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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Another Take on the “Creepy” Italians

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© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

I am sick of hearing you girls complain about it.

“They are so rude,” you say to me as your roll your eyes with a look of disgust. You continue to complain, onward and upward about how horrible your day has become because of this incident. That you feel unsafe here, that you hate this country because there are no “normal” people. That you can’t believe someone would treat you like that. You sit there, with your makeup done up, with your wedges (no heels, you can’t handle the cobblestones) crossed one over the other, with your mini skirt on and your top too low, and you balk.

For many, one would believe something horrific just happened. That you were sexually abused in the street, that you were flashed, that you were grabbed, that you we’re called some slanderous name because of your outfit.

But no, this outburst was simply because three men walked by, looked at you, and mumbled the word “bellissima.” Or, “very beautiful,” “lovely,” “gorgeous.”

Before many comment saying this is wrong, saying that Italians are scary, that they are too forward, creepy, they go too far and grab you on the dance floor and you’ve been in horrible situations, yes, I understand that this can happen – but this is not what I’m talking about. Because before anything gets serious, on those first few days as you explore the city, this will happen to you – you’re going to be called beautiful. Simply given a compliment, and I am still baffled as to why this upsets you.

Take this in stride. They are not getting in your way. They are not bothering you. Usually it is a mumble, as you pass by, as they pass you at a table. Usually there is no harm, these people simply are appreciating beauty. Today, it is the beauty held in your face, your smile, your hair, your curves, your walk.

Someday, you will wake up and do your makeup – complete with wrinkle cream and push up bras, merely comfortable shoes (your feet can’t handle anything else anymore) and your hair colored to match what it once was.  You’ll walk out on the streets (or if you’re lucky, you can visit the cobblestones once more) and you’ll look straight ahead and you’ll desperately pray that someone notices, that you hear that familiar whistle. You’ll look into the eyes of the passerby instead of down at the ground by their feet, and you’ll plead with their faces to give you that look that you once became used to so many years ago. You’ll hope that they do not just look at you, but they see you in all of your beauty.

*Also – if you would like to see the truth behind that iconic picture, click here. The story may surprise you.

Tipping in Italy

When studying abroad or simply traveling, there are certain things that your school, program, or the internet may tell you that aren’t necessarily true. Who made up these info sheets for you guys? Sometimes I wonder if the writer has even been to the places that they’re writing about, or are they simply stealing information from other sources on the web. Because there’s a certain rule that I was even told before flying over the big blue ocean to Italy that really doesn’t hold any water – but I only realized it when I got here and met the people that were getting cheated. 

Fact: Though waitstaff and bartenders do get paid more than in the US, in Italy, tipping is still nice to do – and most importantly, appreciated. Many believe that in the tourist areas the “coperto” or cover charge is in replacement of tipping, and even after excellent service on a 200 Euro bill, get up and walk out with (hopefully) just a thank you. However, that cover charge does not usually go towards your excellent waiter as it should, but simply to the owner. 

 

It has been the case for years that it has been said that tipping isn’t mandatory and I’ve even heard that it is deemed ignorant and rude to tip in some areas. But in most cases, especially in the tourist areas of Italy, a tip is appreciated, if not expected. These people run themselves ragged serving thousands of customers in the high tourist season and truly do not make that much. 

Tipping should simply be the same as in the states. These people are not millionaires off of a waitstaff salary – and bartenders here maybe earn half of what bartenders do in the States. So when you get an amazing Spritz or Bellini, or a Florentine steak cooked to perfection (meaning rare, guys! anything more is a tragedy), throw a few extra Euros on the table. Especially if you’re a regular, the service after tipping becomes substantially better. 

Chameleons in Italy: How to blend from an American to an Italian

We pack a suitcase,two,three – making sure we have everything we need to survive overseas. We pack our favorite jeans, shirts, sweaters and coats, only to find that once we get here, we realize that these favorite things from home may not be the best for life in Europe. We’re branded by our brands and picked out of the crowd and labeled as American as soon as they see our Northface raincoats and Old Navy flip flops. To blend in as an Italian, it is not about hair or skin color – it’s about shoes, clothes, and makeup.

When living in Ascoli Piceno, being one of twelve Americans in the town, I wanted to hide in the crowds of black and purple jackets and on vespas and needed to stop being noticed as I walked down the street simply because of my sneakers. I started to blend, conform to style and fashion, and suddenly, I was an Italian.

I wore knee high leather boots, bought my first pair of skinny jeans, and put on too much black eyeliner. Jean shorts with patterned tights, puffy jackets and converse. I became invisible. Here in the larger cities with so many Americans, it’s easier to simply go out in sweatpants and say yes, I am American. Yes, I will wear my bright colored raincoat and my hair up in a messy bun. But sometimes, it is still nice to be able to walk through a piazza without being bothered simply because you have the right shoes on.

Keys to blending in this season in Italy:

Go shopping. No, not just at H&M but in the shops where you see Italians. Look at what they’re buying and what they avoid. Mirror it.

Ditch the athletic sneakers. Italians have an obsession with shoes. The goal is to find a pair that is comfortable and stylish. Buy them here and look to spend a little money so they will hold up on the cobblestones.

For going out, a pair of wedges gives you the height you need to walk confidently, but won’t trip you up. If you can handle it, try heels for a night. The simple key is to watch where you walk.

Skinny jeans only. All others will immediately blow your cover as someone not from here.

Dark colored coats for the winter. The ski jackets and brightly colored raincoats we are used to are not found here. And if they are, they’re fitted correctly. Invest in an umbrella and a jacket that is warm, but will still hold its own during a fashion night out.

Knee high boots for winter. Flat for everyday, a pair of heels for at night.

But the biggest aspect of being a chameleon in any culture or country, is the way you act. Don’t yell down the street into the early hours of the night. Walk with confidence and try to speak Italian every chance you have. Try. Keep a stone face when walking by men who whistle at you instead of running away giggling. They only want you to react. Wear jewelry and put love into an outfit. Italians create art with how they present themselves. You can do it too. Just have the confidence and your colors will change sooner than you think.