In The Art of Travel, 3. Communicating, Florence by Andrew Cohen1 Comment

Part of me wishes that I saved last weeks story for this week. Much of what I had to say about language I expressed in last weeks piece. Although, I have found myself making strides since that encounter asking for a bus stop. When I wrote that piece, I had a sincere belief that my Italian would  become stagnant. Florence is, for better or worse, a tourist town. Everyone speaks English, from shop keepers to ticket salesmen at the train station. Everyone. It gets to the point where many will stop you dead in your tracks if you attempt to speak Italian, just knowing that their English is better than your attempt at Italian will ever be. There are times, however, where knowing Italian really does give you the upper hand.

I’m writing this post from the Italo 16:33 to Roma Termini. Taking the train through the Tuscan country side is amazingly breath-taking, and I recommend that everyone who visits Italy make the journey. But what train should you take? There are currently 2 companies that operate on the Highspeed line here in  Italy, Trentalia (the nationally run company), and Italo, a startup that entered the market roughly 5 years ago. Italo’s disruption to Trentalia’s monopoly on high speed travel has allowed some price wars to occur, driving down the overall cost of travel…unfortunately, Trentalia is still run by the government. Which means, if there ever is an outage on the line, Trentalia has the right to divert all Italo trains so that they can make up the time…further delaying Italo. That’s what was happening to me.

I was supposed to take the 16:14 to Rome, but that was delayed by 30 minutes…then 40…then 50. Each time the board showed an additional delay, a flurry of American tourists would flock to the singular ticket counter for Italo, asking if they could change trains. Many of them (like me) had tickets that were the “Low-Cost” fare, not allowing for any changes. I can imagine that by the 12th American screaming that they should be refunded, this man was sick of English speakers. Eventually, from what I could overhear, if anyone started speaking to him in English, he’d just tell them there was nothing he could do as the tickets could not be changed. When the delay clicked northwards of an hour…I decided that enough was enough. I needed to get this ticket changed, and I needed to do it in Italian.

I approached the ticket counter, and immediately went blank, completely blank. Couldn’t even remember “ciao”. When the agent said “yes?” I figured that the game was up, and I should just ask in English…but for some reason I didn’t. I remembered all the wonderful lessons of Italian 1 and 2 about needing things, and I said that I needed to change my ticket. He took the ticket and said something along the lines of “this is the lowfare, you cannot change that”. I retorted that I had to get to Rome to see my family, who would only be in town for 3 days, and every hour mattered to me. “Un momento”. I couldn’t believe it. He keyed in a few buttons, and then printed me a new ticket. In Italian, he let me know the train was leaving in 2 minutes, and that I needed to run to platform 11. I thanked him, and I ran.

And here I am, watching the snowcapped Tuscan mountains pass on my right as I get served my free glass of cheap white wine (no complains, I can’t tell cheap from expensive anyway). Language is obviously a means of communication, but it’s also a way that we humans bond. Sure you could say that it was prejudice to give something to an Italian speaker and not an English one, but something tells me he knew the whole time that I was an American. I think my willingness to go out of my comfort-zone and accommodate his language when so many others wouldn’t is what gave me a ticket and left 20-some others left waiting for another hour. So, when given the option, don’t be afraid to use the language skills that you’ve been studying or that you’ve picked up. It may well be the difference between getting to Rome or sleeping in Santa Maria Novella.

(Image: An Italo Highspeed train on Italy's intercity line.; Source:


  1. Andrew,

    This was a great story to read right after taking the Trentalia to Venice this weekend. Relying on any kind of public transportation here in Italy is never easy. That being said, it is very enlightening to hear how your attempted Italian saved you so much frustration. I so often find myself stepping back and reverting to English as soon as someone sees through my “Ciao!” and greets me with a “Hi, how are you?” I guess it wouldn’t hurt to keep prying and try my best to learn more and push through my American comfort zone – who knows where it will take us!

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