His eyes averted my gaze as he opened the door and sheepishly smiled at his clumsy attempt to befriend a “local”. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself as I saw first-hand an American through the eyes of an “Italian”. The irony was lost on no one after Anthony blew our cover as authentic Italian students when he responded with a “howdy”. But for a split-second in time I was living the double-life I wish I had. A timid American foreign-exchange student inside - savvy, fashion-forward, empowered Italian woman on the outside.
The boy’s shyness and embarrassment made me wish I didn’t have the same reaction to every Italian I came in contact with and I vowed to try harder to speak the language throughout the day. (Each time I have an Italian exchange I can’t help but think of this scene in Love Actually). One of our translators, Silvia, explained to us how her English was not good and she was so embarrassed to speak to us sometimes. I thought she was crazy because I would kill to have an exotic accent and be able to effectively communicate with the people around me. Although many Italians have politely asked me and several of my friends to refrain from speaking Italian because it is “too hard”, I will continue to stumble over rolling (more like slurring) “r”s and ditching a Spanish accent. The most frustrating thing about the language barrier is my background with Spanish. I can understand a lot of what is said to me but am unable to respond or voice my own opinions without the conversation turning into a game of charades and pictionary (patent pending upon arrival to the states).
Some residents are more than patient and understanding with our incompetence. This morning Amy and I went to the police station. The officer sat and listened to Amy read a script, gently smiling at her mispronunciations and poor grammar. After a few minutes he spoke to us in his native language with simple words I could understand. After twenty minutes Amy had an interview date and a promise of legal documents.
At a certain point you have to start to climb barriers that isolate you from the outside world. The barriers come in many different forms; making friends with 25 strangers in two days, trusting students you’ve never worked with before in a team setting, and having the courage to strike up small talk with any “local” you see.
With every “ciao” I’m feeling a closer connection to my surroundings and the country I will be living in for the next four weeks.