After arriving in Florence, we stood outside the airport, trying to communicate with our Italian-speaking cab driver. All we needed to do was tell her where we needed to go. And ask her how much it would cost. And whether she accepted credit cards. But she didn’t speak English and spoke Italian a little too fast for me to understand. So when I tried to answer her, all the Italian words flew right out of my head, leaving me stuttering.
I’ve always had in interest in language. In 9th grade, when I had the choice of taking Spanish, French, or Italian as my foreign language, I immediately chose Italian. It seemed… different somehow. Although I ended up studying Italian for four years, I had never gotten a chance to engage with native speakers. A trip to Italy would be the perfect chance to actually use it!
But there were a few problems.
It’s been almost 10 years since high school, and I’ve lost most of my Italian vocabulary. And the older you get, everyone knows the harder it is to learn (or in this case, re-learn) a language. Of course, we could always rely on the Google Translate app, but we also didn’t want to pause every conversation to type phrases into the phone.
We heard from friends that knowing Italian wasn’t necessary. Florence is very Americanized. The shop owners are accustomed to tourists and most Florentines speak enough English to communicate with you. So it was tempting to just forget about studying Italian again. It would be more thing to worry about before the trip, one more stress factor, one more activity taking up our evenings.
And yet, we felt that we would get the most out of our experience if we could at least try to engage with Italians on their own terms.
So there we were, standing outside the cab with a driver who didn’t know where to take us. Somehow, I realized that I knew the words to speak to her, but I was actually nervous to say them.
I had stage fright.
I managed to tell her where our hotel was, and Chris remembered to ask whether she accepted American Express (Accettate American Express?).
Even though we were limited to those simple phrases during the first few minutes, we probably needed that short cab ride to warm up to speaking the language, without the safety net of an English-speaking driver. And while it’s easy enough to memorize and repeat phrases, understanding a native speaker is a little tougher.
As we were driving around a tight corner, a group of teenagers stepped in front of us the car not without bothering to look, and our driver slammed on her brakes.
“Ragazzi!” Our driver muttered in disgust as she slammed on the brakes.
I smiled at Chris, delighted that I understood even this one-word insult, and whispered “She just called them children.”
When we ventured out for dinner that night we were able to order the pizza, red wine, and salad in Italian.
And even though they had an English menu - not everything on there was clear to us. They had translated rucola as “rocket salad.” We laughed when we saw what they brought out; it was nothing other than arugula, something we grow in our own garden.
And if we had never learned Italian, we would never have bonded with Fabrizio at Pensavo Peggio (who I’ll talk more about this week). On our second night in Italy, Fabrizio waited on us and Chris ordered his favorite type of wine:
Chris (serious): “Buona sera, vorrei una taza di Chianti classico, per favore.” Fabrizio (amused): “Do you know what you just ordered?” Chris (puzzled): “A type of red wine, right?” Fabrizio (still amused): “Yes, but you ordered it in a taza. That’s like saying, “I would like red wine, but I want it in a coffee cup. The phrase is, “un bicchieri di Chianti classico.”
It’s not as if I didn’t have my own mistakes. Later in the week, when the gelateria owner offered us seats, I tried to tell her we were going to go for a walk. Instead, I told her that we needed to go change.
So, How Did We Learn Italian?
We began by taking Rosetta Stone together a few nights a week for about 5 months before the trip. Instead of watching Netflix, Chris and I would spend an hour or two a few nights a week making our way through the lessons.
On my own, I re-learned through movies, music, and books. There are actually a few Italian films on Netflix and YouTube has tons of choices for listening to Italian pop music (I really like Francesca Michelin). In Other Words by Jumpha Lahiri was the perfect book to read in preparation for the trip. Lahiri is an Indian-American author who moved to Rome in order to learn the Italian language.
So ultimately, it was a relief to us that our driver didn’t speak English. It made us step outside our comfort zone and gave us a tiny bit of courage to order our meal that night in Italian.
Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing more about getting to know the city of Florence and why we decided to stay in the same city for 2 weeks.
Any guesses about how many miles we walked by the end of our trip?