No Speako

In Florence, The Art of Travel Fall 2015, Language by Erica Pappas2 Comments

I probably should have tried to learn some Italian before coming to Italy.

Before coming to Florence, I spent two days on my own in Bologna, jetlagged and speaking not one word of Italian. I wanted to meet people, but I didn’t even know how to say, “Hi, I’m Erica, how are you?” without reverting to a cavemannish, gesticulative HELLOOO. (both hands pointing to chest) ME ERICA. (an inquisitive thumbs-up) YOU? with subsequent awkward smile, which, of course, still involves none of the local language.

My complete ignorance of Italian quickly proved problematic. A guy my age approached me in Bologna’s main Piazza with a very friendly “come stai?”, for which I had no answer except, “no Italian?” I didn’t have the knowledge to even add an “o” to at least call the language Italiano. This is when I, were I on his end, would have given up, but he was pretty persistent about getting the Italian out of me. The ensuing 20-minute conversation went something like this:


Eventually, I gave up and went to speak Spanish to an older Portuguese couple.

Here in Florence, it’s pretty easy to get away with never speaking a word of Italian. I’ve yet to meet a single person in the service industry who doesn’t speak English. I occasionally try to use Italian to complete basic transactions, but even when I’ve successfully ordered a dual-flavored medium-sized gelato in a cone, the server still tells me the price in English. It’s frustrating when my efforts are so smoothly shut down, especially since I’ve put in some effort and can now proudly hold up a very (very, very) basic introductory conversation at a Kindergarten level.

I’m trying to avoid feeling as ignorant as I did in Bologna, or as ignorant as I felt this past weekend on a two-day trip to Nice, France. Like my Italian was when I arrived in Bologna, my knowledge of French is limited to not much more than “bonjour,” “au revior,” and “omelette au fromage” (thanks, Dexter’s Lab). For this reason, in Nice, it always took at least 3 seconds for me to generate a reply. The barista hands me my latte, and my response is a quiet, contemplative rifling through of thank you, grazie, gracias, before I finally land on merci.

It was also hard, when using simple greetings, not to revert back to Italian. I’d walk into a restaurant silently chanting to myself, don’t say buongiorno. don’t say buongiorno. don’t say buongiorno.

“Bonjour! -no. Shit.”

Allora. Many are the losses and few are the wins, but I don’t see myself giving up on language anytime soon. I have a particular affinity for language and the way that the right words can elicit such grand reactions. Cardinally, I love the English language, but only because I haven’t given myself the opportunity to have an affair with any other. I find it painful to so readily bastardize or ignore a language just because it’s unfamiliar to me. There are countless combinations of letters that mean something unique in every tongue. Right now, I’m really friendly with “ciao,” but with practice I foresee myself getting more comfortable with and affectionate toward the special, romantic rolling of Italian vocabulary, with its elongated vowels and indulgent pacing. Who’s to say I wouldn’t love Italian were I to give it a proper chance?


  1. Hey Erica!

    So this is an amazing post. I definitely relate to your struggles. I have a huge problem like you do with buongiorno here in Madrid. Apparently no one says “lo siento” when they’re sorry. That’s reserved for when people are really really sorry… like just ran over your neighbor’s cat sorry. So, when I accidentally graze shoulders with someone on the street I feel like an idiot because I’m throwing out lo siento left right and center. Keep practicing your Italian, and I’m sure but December you’ll be conversing with no problems what so ever. .. at least go to some amazing Italian restaurants and learn how to pronounce all the noodles and cheeses so you can impress anyone at dinner when you return to New York 🙂

  2. I agree that it is very easy to get away without speaking Italian here. I even wrote that in my blog post too! Once thing I have heard and learned is that no matter how bad your Italian is, or even if you mix it with Spanish, they do appreciate the effort, and they are nice about helping you learn. I think Italian is such a beautiful language and like you said I also “haven’t given myself the opportunity to have an affair with any other” language besides English. But we are lucky because we are given the chance to be submerged in this culture and learn Italian on a different level than those sitting in a classroom in New York.

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