Content warning for swearing.
What does any self-respecting person do when their birthday is on St. Patrick’s Day? Probably anything but go to your 5pm Italian class. Lucky for you, you’re not me, so you don’t have to go. However, I am me, and I’m a slut for turning up.
On that particular night, we were learning about Italian café words and etiquette. For a change-up, the teacher played a video to explain the ordering process. I knew what was coming, thanks to events in years previous, but nothing could truly help me get over that bombshell.
‘Un caffè, per favore’
That was it. It was that simple. Just say the thing you want with a please. No, ‘can I…’, ‘may I…’, ‘could I…’ just ‘A fucking coffee, please’. What my classmates learnt in thirty seconds took me thirteen years, and I’m not sure how that happened. All I know is that when I spoke Italian to actual Italians, I might as well have spoken English.
You’re going on a two-week trip to Italy to celebrate your eighteenth birthday, to make up for the fact that your school trip there was cancelled the previous year. You’re so excited. You’re finally going overseas.
In anticipation, you’re going through the tour booklet, browsing all the places you’ve spent a decade studying. Your knowledge of the language is strong; you’re not fluent, but you can pick up all the mistakes in the booklet (do these guys even know Italian?). You’re having a good laugh. You’re so proud of yourself.
Next thing you know, you’re sitting at a bar in Rome about to burst into tears because you can’t figure out how the fuck to order a glass of champagne. Why can’t your mother just drink a can of Coke?
It was here, at the bar of Hotel Fleming, that the seeds of failure were being sown into my mind. If I wasn’t doubting myself before, I sure as fuck was now. I was sitting at a bar with a bartender that spoke no English and I couldn’t even order. Yes, it was my first time using Italian outside a classroom, and yes, it was my first time at a bar in general, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I probably looked like an idiot and the staff were going to laugh at me. Perhaps I should have paid more attention in school?
After all, at this time I’d been learning Italian for eleven years. My school had a very efficient language program: compulsory from prep to year nine, then very intense for the next four years if you chose to continue. They also offered an Immersion program, where students would learn Maths, SOSE, and Science completely in Italian for three years. There were also two extra hours of Italian a week, so when I went to the mainstream classes I blitzed through the work.
Italian was easily the most deplorable subject around the school. As a result, the Italian department was always desperate for students to continue after it was no longer compulsory. The major incentive put forward was the three-week exchange trip to Italy. Every two years, students in the Italian program were invited to go and cruise around the county for two weeks. Fancy hotels, beautiful beaches, and campy tourist activities were all promised to us as a reward. Then for the last week, we’d stay with a host family and go to school with them – we needed something to justify missing the first week of term. This was done in partnership with a sister school in Cremona, a city just an hour east of Milan. The past trips had received nothing but praise from students who went.
Yet as luck would have it, my class would never be compensated for the years we gave to the subject. Instead, I’d just have to settle for a two-week trip with my mother. Yeah, the one that made me cry in the bar.
And that was only the beginning.
The first week of my trip was with a tour company. That meant traveling around Italy with a bus full of strangers who learnt of my speaking abilities once my mother got talking. There was no escape. I’d have to succumb to the peer pressure of fifteen Americans. Everything that came out of my mouth would have to be in Italian, or they’d know I was a fraud. I knew I had all the relevant knowledge, but they didn’t. They weren’t going to take my word for it.
My fraudulent behaviour made its way back into the limelight in Tuscany. Twelve day trips and pit stops were planned for this gorgeous region. With its luscious rolling hills of vivid green and city centres built from thousands of years of history, it was easily my favourite. It seemed to be a favourite amongst my fellow tour members as well. Whether it was for the wine tasting, the heavenly cathedrals, or the Diane Lane movie, we each had high hopes for this leg of our journey.
One town that became beloved by all was San Gimignano. Situated just north of Siena, this medieval wonder overlooked the rich countryside, complete with a skyline of dutifully-built stone towers. The town itself was constructed at the peak of a hill, with the church nestled in the centre, surrounded by residential dwellings cascading down the hillside. We were not only astounded by the classic Tuscan architecture but the sheer incline we were expected to climb.
The hill of San Gimignano extended before us. Ancient castle walls surrounded the centre, creating a safe space for the tourists to roam. We climbed up, admiring the bones of the great structure that once held medieval defences, but now held the best gelato in the world according to TripAdvisor. Our guide gathered us into a quieter part of the square and briefed us on our timetable: we had four hours to kill.
The group broke and I headed out. The tower loomed before me and I took up its challenge. I ascended the many steps, observed the views, and descended the many steps. Then I headed towards a shadowed alley.
The shop was packed with tourists and locals, a great sign if any. The intoxicating aroma of the wood-fire oven snaked its way through the crowd and beckoned me forward. Something, and I can’t be 100% sure it wasn’t the smell, compelled me to turn Italian.
I looked the lady in the eye. I ordered a slice of herb pizza and a bottle of water.
‘Posso avere una fetta dei erbi e una bottiglia d’acqua, per favore.’
‘Of course. That’s three euros please.’
‘Oh, I had the water too.’
‘Yes. Three euros.’
Fuck, that’s cheap. I felt like I ripped her off. Perhaps my Italian confused her and she only charged me for the water? Did I pay for the pizza? Oh my God! Why did I order in Italian? It happened again. I knew my Italian was shit. Is it too late to learn Spanish? Fuck, this pizza’s good!
While I ate, I went over the transaction in my head.
I conjugated the verb correctly, I had the pronunciation down and I even remembered the please. Why did she respond in English? Why did everyone keep responding to me in English? I’m saying it right, I brought my Italian book from high school with me just in case. Do I look that much like a tourist? I wouldn’t have thought so, given my very dark and thick hair, and somewhat prominent nose. I even researched what Italians youths wore around this time and packed accordingly. So what the fuck was I doing wrong?
‘Vorrei una bottiglia d’acqua, per favore’
‘Sì. Natural or sparkling?’
‘Here you are. Have a nice day!’
I walked away from the counter with my friend in tow. Martina and I had met through the exchange program done through our schools. Unlike mine, hers had their shit together and celebrated languages instead of shunning them. They were able to do their three-week trip of Australia, and fate had selected me as her host family. I quickly discovered her English was leagues better than my Italian, so I was dreading speaking anything in her presence.
Especially after what had been happening the last two weeks. Even in the company of actual Italians, no one wanted to speak to me.
I’d expressed this to Martina after she picked my mother and me up from the train station. We were spending a week with her family, and lucky for me, they weren’t very big English speakers. But, to my surprise, they understood most of what I was saying. So much so, they conversed with me. I was fucking livid, to say the least. I’d been in Italy for two weeks and was no closer to figuring out shit.
Catching up to me, Martina flashed a mischievous grin.
‘I figured out your problem.’
‘I’ve figured it out. They’re talking to you in English because they know you’re not Italian. You’re too polite.’
‘What? But, isn’t that the way?’
‘No, it’s not.’ She still has the grin on her face. ‘You only have to say “una bottiglia d’acqua, per favore”. That’s it.’
‘Fuck,’ I stare at her, mouth agape. For the entire trip, my problem was I was too Australian. 11 fucking years of languages and I was too fucking polite.
I applaud as my classmate successfully orders a cup of tea. While bitter, I know there are now eight people who won’t doubt their Italian. I also know there are now eight people who won’t have an amazing story to tell. So, like, who really won?
George C is an emerging Brisbane writer finishing her final year of their creative writing major at QUT. With a passion for the pessimistic, she enjoys taking a darker approach to their work than typically recommended for a normal author. George also writes for Blatherskite, the ScratchThat podcast.