The elderly Italian woman stared at me in confusion. Her hands propped her small but solid body up against the counter. Her eyes were straining to be polite behind her thick glasses. I tried again.
“Do you have any orange juice,” I hopelessly repeated, making a drinking gesture with my hands. Once again, the woman forced a smile and pointed to the cooler filled with Coca-Cola and beer.
As an American, I found the thought of traveling to a place where the national language is not English daunting. Of an animated and somewhat goofy disposition, I soon discovered that these traits do not provide a compass for navigating the language barrier. On the other hand, if you wish to incite confusion, frustration and even rage then knock yourself out.
I settled on Coca-Cola, realizing that my feeble attempts to remember the Italian word for “orange” could possibly steer us closer to the storm. I don’t even like Coca-Cola, but I am terrified of being seen as one of those Americans. We all know who they are. Those Americans: the ones who talk louder when they realize that a request was lost in translation; those Americans who flee to McDonalds when they find that not all Italian restaurants serve spaghetti; those Americans who butcher Italian phrases with a few misplaced and harsh sounding vowels.
But sitting in this café, with my icy Coca-Cola tingling on my tongue, I am reminded that I just may be one of those Americans. Within moments my spirit floods with the depressing notion of being completely isolated in this country. The next weeks will be lonely and awful, I mourn.
But as I was imagining my inevitable failure, something happened. A man walked into the café to order some food. He was holding a large scoop of gelato on a cone with a mound of whipped cream on the top. As he ate his delicious treat, the large creamy dollop found a new home under the man’s nose. By the time he was finished, his face resembled an Italian Santa Claus.
The elderly woman behind the counter and I burst into uncontrollable laughter at the ridiculous sight. When he turned and saw his reflection, he joined in our laughter as he reached for napkins to correct his appearance.
This moment of shared joy opened my eyes to what could possibly await me in the coming weeks. As a foreigner, I am bound to make mistakes and humiliate myself when I try to communicate. However, I should look at these humiliations not as failures, but as opportunities to speak in a language that everyone understands—humor. Humor is a language that transcends differences. It lightens awkward moods and releases inhibitions. Humor allows us to break out of our norms and to step closer to others. But, as a safety net, always make sure you know a few Italian survival phrases.