By Courtney Flagg
I can take away a lot of things from my time in Italy. I remember sipping espresso at a bar in a forgotten alley behind a magnificent basilica. I remember wandering the rows of fresh produce in the daily markets in Piazza dei Signori and Piazza Erbe in Padova. I remember getting hopelessly lost in the streets of Siena and miraculously making it back to catch the correct train home. My memories are laced with beautiful images of classic Italian architecture, rolling hills and snow-capped Alps. But my most important abroad experience can’t be expressed in a picture or in a simple, but pretty, description.
The Italian town I studied abroad in was not like Rome, or Florence, or Milan, where English is just as common as the national Italian language. In Padova, a small fraction of the population speaks English. Many shopkeepers, restaurant owners and coffee baristas don’t know English at all, so speaking Italian is absolutely imperative in order to function as a regular member of society.
I had been warned before leaving the United States that the program I was to participate in was a real immersion program. But it took nearly my whole five months abroad to completely understand what that meant.
Of course, the first few hours I spent with my host family when I arrived in late January were uncomfortable. It seemed like the Italian I had been studying the past two and a half years had completely escaped me. I couldn’t form coherent sentences and found myself speaking a mixture of Spanish and Italian in my jittery state, leaving my host family very confused and myself completely frustrated.
I spent the first few days in Padova timidly avoiding having to speak Italian at all for fear of making grammar and vocabulary mistakes. I would craft grammatically perfect sentences in my head so that I could whip them out at my host family’s dinner table while eating gnocchi alla romana or melanzane alla parmigiana. I carefully planned my studying of the street graffiti peppered around town so I didn’t have to interact with locals. These habits lasted approximately four days.
After only a few days, I saw a dramatic change in my speaking and understanding abilities of the Italian language. It didn’t happen on purpose, and it wasn’t planned on my part. It just happened. It was like a switch in my brain had turned on. Slowly I found myself thinking in Italian. I no longer had to think about what I wanted to say in order to say it. Words left my mouth confidently, and I was surprised to find out that I was forming coherent sentences with them. I was finally able to understand my hyperactive, fast-talking host sister, who, according to my host mom, Italians couldn’t understand.
When my parents came to visit me in early April, I brought them to meet my host family. I was deep in conversation with my host dad and was addressing my American dad throughout the conversation, asking for his input. Frustrated by my father’s lack of participation I turned to him only to realize I had been speaking Italian the whole time and my American parents had no idea what I was asking them.
I can’t count the number of times I have invented new English expressions because I forgot the corresponding English word. I once told friends from my program that I had to ‘do a brain appointment’ so I wouldn’t forget to ‘do check-in’ on a RyanAir flight. English translation? “I need to remember to check-in online for my flight to Istanbul.”
Yes, I will always remember the crystal blue waters of Capri, crossing the Ponte Vecchio at night, and first laying my eyes on the Coliseum. But what remains engrained in my mind is the way I was able to haggle over the price of a leather jacket, avoid the tourist fee for museums and gossip with my host sisters because of my ability to speak the native language.
It has been said multiple times, by multiple people, in multiple ways, that spending a semester abroad ‘changes’ you. I refused to believe the cliché that so many people affirmed and hopped onto the airplane to Italy last January convinced I would come back the same brazen, sarcastic and jaded girl that left the United States. I proved my stubborn self wrong.
When I arrived back in the United States in June, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. I was having issues communicating with my American mother and father during the 40-minute car ride from JFK airport to my home in Westchester, N.Y. I was frustrated because I couldn’t say what I wanted to. Except the language I was having trouble with wasn’t Italian, it was English.