In this blog Mira talks about spending a year in Florence on exchange.
Sette Via Montebello. Sette Via Montebello.
I muttered these words under my breath over and over, for fear that something would distract me, and I may forget them. It was autumn of 2004, and I had just arrived in Florence, Italy for my nine-month study abroad program. I spoke no Italian except this one phrase.
The address of my hotel. Number 7, Via Montebello.
Most of the group was traveling directly from New York, but since I was visiting my parents, I had come from India. And so it came to pass: I found myself on my own, outside Florence airport, in a sea of taxis that did not appear to have any drivers.
They were organized in a somewhat haphazard formation, but after venturing to the middle of the circle, I found someone who could take me into town. The driver barely acknowledged my carefully mastered phrase, but armed with the clothes on my back, a carry-on and a laptop, I was finally on my way to the Hotel Patrizia. Because my entry into this strange land was not adventure enough, my luggage was enjoying an extended stay at Frankfurt Airport, due to arrive a long 24 hours later.
Of course, our curriculum for the next nine months, did include two introductory Italian classes, but in retrospect it would have been better to master some basic phrases before my arrival. I was unprepared for life in this strange quiet town. After our orientation session where we were given inadequate information about finding apartments and warnings about everyone, especially charming men (“there’s no such thing as a free lunch, girls,”), I made my way to Esselunga, the grocery store near the college.
It took me an hour to wander through the place, because I had no idea what anything was. The types of food and brands were strange, and since I could not read the packaging, I’m not sure what I walked out with, but not all was lost, as I made the acquaintance of a classmate named Malorie, in the middle of the bread aisle, and she remains one of my closest friends today.
As the obligatory college-sponsored touristy excursions started, our instructors would give us information and instruction in Italian to get us acclimated to it. It was then that I realized that if they spoke slowly, I could put together the meaning of the words from my knowledge of French.
I had studied French in school and spent five years in Montreal. I remember hearing the word “autobus,” meaning “bus”, and in spite of the pronunciation, feeling the light bulb going off in my head, that perhaps all that effort to learn French had not been wasted.
As I went through my day-to-day life, I started to be able to string meanings together, and understand what was being said to me. Of course, I often, by force of habit, attempted to respond in French, and that usually did not go down too well. But it was a start, and I was determined to learn more.
Our Italian classes were relatively easy, and the fact that you did not need a Bescherelle, or grammar guide, at home for basic conjugation made everything seemed a lot simpler. In French there were nothing but exceptions to rules, while Italian seemed much more straightforward. It was definitely easier!
On a side note, I did miss speaking French, and so when one fine day my roommate and I made ourselves friends with a pair of Francophone Senegalese men, both named Babs, I was happy.
I told my Babs I was in a committed relationship, and not interested in anything except conversation, and it seemed to be working out fine, until one afternoon, he confessed his love for me over an SMS. I don’t know whether I’m relieved or not that it was an era before emojis existed.
It was the first time anyone had confessed their feeling for me in French, and decidedly more unromantic than I could have imagined such a thing to be. I politely refused, and promptly stopped speaking to him.
Learning Italian formally, coupled with the encouragement of our teachers to practice what we’d learned in class, meant that slowly, my instinct to reply in French waned, and I started to find the right words to say in italiano. Merci beacoup became grazie mille, s’il vous plaît became per favore, de rien became prego (which incidentally was the name of a famous American pasta sauce). Slowly, but surely, these phrases lodged themselves onto the tip of my tongue.
Over time, as our Italian got stronger, we began to assume routines that would have been alien to us, only months earlier. We found ourselves articulating what we’d like to purchase at the little greengrocers and formaggerias nearby, instead of the rather comic pantomime that had dominated our early communications.
We were able to discover new foods and ask questions about what we were purchasing. It was in Florence that I first discovered my love for emmental cheese, various new types of bread, and our most epic discovery ever: the Nutella calzone. It is my biggest regret that I do not remember the name of the restaurant where I ate this magnificent thing, but if I ever return to Florence, it will be my priority to find it.
My landlord, an adorable older man named Francesco and I developed a method of communication that worked well. I understood (at least eventually), for example, I knew he was speaking about our request for a shower curtain, when he said the “tent” was not possible, but he did offer a plastic “wall” that worked just as well.
He appreciated that I had made an effort to speak his language, and in turn, he made an effort to speak English.
Our teachers peppered their English with Italian phrases, and before we knew it, we followed suit. More than a few of us would sigh deeply after expressing ourselves in English, and say, “allora…” or “therefore…”.
We would greet each other with “ciao”, respond to kind deeds with “grazie,” and affectionately call each other “bella,” and I heard more than a few people answering their phones saying, “pronto”!
The real kicker came when I started saying si, when I spoke French, in place of oui, because you use si as a correction in French. I went on to start liberally butchering French words with an Italian pronunciation. When, on a trip to Paris, I tried to explain to my French friend Matthieu, where I might meet him—he was not impressed.
Eventually I stopped speaking French altogether, because I had learned Italian, then after leaving Italy, I stopped speaking Italian because I was trying to speak French again (now I’m not quite too sure if I speak either). I did start speaking excessively using my hands while words of any language left my lips.
We learned other things as well, as we went along. There was apertivo, the fabulous happy hour concept where you got free finger food with your 5 o’clock drink (you could always identify college exchange students in the room by the size of the heap on their plates).
We learned about art and Italian history; that you only order cappuccinos in the morning; and that you can stand at a coffee bar and spend less money on your coffee than if you take a seat. A few of my classmates found out the hard way that you cannot order a latte, if you would like any coffee in it, because it literally means milk.
Although so many things seemed strange to us when we first encountered them, we found after an initial rejection, that many things made sense. If everyone closed for siesta between 1-4 pm, we planned our errands around them, if we had to name a particular bridge, we would often count the number of bridges from the Ponte Vecchio, and we learned never to touch fresh produce, and to patiently wait for the greengrocer to serve us.
These things became ingrained in us, and part of who we were. To this day, I get the urge to say non funzione, when something doesn’t work, or allora, when I’m feeling pensive, or say ciao ragazze, when I’m saying farewell to a group of friends, and I miss having people around me that would understand it.
Sadly, today my Italian is very poor, and I cannot understand most of the snatches of conversation I may hear from the occasional Italian tourist. However, I find whenever I hear it, in any form, whether the words are slow enough to understand or not, I feel that tiny bit of nostalgia for a time that I will never forget.
Because when you think about it, a language is a key to a culture. Once you understand how a people communicates, you will know a little bit more about who they are. It helps us relate to native speakers much better, and gain their compassion: for there is a vulnerability in speaking a tongue that is not your own, which makes the bonds you form and the insight you gain from them, so much deeper and stronger.
There were 90 of us in the program, and none of us were ever the same after it. These words opened up new worlds for us, and learning them altered who we were, allowing us to carry back a little piece of Italy in our hearts.
Photo Credit: David Tapia San Martin on Unsplash