Wandering Words in Italy


This past week I found myself in Milan and Como in Italy. This was my second trip to a country that spoke a language entirely foreign to me. Luckily, I have taken Spanish courses which allowed me to understand and communicate simple words and understand many signs/phrases. In some ways, this also made me feel much more welcome than I felt in France. Some of my preconceived ideas of Italy ended up being inaccurate, especially the culture of the cafe, and food culture. I often go into cafes or restaurants with an Americanized idea of getting in and getting out. Swift dining. However, in Italy the culture was very much hospitality first. My orders were taken and I was left to stay as long as needed without any disruption whether it was at dinner, in a cafe, or a pub. Instead of feeling like a pure exchange of services it felt welcoming, and like a place to just be.

In some ways, oddly enough, I felt a bit frustrated at times because of how laid back things could be. None of the tickets I purchased were checked on public transit, and it seemed as if nobody paid for their tickets. I also found myself in a grocery store without self checkout, where most of the customers in line were chatting with the cashier very slowly. Although I felt more oriented here than in France, I still felt very much out of my element when I was greeted with “bonjourno” or “ciao” as I entered a shop. Or sometimes when I was greeted with a phrase I didn’t understand, such as a butcher asking me questions, I could only communicate with hand signs. I felt like I was still getting used to saying “bonjour” and “merci”, so at points I nearly responded with merci. It made me think twice about multilingual people and the potential confusion that can come from that, and the complexities of thinking in multiple languages/cultural norms. Human culture can be so similar yet different at the same time.

These experiences in other countries make me realize how much I take for granted back home, especially in terms of communication. But most of my experiences ended in good humor. I usually could get a laugh at an awkward experience, or in many cases the person understands that I’m just an American who only understands English and flashes a knowing smile or nod. People were always friendly and curious when I mentioned living back in California, which always made good small talk. An Italian man on the train assured me that I’d made a good decision visiting Como, which I had only decided the morning of.

Of course the food was wonderful as well as the sights like the Duomo of Milan. Indulging in Bolognese pasta, spaghetti, and authentic Italian pizza also became the highlights of my culinary adventures. The initial shock of navigating cultures where English isn’t the norm is gradually fading, fueling my newfound desire to revisit Spanish and embark on a journey of learning some Italian and French!