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Getting by with cavarsela

You may know that we can ask someone how things are going with come va (how's it going)? It's the simplest and least personal way to ask that. More personal is come stai (how are you)?

"Ciao, come va?" Si può anche dire "come stai?" Come stai.

"Hi, how's it going?" You can also say, "how are you?" How are you?

Captions 5-7, Corso di italiano con Daniela Chiedere "Come va?"

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Here's yet another way to talk about how things are going for someone. We use it in both questions and answers when the situation or outcome is uncertain, like, for example, the one we are experiencing at the moment all over the world. 

And the verb is..... cavarsela. It's a pronominal verb — a verb that has pronouns attached to it — so let's take it apart.

BANNER PLACEHOLDER

The main verb inside this pronominal verb is cavare (to remove, to extract). If you think of a cavity, something has been removed to create it. 

 

As a matter of fact, Marika has done a video about 2 similar verbs: cavare and togliere, which can both mean to remove. 

Cavare vuol dire estrarre, tirare fuori qualcosa da qualche parte.

"Cavare" means to extract, to pull something out from somewhere.

Captions 7-8, Marika spiega I verbi cavare e togliere

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As with many pronominal verbs, cavare can also be reflexive, becoming cavarsi. There are two ways to look at this. One is as a typical reflexive verb like levarsi, togliersi, when talking about taking one's shoes off, for example. 

 

Mi tolgo le scarpe... indosso una vestaglia, mi distendo sul divano, guardo un po' di televisione,

I take off my shoes... I put on a robe, I stretch out on the couch, I watch a little TV,

Captions 40-42, Adriano Giornata

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If you are familiar with the verbs togliere and levare, you don't need to remember cavarsi in this context, as it is not the most common word people use.

 

There is, however another context, where we commonly do use the reflexive cavarsi, when it means to get out of a dicey situation, but we add la which in this case means "it." "It" in turn, represents a situation, often a difficult one.

 

As we mentioned above, the pronominal verb is cavarsela:

cavare + si + la.

 

When putting the verb into its infinitive form, we remove the "e" ending of the original verb in its infinitive, so cavare becomes cavar. Then, since we are going to have a direct object pronoun in there, too, si (usually an indirect object pronoun meaning "to oneself") becomes se. And then we add, at the end, la, which is a direct object pronoun (meaning a generic "it") — cavarsela.

 

Cavarsela can mean "getting [oneself] out of a situation," like an exam you hadn't studied for, but you got through anyway.

Me la sono cavata, menomale (I got through it, thank goodness).

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But it often means "managing," "getting by." 

Insomma, neanche in sogno riesco a cavarmela da solo.

Anyway, not even in a dream can I get by on my own.

Caption 58, Psicovip I Minivips - Ep 13

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Practically speaking

OK, but how do we use cavarsela when we're talking, and when we need to conjugate the verb rather than using it in the infinitive? Great question! Ottima domanda!

 

Questions

 

Let's start with how we use cavarsela in a question. A woman who has horses is thinking of hiring some help. She asks: 

Come te la cavi con i cavalli?

How do you manage with horses?

How good are you with horses?

Caption 6, Il Commissario Manara S1EP8 - Morte di un buttero - Part 16

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An answer to this question might be:

Me la cavo (I do all right).

 

In a different context, you might ask someone how they are getting on in a certain situation, say, during lockdown.

 

The present tense can work:

Come te la cavi (how are you getting on)?

 

or you can use the present continuous:

Come te la stai cavando (how are you getting on, how are you managing)?

 

When lockdown is over, you might ask:

Come te la sei cavato/a (how did you do, how did you manage, how did you hold up)?

 

If you are talking to two or more people:

Come ve la siete cavati(how did you do, how did you manage, how did you hold up)?

 

Answering the question

 

Ce la caviamo bene (we'll manage), we're managing).

Ce la stiamo cavando (we're managing).

Me la sono cavata/o bene (I did fine).

and in the plural:

Ce la siamo cavati così così (We did just OK).

 

E tu? Come te la stai cavando con l'italiano?

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