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Nuotare, fare il bagno

To swim, to go swimming

The first time that an Italian sharing a hotel elevator asked if I had “fatto il bagno,” I was taken aback. Was she really asking if I had taken a bath? And if so, why?

“Si,” I replied tentatively. As she chattered about the sun and the sea, I realized that “fare il bagno” also can translate informally as “to take a dip” or nuotare (to swim).

“Sa nuotare?” (Do you know how to swim?) a lifeguard (bagnino) asked one day as I prepared to dive (fare un tuffo /tuffarsi) into the sea.

“Si, sono una nuotatrice provetta” (Yes, I’m an experienced swimmer), I assured him. In fact, my husband says that I can nuotare come un pesce (swim like a fish)–although I aspire to glide through the waves like a more alluring marine creature, such as a sirena (mermaid) or ninfa di mare (sea nymph).

Because the waters of northern California are too cold for una nuotata (swimming), I take advantage of every moment of the stagione balneare (bathing season) in Italy. I pack several costumi da bagno (bathing suits), occhialini da nuoto (goggles), ciabatte da piscina (pool slippers) and plenty of protezione solare (sunscreen). 

In una piscina (swimming pool), I do vasche (laps) of various stili (strokes): a rana (breast stroke), nuoto alla marinara (side stroke), stile libero (crawl, freestyle) and dorso (back stroke). Sometimes I simply faccio il morto (play dead or float) or sguazzo (splash around).

However, I much prefer bagni di mare (sea bathing). I’m not much of a subacqueo (diver), but if I have the chance, I enjoy snorkeling (nuotare con boccaglio e maschera). Sometimes I even pack my own pinne (flippers).

In Italian, you don’t have to entrare in acqua (get in the water) or immergersi (immerse yourself) to find yourself in alto mare (in high seas or all at sea). You might tuffarsi negli affari (plunge into business) and quickly end up in un mare di guai (in a sea of troubles). Then you would have to cercare per mari e per monti (search for the seas and mountains, or look high and low) for the equivalent of a salvagente (life preserver).

Italians might invite you to bagnare un avvenimento (celebrate an occasion, such as a graduation or baptism) with them. The event could turn out to be so moving that you might avere un tuffo al cuore (feel your heart dive — or swell — with emotion). You also don’t need lezioni di nuoto (swimming lessons) to nuotare nell’abbondanza o nell’oro — literally to be so rich that you're swimming in wealth or gold.

Words and Expressions

Balneare –- anything pertaining to swimming, seaside

Tutto bagnato — soaking wet

Divieto di balneazione –- no swimming

Spanciata –- belly-flop (dare una spanciata –- to belly-flop)

Bracciate –- strokes

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.