Not quite seven years ago, shortly after turning 40, I spent a few weeks in Italy. I wrote about my trip on a low-profile blog I created as a substitute for postcards. In the intervening years, I’ve occasionally revisited the posts. One entry, Ė Pericoloso Sporgersi, has garnered thousands of views and several comments from strangers, unusual for a dormant site. That these three Italian words have lodged in the minds of many, across decades and continents, is a marvel.
As I wrote then, I first saw this phrase on European trains when I was eight years old, living in Switzerland with my family for a few months. Ė Pericoloso Sporgersi was one of an international quartet of warnings affixed on metal plates beneath the windows: It is dangerous to lean out. Perhaps it’s memorable because the syllables’ softness if not silliness contrast starkly to the possibility of injury or death if a person were to stick their head out of a fast moving train. Its texture is also markedly different than the French, German (a command: Don’t Lean Out) or English. Somehow, it had a je ne sais quoi that made me, and many others, fall for it.
Another person smitten by Ė Pericoloso Sporgersi is Patrick Le Floch, who wrote: “I remember countless (bored) hours in French trains in the late 80s, memorizing those lines. Signs were in four same languages then and had me wonder why just four, and who decided the four? Who sits on such a committee? Anyway, thirty years later I only remember the Italian version. I have always been curious to know if others would have noticed the sign enough to memorize it. Nice to see there is someone else out there like me.”
And this, from Dominique Gregoire: “Thank you for the memory, I too remembered the Italian phrase probably because it had a poetic ring to it, like a haiku of some sort. The reason there was no Spanish is that the trains from the rest of Europe couldn’t get into Spain because the width of the tracks was different and you had to move to another train when you entered Spain.”
A careful observer added: “Oh, this is one of my absolutely favorite signs of all times and signs (that have ever existed)….Actually, the language order depended on the country you were in – on trains in Germany, for example, the German version would be first, followed by the English underneath, with the French version to the right and last but not least the famous Italian phrase right below the French. ‘E pericoloso sporgersi’ rules – forget bungee jumping!”
Perhaps it’s the magic of Italian, period, since I didn’t recall the French or the German, and neither did these readers. Perhaps the poetry of Italian is so potent that one doesn’t even need to go to Italy to be captivated by this phrase. Just the other day another person I don’t know, John Vale, commented on that old blog: “Just had to Google the phrase – which I had misremembered slightly! I’ve never been to Italy let alone on one of their trains, but my old mate Wily from University obviously had and delighted in intoning it with maximum mock Italian accent – rolling every syllable in his mouth like the finest Chianti. A legendary and very beautiful warning.”
I think he hit on something. You can play with and savor those syllables, allowing them to enter one’s being so fully that they bind themselves up in the body, lingering far longer than the memory, let alone the taste, of a great glass of wine. His comment inspired me to Google the phrase, too, to discover what else I might learn. Ė pericoloso sporgersi is the title of two films, one Romanian, another Belgian. That this humble bureaucratic caveat has made it onto the screen not once, but twice, filled me with an inexplicable glee, as if I had heard that a long forgotten childhood classmate had done something surprising.
Next I searched “e pericoloso sporgersi on trains.” Up popped a French Wiki entry that said, and I roughly translate, “this Italian expression amused and influenced generations of travelers because of its obscure meaning which did not seem to match its French equivalent.” I’m not sure why the French find sporgersi obscure, unless it’s the reflexive nature of that verb which awkwardly translates: “to lean oneself out”. The French must have been rather tickled by it because the three words inspired a ditty about train travel. A link offers the chance to download this chanson to one’s cell phone for €3.99 per week; if I lived in Europe, I’d be tempted.
Most writers would be thrilled if thousands worldwide remembered one of their phrases, not to mention adopted by the popular culture in other countries. What if, as Patrick Le Floch suggested, there had been a committee that came up with e pericoloso sporgersi? If these people were still alive, would they be gratified or perplexed that this expression, challenging its own meaning, has thrived beyond the confines of train windows? Maybe the message of e pericoloso sporgersi is that we can’t predict where our words, whether written, spoken or stamped on plaques, will end up, how far they will travel and who, if anyone, will remember them. But if we want to be heard, we need to “lean ourselves out”, no matter how dangerous or awkward it might feel.