I will come right out and say it now – I have taken being a native English speaker in an English speaking country for granted. Growing up in Canada in a fourth-generation Canadian family, English was naturally my first language, and French my second. No matter where I went in the country, I could communicate, or at the very least, understand. I rarely stopped to acknowledge what an immense form of privilege this was.
In Florence, it’s a whole other story.
Before I moved abroad this semester, I did what many of us probably decided to by hopping on the website “Duolingo” and trying my hand at a couple of introductory Italian lessons. Hoping that this would allow me to get some of the basics down – like “where is the _____?” or “How much?” – I spent several hours talking to my computer and refining my accent, which was carefully modelled after the computerised voice that was teaching me. Despite my best efforts, and the website’s contention that I was “20% fluent,” I arrived in Florence perfectly able to say “la mèla” (the apple) and “il latte” (the milk), and very little else. Quick glances at Google Translate were my best bet early on (ok… they still are), mostly for food related inquiries to ask if a meal was vegetarian at a restaurant, or to figure out what I was actually buying at the grocery store (thank God that “pasta” is universal!)
Yesterday while checking out at my local Conad (grocery store), my cashier and the customer behind me in line began speaking excitedly to me in Italian, gesturing to the cash register and pointing at me. It took several seconds of heart palpitations and desperately trying to decipher their gestures, before I could muster an apologetic, “Scusa, non Italiano!” The woman told me that it was OK, before rushing me over to a stand of drinking glasses behind the register and putting one in my bag. Seeing her smile, I smiled back, and said “grazie!” I still don’t know what was going on, but I think I got a free drinking glass?
Moments like these are a reminder that even with a language barrier, kindness is transcendent. As they always say, actions speak louder than words do, and local Italians demonstrating hospitality and helpfulness makes me feel like less of a burden when I can’t communicate.
Similarly, my initial hopefulness that retail workers or waiters would be able to speak to me in English is fading, and being replaced with the desire to hear “non Englesse” instead. This weekend at Carnevale in the picturesque seaside town of Viareggio, my friends and I were elated to be some of the only people that we heard speaking English throughout the massive festival. “We’re like locals,” we thought. Who needs English when you have great food, amazing floats and dancers, and a sunset over the beach?
Not being able to speak to one another can strip away the inessential and reveal what is really important, and more often than not, these are moments of kindness and joy. Without words, I must think about the impact and value of my actions and let the culture, flavours, sounds, and sights speak for themselves. As a generally opinionated, chatty person, the opportunity to sit back and observe is refreshing and is a behaviour that I hope to become more comfortable with during my time away.
Nobody needs to tell me that Italy is beautiful – I can see that for myself, and there is no language that can truly put that into words.