During my childhood there was an expression that constantly piqued my curiosity: Sono lontani i tempi in cui Berta filava. Translated this means: “there was a long time from when Bertha used to spin”. I remember that I always wondered “who is Bertha?” and “why did she spin?”.
There are a lot of weird stories behind this saying. When asked about it, some people refer to medieval literature, while others prefer historical anecdotes. I want to tell you just one of the many folk tales about Bertha. According to it, Bertha was a poor widow with a great devotion to her king. One day she decided to spin thin yarn as a gift for him. The Monarch appreciated the gift and once he knew the miserable condition of the woman, decided to compensate her. The King lavished Bertha with money and guaranteed her a comfortable future. It is said that, after this generous gesture of the Monarch, other people rushed to donate more or less valuable yarn but the King replied: “these are not the days when Bertha used to spin.”
In the Good Old Days
The time when Bertha spun is, therefore, lost time made by desire, dreams and luck. It is another way of saying “in the good old days”. Usually people say this when they want to refer to something good that has been before, but isn’t anymore. This expression is used with a point of irony and underlines a different status from the past. For example, “When I was younger I used to go to sea every day during the summer. I would spend a lot of time snorkeling and fishing. These were the days when Bertha used to spin”.
Rino Gaetano’s Song
E Berta filava is also the title of a beloved Italian song written by the singer Rino Gaetano. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s famous for his rough voice, his irony, and his tragic death at the age of thirty. His songs are still very popular even though he died in 1981. During each bonfire on the beach, Italian people sing many of his songs, such as Il cielo è sempre più blu, Mio fratello è figlio unico, or Aida etc.
Anyway, let’s get back to E Berta filava. The song shows us that the Italian verb filare can mean many different things. In each verse, there is a diverse connotation of it. Repetition becomes almost a riddle because while listening you try guessing what meaning the singer has in mind. The result is an enjoyable and satirical song.
Filare: One Verb, Many Different Meanings.
In the first verse, Berta filava e filava la lana, la lana e l'amianto del vestito del santo… The meaning is “to spin”. The translation is Bertha spun and spun wool, wool and asbestos of the saint’s dress…. She could be a character of a folk tale (like in the origin story of this saying) but definitely she isn’t. Have you ever heard of a saint dressed in asbestos in a folk tale?
In the second verse, E Berta filava e filava con Mario, e filava con Gino. New verse, new meaning. “Filare con qualcuno” means “to flirt with someone”. Translation: Bertha flirted, flirted with Mario and flirted with Gino.
In the third verse, E Berta filava, filava dritto, e filava di lato. The meaning is “to go straight, to behave properly”. Translation: Bertha went straight, and went sideways or Bertha behaved properly and misbehaved. In Italian we can say “filare a dritto/ filare dritto” or also “rigare dritto”.
In another point of the song, Berta filava il bambino cullava cullava. Here’s another connotation: “to pay attention to”. Translation: Bertha paid great attention to the baby, cradled and cradled. It is often used in negative sentences: Gli ho chiesto di aiutarmi ma non mi ha filato proprio ("I asked him to help me, but he didn’t consider me").
There are also other meanings that are not subject of the song. For example:
Filare liscio: go right
Filare a cento all’ora: run a hundred miles an hour.
Fila via! Vattene!: get out of here!
Filarsela: to slope off.