If I had read Botton’s chapter “On the Exotic” in high school, I would have easily made “I am bored. I am bored. I am bored” my senior quote. Like Gustave Flaubert, I, too, grew up with a contempt for the mundanity of my hometown that filled me with an almost unquenchable desire to travel. I used to lay in my room and read travel guides or plan out trips I couldn’t afford just for fun. I was determined that nothing would stop me from circumnavigating the globe. The one thing I did not account for in my meticulously planned trips was the difficulty of overcoming language barriers.
When I landed in Amsterdam and walked to my connecting flight, I was delighted to see that everything was in English or had English subtitles. There was a bookstore with the books all in English. The signs were in English. The guards spoke in English. There were even advertisements for English movies. Considering I was on my way to Italy and the only Italian I knew came from years of never missing an episode of Cake Boss, I was incredibly relieved. I had heard that English was very commonly spoken in Florence, and after my 10 minute stroll through the Amsterdam airport, I was sure that I was ready to conquer all of Europe. 48 hours later, I found myself in a pharmacy, or farmacia in Italian, spending 30 minutes trying to find face wash and toner, because I couldn’t read a single label. Today marks the two week anniversary of my arrival in Florence, and I am virtually just as lost as I was on the day one.
In addition to not knowing the language at all, I am also surrounded by people who look nothing like me. I constantly complain about how few black people there are at NYU’s New York Campus, but NYU’s black population is probably 3 times the size of the black population in the entire city of Florence. That is why a humongous wave of relief came over me when I was sitting at the bar in a club and saw a black guy walking in my direction. It was as though “This Magic Moment” by the Drifters was playing, but the record scratched and came to an abrupt halt when he opened his mouth and only spoke Italian. I had no idea what to do, but smile and say “No parle italiano”, a butchered version of “Io non parlo italiano” which means “I don’t speak Italian”. Somehow this didn’t deter him from continuing to talk to me. I sat next to the man for another 10 minutes as he whispered Italian in my ear. I’m sure he was saying something flattering, but to me, he might as well have been reading a menu, so I continued to smile, nod, occasionally giggle, and say “grazie” when I thought was he was saying sounded complimentary. I think this was my first encounter with dirty talk in Italian, based on a few words that clearly stood out. Suddenly the language sounded far less romantic. Oddly enough, a random Italian guy talking dirty in my ear in a very odd club made Italian feel less exotic and more familiar.
Of course, I wouldn’t phone home and tell my mom how getting hit on in a club was my first attempt at having a casual conversation with an Italian local, but it was definitely an exciting turning point for my trip. Now, I know that even if I learn nothing in my Italian class, all I have to do is sit at a bar and I’ll at least pick up a few dirty words in Italian.