If you are an enthusiastic Italian student like me, when you land in Italy, you can’t wait to depart the plane and dive into the language. Non vedo l’ora di parlare in Italiano! (I can’t wait to speak in Italian!)
As I stand in the baggage claim waiting for my luggage to come trundling down the carousel at Fiumicino, the first sounds of la bella lingua make me giddy and put a smile on my face. I strain my ears to pick up snippets of lilting conversations as fellow passengers, now back in their home country, flip open their cell phones and reconnect with friends and family: “Ciao mamma! Ho appena atterrato! Ci sarò tra poco!” As I pass through dogana (customs) and brightly and distinctly pronounce my first words to an actual Italian: “Buon giorno!” Sono americana e sono contenta di essere tornata in Italia!” I am “felice come una pasqua!” (happy as a clam!)
When I was a newbie and still very fresh to the Italian language, I used to be quite shy about conversing with madreglingua (native Italian speakers). If I could go back in time and change this about my youthful self, I would do it in a heartbeat. But back when I was student in Florence, I was caught in a web of adolescent insecurity and feared sounding like an idiot or making a bad impression, or as the Italians say: “fare una brutta figura.”
I remember standing in a check out line in a Florentine grocery store, repeating over and over some pleasantries that I could exchange with the person behind the cassa (cash register). When my turn came, I mumbled a few things, finishing with the phrase: “Grazie, Lei è molto gentile!” Unfortunately, my cleverly crafted lines were whispered so quietly that the person for whom they were intended never even knew I was speaking to them in Italian.
Clearly, over the past couple of years, all this has changed for me. These days I don’t let an opportunity to engage local folk in conversation pass me by. I have become quite la chiacchierona (chatterbox)! What caused this evolution from shy, shrinking violet to curious loquacious Italian conversationalist? At some point, I made the decision to join the party and start dancing!
I decided that I simply couldn’t wait to know every verb, preposition and conjugation before opening my mouth to speak. I realized that the worst thing that could happen to me is that someone might correct my grammar or—horror of horrors—my pronunciation! So, instead of waiting for the day when I was a perfect linguist, I chose to swallow my pride and embrace all conversations with native Italian speakers as precious opportunities for learning and improvement.
Fortunately for me, this particular epiphany occurred rather early on nella mia curva di apprendimento (my language learning curve) and it happened in the small town of Gubbio in Umbria. It was in this medieval village in the green heart of Italy where I first learned that if I threw caution to the wind and struck up a conversation with local Italians, amazing things could happen. I made the conversion from being a typical tourist in Italy and student of the language to someone who could embrace the language, call it her own and create meaningful connections and friendships with local people.
As with all great realizations, mine occurred over a glass of red wine late one evening in a wine bar just off the beaten cobblestone path. I was traveling with my husband, and before turning in for the night, we decided to enjoy un’ultimo bicchiere di Sagrantino (one last glass of Sagrantino - wine of the region). Despite a lovely stay in Gubbio, this particular evening, I was feeling a bit disheartened. Throughout the trip I had been cautiously clutching my Italian conversation skills close to my breast, doling out a few words here and there to disinterested waiters and bell hops. To say the least, conversations had been lackluster and disappointing.
Right then and there, I made the decision that this night I would unfurl my Italian skills, which up until now had been tightly packed at the bottom of my suitcase, and unleash them on some unsuspecting patron in the bar. Preparing to step out of my comfort zone, I spied an elegantly dressed man who was also sipping a glass of hearty red wine and tentatively began to introduce myself. The charming man responded with a smile and told me his name. Next, I hesitantly began to ask him what kind of music he liked.
As I continued engaging this gentiluomo (gentleman) in conversation, soon the waitress and several other Italians had joined the dialogue. None of them spoke English, and even though I was struggling with tenses, mixing up prepositions, and racking my brain for the right vocabulary, these people waited patiently for me to finish my sentences, as we had no other language to fall back on. I wasn’t speaking perfectly, but it really didn’t matter, because I was being understood and I was interacting with Italians. In fact, they were all quite delighted that un’americana was making the attempt to speak with them in their own language!
Conversation with my new friend was progressing nicely, when all of a sudden he stood up and said: “Venite con me! Vorrei mostrarvi qualcosa!” (“Come with me! I would like to show you something!”) As I translated this to my husband, he showed signs of alarm. The thought of following a stranger out into the deserted streets of Gubbio seemed a little unusual. But I was feeling confident with my language skills and elated that I was finally conversing and communicating in Italian. I didn’t want the moment to end.
We accepted the invitation and followed our friend up and down the moonlit streets of Gubbio, until we came to a shop at the end of a narrow alleyway. In front of the shop’s big wooden door, our new friend pulled out a set of ancient oversized keys. He slowly undid the lock, swung open the door and flipped on the lights. We were immediately greeted with the powerful scent of tartufi (truffles)! The aroma was positively, deliciously overwhelming.
It turned out that our new friend was a truffle hunter and had brought us to the shop where he sold the precious mushrooms he hunted in the hills of Umbria. He explained to me that he was also a chef who enjoyed making marmalades and sauces from his delicious bounty. Elated that we were interested in his work, our friend began opening up bottles of wine and jars of his “truffley” concoctions to try.
The evening had taken a marvelous twist--suddenly at midnight, we were enjoying an impromptu party with a truffle hunter in the middle of Gubbio. As the truffle hunter continued to enlighten us about his work and offer us samples to try, I couldn’t help but pinch myself. This was a dream come true. Not only was I making a new friend and conversing in Italian, I was sampling delicious truffles and getting a first-hand taste of local culture.
After that night, I was hooked on Italian conversation! It was the first time that the Italian language quite literally was the key that opened a locked door to a new and lovely experience. Had I not mustered my courage to speak in Italian to this man, I would never have had that delightful midnight party in Gubbio. Not only was I using my language in a meaningful and enriching way, I had also made a new friend.
The midnight “truffle” picnic in Gubbio also made me realize that to have more of these kinds of authentic conversations, it is important to travel outside of the big cities. Meccas that are spilling over with foreign tourists, like Rome, Florence, and Venice, are not the best cities for a language learner to work on conversation skills. Often times, busy local waiters and impatient desk clerks, sensing a hesitant language learner, will switch abruptly to English, stymieing any hopes of establishing a connection or having a conversation. If you want to engage real Italians in conversation, it is my recommendation that you avoid the big cities. Instead, take yourself on a road trip and travel out into the country to discover lesser-known parts of Italy, where little to no English is spoken.
The Gubbio experience was the springboard that launched my loquacity. It taught me that amazing things can happen if you move beyond your comfort zone and loosen your tongue and talk! Forest Gump coined the phrase: “Life is like a box of chocolates... you never know what you’re gonna get!” Well, in my opinion, speaking with an Italian in Italy is like a box of chocolates… you never know where the experience will take you, and, you just might learn a new thing or two about the Italian language and culture!
For additional language learning tips and suggestions, visit the Studentessa Matta website. Click on the tab “Learning Ways to Improve your Italian” and you will find more learning resources, websites, YouTube channels, blogs, books, and music ideas to spark your interest and help you practice Italian.
Hero Image (Facciamo Quattro Chiacchiere!) by Author (Melissa Muldoon)