Moving Forward in a Backward Manner – From Tour Guide to Student

Tea Time near the Duomo

After my recent post about leaving Bus2alps, I have been repeatedly pummeled with a single question: What now? Friends and family from home, friends here, and even some that I haven’t spoken to in ages want to know what is next in my non-traditional life. I wish I could tell you. But the fact is that it isn’t as easy as that. I can’t just blurt out an answer that will solve all of my problems. But I found a small, temporary solution for the time being.

Working with a student-travel company that has a customer base almost completely of american students, even though I have been living in the heart of Tuscany and dating a Florentine (for those of you that don’t know, though, Rami is absolutely fluent in English and sounds American – which doesn’t help my situation), my Italian speaking skills are male – aka “bad”. More like terrible. It has come to the point where my non-american friends immediately switch to English when I enter the conversation. Shop owners (if I don’t dress correctly) welcome me with “hello.” What a tragedy I am.

Because of this and because I now have time on my hands, I have decided to go back to school.

I set off one morning in the Italian sunshine with a simple list of language schools that I thought looked promising. Finding them is somewhat of a challenge at times, for the first few I entered were in old palaces – set on the upper levels of grand staircases that left me out of breath. I’d have to stop before the doorway and collect myself before going in (I also need to start going to the gym again if you haven’t noticed) – then decide if I was going to attempt to ask for information in Italian or English.

A few were boring – the women at the desk uninterested in me. Some lazily shoved papers across the counter with price lists, while others dragged their feet in true Italian lackadaisical fashion while I followed, peeking in the classrooms they motioned to on my “tour.” I wasn’t impressed and slightly nervous that I was expecting more than I could find. Rami was getting frustrated with me sitting around the house with nothing to do and knowing how much inactivity made me restless – even after only a week. I needed to find something.   The last school I looked at that day was the one I chose. Located near the church of Santa Croce, Parola is a small language school that just so happened to be referred to me by my friend, Jess Dante, who now runs The Abroad Guide. Because it was later in the day, the school was quiet when I walked through the door, but a man was behind the desk, speaking with another potential student in rapid Italian.

My speaking Italian is a catastrophe, but my understanding has gotten significantly better in the past year so I could understand down to what type of classes she was asking about, but whenever she walked out the door and he turned to me, I faltered.

Voglio…lo stesso…di lei,” I pieced together – and even though that isn’t remotely correct for numerous reasons, he smiled and began the conversation in Italian – which, as a respect thing, made me feel better. It’s like when you let a toddler dress themselves for school. Probably can’t do it, probably will come out with a tutu, two left shoes, and a belt around their face, but they want to try and feel important so you let them struggle until they decide to ask for help. He continued with Italian for a bit but then did transfer over to English once it was understood I couldn’t possibly ask the questions I wanted to ask in Italian. He explained that I could begin a class within the week if I wanted to, and told me that it would be 490 Euro for a month-long group class with lessons Monday through Friday for four hours a day. When I asked why this was so inexpensive compared to the other schools I had looked at, he grinned and shook his head.

“We aren’t trying to push up prices just because we can,” he shrugged as he did the chin-jut that most Italians do when words seem to fail for a situation. If you want a demonstration, I’ve found myself doing it at times as well. Body language Italian is another whole class in itself, though I believe it is much easier to pick up. He introduced himself then as the director of the school, Simone, and said he had even taught in Boston College for a few years.

“We’ve kept the same prices for years because we can afford to,” he said. “It also allows our classes to be full. We don’t want to offer a class, and then not be able to fill it. We’re here for you; we’re not going to take your money just because you expect higher prices in Florence.”

He persuaded me to take the evaluation test right there, even though the school was officially closed for the day. As I struggled through the questions, mumbling apologies the entire time over my shoulder that this was the first test I had taken in three years, he was very patient and simply waited for me to finish. He told me I was an advanced beginner and that I should start class the next day.

After that interaction, with genuine care about me enrolling in his school, and even though I was out at a club until four in the morning that Monday, I dragged myself to school last Tuesday at 8:45 and began a pretty intensive course that involves two hours of grammar, and then two hours of conversation. I couldn’t be happier.

Though I’ve talked up the school so far, and the first few days have gone extremely well, I’ll wait until I finish the program before I review it fully on here. Hopefully after a few more weeks, I’ll be able to at least begin to insert myself in the Italian conversations that happen in front of me every day.

This week has been a little hectic with the World Championship Cycling Races being held outside my window and I’ll try to write a post about that a little later, as well as a follow up as to my plan for life after my class is up. Because obviously a month long class doesn’t really fix my long-term predicament. But for now, I’m focusing on parole or “words” for a bit.

**Thank you to everyone who has supported me through the past couple of weeks (nevermind years) and helped me with their advice, or simply just listening to my stories and complaints. You don’t know how much it means to me. And of course, a special shout out to my Mum, brother Ned, close friends here and at home, and Rami. Without you, I’d just be empty words on a page.

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Tourist or Traveler

 My heart races as we turn corners going too fast, but I can’t tell the speed because my mind can’t calculate the difference between miles and kilometers quick enough.

 “Daiiii!” Pleasseee! I playfully beg with the driver, an Italian with jet black hair and light blue eyes. My friends told me they think he could be dangerous. They said I should be careful, being in another country. All were worried, and stayed in our little apartment blasting American music and drinking too much cheap wine. None knew Italian. None wanted to know Italians. But I ran through the narrow alleys painted with graffiti to meet him anyway, and now he’s driving me towards a surprise. He laughs at my plea to slow him down and punches the little car up the hill faster. I am flying without wings.

Giacomo knows almost no English except for lyrics to his favorite American songs and the words “hello,” “washing machine” (because he thinks it’s amusing), and “girl”, my nickname. I speak to him in Italian, asking him again to tell me where we are going. “Aspetta, girl.” Wait, he tells me, and I pretend to pout as we climb the mountain side on the wheels of a dirty, white Italian Fiat. I close my eyes and listen to him changing gears, and feel the switchbacks on the narrow road we ascend. We had left the cobblestone roads of the city hours ago. Now the pavement is smooth, the air is colder. My heart races as adrenaline pumps through my body. I look down at my leather boots and skin tight jeans. This place has transformed me into an Italian-American hybrid. My instructors tell me I’m losing my American accent when I speak Italian. I wear too much eyeliner. I can maneuver my stilettos between the cracks of the cobblestones instead of falling into them. I want to smoke cigarettes.

Giacomo slows the car and maneuvers us onto the edge of the cliff at the top of the mountain and turns to me, anticipating my reaction.

 I look out onto Ascoli, its medieval towers illuminated in the night; encircled with dark arms of the two rivers that kept the town safe from enemies in the centuries before. I look over to him and he smiles at me, knowing I approve. It is like constellations on the ground he says to me, it is like the stars have fallen from the sky and created a city. I agree with him. And this is my home for now;  La citta delle stelle. The city of stars.

 

My time in Ascoli Piceno, Italy educated me in Italian culture far more outside of my classes than within them. I drove up to the rooftops of the world with Italians, not a tour bus. I had Italian friends. I shopped in their stores. I ate the local food, and ordered it in Italian. This is what is needed when travelling. Instead of sitting at the first restaurant you see, take a side road, take a back road, and ask the locals where to eat. You’d be surprised what you find. If you’re staying for a decent amount of time, live like them. Be a chameleon. Buy an outfit that you can fade into the background in. Watch the world around you go by without attracting attention to yourself as a tourist. If the women wear heels simply to walk around their daily errands, you wear heels not flip flops. If the women are more covered in the culture, cover more. Learn enough of the language to get by, and don’t be afraid to use it. It is simple to ask how much something is, even if the person you’re talking to speaks English. Break down the tourist stereotypes and step into a world you aren’t comfortable in. Listen, learn, and love.

The world is different to the tourist and the traveler. Which one will you pick?