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Madonna vagone di riso, ogni chicco mille puttane!’

(The Madonna is a wagon full of rice, and each grain is a thousand prostitutes!)

When we arrived at the Nuovo Antico Pavone the other night, this was the last thing I was expecting to hear. It’s always a tough decision whether to accompany one’s partner to a business dinner, but a ‘maths dinner’ offers particular challenges. Mathematicians have a certain reputation, and scintillating table talk isn’t one of them. On the other hand, the Antico Pavone has long been hailed in Trieste as the best place to eat fish and much as I hate awkward silences, I can’t resist the promise of a good branzino.

A couple of minutes after arriving my instinct was to run away. Seated around the long table, unusually elegantly dressed and expectant, were the assembled maths crew: from Argentina, Russia, Italy, America and  India. That’s something that most people don’t realise, that the language of numbers and symbols has made maths a truly international subject and this in itself must undermine the stereotype. But what happened that evening was truly unexpected.

A world famous mathematician began holding forth, and practically didn’t stop the whole evening. But he was intensely interesting, clearly brilliant, funny and a multi-linguist (speaking English, Japanese, French and German and seeming to have mastered Italian just by being in the restaurant). He told us the story of his father, brought up in what was not yet Poland, speaking 8 languages (including Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, German and a couple of dialects) and then travelling the world as a journalist and then member of the CIA, among other things. The details aren’t private since he wrote a book about them (the father I mean)  – and if I get permission I’ll put a link to it here. His story blended in my fuzzy yet attentive brain with the book I’m still reading, The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, about (obviously a very old) man who, despite himself, during his life had walked across continents, hob-knobbed with presidents and worked out in his spare time how to build the atomic bomb.

From here we moved on to talking about all sorts of things, including a whole bunch of proverbs which, slighlty tweaking one element, though keeping the sense, somehow change the whole meaning. For example, ‘The sun never rises on the British Empire’.

Next up was the expression, ‘Mathematicians can turn coffee into theorems’ which the brillian mathematician said he found himself desperately trying to reverse in one particular maths institute bereft of that wondrous beverage (‘Mathematical theorems get turned into coffee.’)

The Italian maths professor in front of me, who had listened in most of the evening, occasionally adding a key line here and there, said quietly “with American coffee mathematicians can only create lemmas.”

But the coup came right at the end of the evening, when during another discussion about language, palindromes, whatever took our fancy, we ended up somehow on our favourite Italian swear words, well, swear expressions really, since they can start with a word (usually a holy word, like Dio, or Madonna) and then add on all sorts of foul and blasphemous things that they hope will happen to these sacred figures (including the Madonna getting zits on her fanny for example…) The same Italian professor mentioned the best swear phrase he’d ever heard from a friend in Tuscany (apparently as well as being famous for speaking the most correct Italian in Italy, they also create the most complex and creative bestemmie):-

Madonna vagone di riso, ogni chicco mille puttane!’

It loses a lot in translation, you just have to really savour the pleasure of the syllables….

I’ve since found this great Italian site, http://bestemmia.wordpress.com which helps you assemble your own personalised swear expressions by giving you helpful suggestions for all kinds of collocations. I think my favourite, again purely from the purely poetical point of view is

‘Madonna infiammata puttana troia ladra della madonna!’

As I said, when I walked into the restaurant that night, I certainly did not imagine that this would be where we would end up.

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