The first full length novel I read in Italian was, believe it or not, the book adaptation of “Indiana Jones and the Quest for the Lost Ark.” It was given to me by the geography teacher at the school I attended in Florence, presumably because she wanted me to read something challenging whilst at least having an idea of what was happening.
The first thing that struck me then when I read the novel was the strange word “disse” that was used where in English you would expect to see “he/she said.” Why wasn’t “ha detto” used? What strange type of verb was this?
In Italian, there are three usual ways of expressing things that happened in the past. The ‘imperfetto’ is used to talk about something that happened on a continuous basis or which did not finish. For example, “andavo a trovare mio amico Silvio” means “I was on the way to meeting my friend Silvio.” However, it implies that you may or may not have eventually met him, nor even gotten on your way, since something may have come up. It can also express the idea that you ‘used to’ do something. So, “andavo al mercato ogni venerdi,” meaning “I used to go the market every Friday.”
The ‘passato prossimo’ form describes something that did in fact absolutely happen. Continuing with the same example, we have “Sono andato a trovare mio amico Silvio.” This translates as “I went to meet my friend Silvio.” It still doesn’t imply that you met him, only that you did get on your way there. This form can also be used to talk about something that has recently happened or you have just done. For instance, “sono stato dal supermercato”, meaning “I’ve been to the supermarket,” or “ho letto il libro,” meaning “I’ve read the book.”
The third form is the ‘trapassato prossimo’, which describes something that had started when something else happened. For example, “Ero andato a trovare mio amico Silvio,” meaning “I had gone to meet my friend Silvio.”
Now, there is another, more obscure form that is not really used in everyday speech, with the exception of certain regions (mainly Tuscany) or by older people. This is the ‘passato remoto’, which is used to talk about things that happened a relatively long time ago. So, for instance, “andai a trovare mio amico Silvio.” This still means “I went to meet my friend Silvio,” but carries the implication (unlike the passato prossimo) that it happened a long time ago, i.e. not today or yesterday.
This form would only be used if you were telling a story, which is why it is used in novels:
“Dove l’avete trovato?” disse Carlo.
“Where did you find it?” said Carlo.
Now, in normal speech, you would just use the passato prossimo when telling the story. So, if you are talking about the time you lived in Italy five years ago when you went to meet an old friend, you would say “sono andato…” not “andai.” In fact, saying “andai” would sound a little quaint and even nostalgic.
Coming back to the passato prossimo, I have always found it curious that two English sentences such as “I have spoken to him” and “I spoke to him” translate as exactly the same in Italian: “Ho parlato con lui.” Strictly speaking, the latter English sentence should translate as “Parlai con lui”, but this is not really in general use. So the only way to tell if the speaking occurred recently or further in the past is, as with a lot of things in Italian, entirely through context.