things like there’s a war on. Tasks are executed a certain way, chaos is kept to a minimum, and things function. All the while, the Nonesi manage to display very little feeling about it all (contrasting the more ebullient Italians “giù,” who tend to wear their emotions on their shirt-sleeves).
This, in essence, is Val di Non. The people are hardened by hardship, have been cut off from the rest of the world for centuries, are culturally more austere by their Germanic nature and upbringing, and have learned to survive in harsh, remote mountain climates by working hard and keeping their heads down.
No wonder the Nonesi don’t feel so Italian, after all.
To aid in the endeavor of befriending a Noneso, I’ve distilled some tips into a four-part post series, titled: HOW TO TALK “NONES” – “Troppo Jewish” (Part 1), The Valley of Tears (Part 2), Making Friends (Part 3), and Gossip Town (Part 4) – Coming soon! These should help get your through your first round of interactions…at least until the buttered stares wear off.
Note: As mentioned above, the culture is changing with the younger generations, who have had more experience traveling outside Italy, and who are generally more exposed to other cultures and other ways of life. Consequently, they speak better Italian and are less likely to speak Nones.
*You may be wondering why I chose to refer to the culture of Val di Non as “Germanic.” I do this because it’s the easiest way to sum up a very complicated past. Austrian culture and language have been influenced largely by Germanic culture and language (Val di Non used to be a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, waaaay way back when). Here are some good explanations on Yahoo! Answers about why Austrians don’t have their own language and how they’ve been influenced by Germany over the centuries (read a good history book and you’ll get a more thorough understanding, though). Should I stand to be corrected, dear readers, please kindly do so, as I always love to learn (especially if I’m in the wrong).