It had just stopped raining and I was looking for a dry bench to sit on when this woman approached me. Usually this sort of thing wouldn’t worry me. However, conversations with strangers have been a cause of much stress recently. The minute I realized she was looking at me and walking toward me I got nervous. I tried to avoid eye contact but it was too late. She was going to say something to me and not just anything but the type of thing one stranger says to another about a wet bench in a piazza in Italy. So I prepared myself for what was to follow. I would reply with “non ho capito” and walk away feeling like an idiot because I am not yet capable to talk about wet benches with strangers.

I am living and studying in Arezzo, Italy as part of UR’s exchange program with the University of Siena. When I arrived on January 25th my knowledge of the Italian language didn’t consist of much more than random phrases my grandparents recall from their youth.

I wasn’t really affected by the language barrier until my third day when we went to hear a speech at a local school. We were there to listen to Liliana Segre, a Holocaust survivor, describe her experiences in a concentration camp. Our program directors informed us that she would be speaking in Italian and there would be no translation. This was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. I sat there completely lost, watching others start to cry as she told her story.

That night I opened my Italian textbook – Prego! An Invitation to Italian – eager to see what I’d be learning the following Monday.

Chapter One – saluti e epressioni di cortesia, in classe, alfabeto e suoni. This chapter proved to be especially helpful in my initial interactions with the Italian students with whom I live. After that chapter, I could say “Piacere! Una lavagna!” – Nice to meet you! A chalkboard! – like a native Italian.

Chapter Two – una citt italiana, genere e numero, buono, presente di avere. This chapter was even better. Not only could I now ask for directions to the local cinema, I could tell people how old I am and compliment their cooking!

With these chapters under my belt, I found myself sitting in a restaurant surrounded by seven Italians and one other student from the UR whose Italian abilities rivalled mine. Let’s just say that at one point I had to enlist the help of a more advanced Italian student to explain to a woman I had just met that I didn’t actually mean to say, “I dreamed about bringing you to Venice with me.” Mentally exhausted, I walked home after dinner and realized what I needed – verbs!

Chapters Three and Four were the answers to my prayers – presente dei verbi in -are, -ere, -ire. All of a sudden I found myself thinking something in English and realizing I could say it in Italian. Verbs are great! I arrive! She learns! They eat! We listen! I have! You attend!

It was after this chapter that I went to the post office to buy some stamps. I looked up the word for stamps – i francobolli – and walked right up to the woman and said, “cinque francobolli per stati uniti, per favore.” Unfortunately, she decided to reply with words other than the ones I had memorized for our interaction. After asking her to repeat herself and still not understanding, I replied “grazie” in a moment reminiscent of middle school when I would ask the teacher to explain a math problem and after several attempts, finally fake a moment of illumination and sit back in my seat, defeated. This wasn’t just a math problem. The study abroad office warned about this moment when the “honeymoon” period ends and culture shock sets in. Well, my honeymoon with Italy was over and I found myself in a marriage lacking the communication necessary for a healthy bond.

I am determined to make this relationship work. The study abroad office talks about the importance of keeping a sense of humor when dealing with culture shock. Well, I laughed really hard when Pamela – a waitress at Bar Centrale, where I eat lunch every day – offered me a glass and said something that sounded like “Dany.” Thinking that she had mistaken me for another one of the UR students, I replied, “Grazie ma mi chiamo Alison.”

Later that day, I heard several other people say this mysterious word that sounds like “Dany.” Upon further investigation, I learned of the word “tieni” which means “take.” When said quickly, “tieni” sounds a lot like “Dany.” That’s when the reality of that conversation with Pamela hit me. She handed me a glass. I replied, “Thank you but my name is Alison.”

So, it is with these experiences in mind that I stood there, waiting for the stranger in the piazza to speak. She did and I was confused. But I didn’t lose hope. Why? Because I had studied Chapter Five – passato prossimo! That’s right. I could talk about actions or events completed in the past. I arrived! I ate! You learned! She studied! So I stayed strong and this stranger and I found a dry bench to sit on together. Her name is Susanna and she moved to Italy five years ago without knowing any Italian at all. She said that after three months, she was speaking, writing and reading. I hope I can say the same one day, but before then, I have about 13 chapters to go.

Delpercio can be reached atadelpercio@campustimes.org.



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