An American in Italy

This narrative on my time abroad explores the importance of literacy.

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Written for my college english class. Enjoy.

Literacy is a dying art. We’d much rather travel the world than sit down and read another mandatory chapter from J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye for our high school English class. But why not combine work and play? Why not go abroad and read the foreign signs? Why not learn a few words from another language and hold a small conversation with a stranger? After all, literacy is everything.

April of 2014, I was on the other end of the spectrum. I thought, well, sure literacy is nice and all, but it’s rather simple. We all know how to read and write at this point in our lives, so who cares about developing it any further? The truth is, being literate in your first language is what’s easy; but being literate in a secondary language is as laidback as stapling water to a tree. Moreover, being literate in the country you were born in is a piece of cake, but in another country a different story arises. This is that type of story.

I was given the opportunity to travel with 24 other students in my high school to Italy for a week over spring break; more so Rome, Florence, and Venice for a few days each, and Assisi and Padua for a few hours each. I was ecstatic, due to my partial knowledge of the language and the fact that I’d been yearning for a place other than New York City for the longest time. Still, I was expectedly apprehensive as I hardly knew anyone, and being the shy girl I once was, I figured I’d mess up my bilingualism when the wrong time came around. Spoiler alert: that time did come around several times.

It began the first night in Rome, having only been in Italy for 12 hours, when I got incredibly sick. It was late at night, and my group and I were nearly 500 feet away from the Pope as he spoke to Rome’s citizens and tourists. We found a good view outside the arena in which he spoke, the only downside being the fact that there were hundreds of others who had the same view, and who pushed us up against the metal lattice without remorse. I only lasted around ten minutes before realizing my health was deteriorating at a fast pace, and combined with my sudden loss of knowledge concerning my location and the nearest bathroom, the panic attack I began to have was perfectly excused. It was a scene to behold; all I could do was push against the tide, screaming “scusi, scusi, scusi!”, translated to ‘excuse me,’ while searching for a sign that read ‘bagno,’ meaning ‘bathroom.’

Eventually I rushed into a heavily populated restaurant and begged the hostess for bathroom directions, stuttering through the sentence ‘Io ho mal di stomaco,’ meaning, ‘I have a stomach ache.’ Sparing many details, after a lot of time passed, she finally pointed me in the right direction and I made it to the communal bathroom. Subsequently, I locked myself in a well lit, but very unsanitary stall. The cherry on top, though, was the fact that during this whole episode, I managed to hold a conversation in Italian with the woman in the stall next to me, as she thought I was trying to break into her stall and my attempt to try and convince her that I was not going to disturb her failed. We never saw each other face to face, not that I’m complaining. If she and I were to make eye contact after that awful experience, I don’t think I’d ever be able to speak another word in Italian.

The following days went more smoothly than my first night, seeing as I got nearly front row seats to the Pope’s mass on Easter, I got to trek through the coliseum and the Vatican Museum, and I got to wander aimlessly around Rome. Wandering in peace is such a good feeling, one I wish continued throughout the whole trip. However, the first night we were in Florence, our tour guide decided it would be a good idea to purposefully ditch us for the whole day, leaving us with a small pocket sized map and a pep talk on the topics of safety and wandering. All I could think of at that moment was when my friend Kimberly got left behind on a subway car in Paris, and had no idea what to do. If you think about it, we were in the same situation, as Florence can be seen as one giant subway system, but then where is the subway car? The answer: my brain. Utilizing that map, even when I hardly knew what was written on it, my brain became the subway car, ready to bring me to the necessary locations.

Unsure of my ability at that time, I handed the map over to one other girl I was with in a group of three, and she lead us through the ever so picturesque city of Florence for the next few hours. We went to lunch, we posed in front of a knockoff David statue, and we had a conversation my mind can no longer remember. The plan with the whole group, 25 of us, was to meet back at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore by dinner time. However, the leader of our trio took us on a wrong turn and we quickly became lost. You may say, as J.R.R Tolkien did in The Fellowship of the Ring, “not all those who wander are lost”. Yet, would you guess what happened? We got unbelievably lost. As the only one in our miniature group with any knowledge of the language, I was given the map, and after translating all the signs and comparing them with what’s on the map, I managed to get the three of us to our meeting spot in record time. At that point, I became very confident in my proficiency.

Soon enough, day turned into night and our whole group went wandering around Florence in search of a suitable place to get some comfort food. At one point during this search, a man came up to me and basically forced a rose with an elongated stem into my hand. All the while, he was calling me ‘bella’, or beautiful, to which I couldn’t help but force a smile. In the back of my mind, I took note that something about this was off, and well, trusting your gut instinct is one of the most important things a person can do. There was a possibility that he had a literacy problem, as ‘bella’ seemed to be the only word in his vocabulary for the minute and a half he was flattering me. A few members of my group stood next to me, and although we had several differences in terms of the level of attention we all received from this crusty middle-aged man, one thing we did have in common was that none of us knew what to do. His broken record player voice droned on before his expression turned angry. In the span of a second, he began punching his own hand while glaring down at me, shouting at me in the language I thought I knew pretty well. I had dusted off my old middle school Italian textbook months before the trip commenced, read every page twice, and made a thick stack of flashcards, only for this? I unintentionally spoke and wrote Italian in my Spanish class frequently enough, for this? For a greasy man to shout at me, leading me to freeze up with an appalling look of bewilderment? I was petrified to say the least, until my group leader came over and shooed him away. He snatched the rose from my hand and walked off after calling me a ‘stupid American’ several times. My group leader, who had traveled far and wide in Italy many times, explained that he was demanding money from me in exchange for the rose, which, by the way, I could’ve just picked up for five euros at a stand outside my hotel.

In addition to all the major events that happened throughout the week, there were many minor events that put my literacy in a secondary language to the test. Every time the group would walk into a restaurant, café, or any place where no one spoke a lick of English, I was the one expected to fulfill the orders. One sentence would begin with ‘per me’, and every other was ‘per lei’, followed by an array of different specialty dishes or knick knacks. Furthermore, the moment there was a foreign sign, menu, or brochure, all eyes were on me. Although it felt nice to be needed, it got very tiring, very fast. Now, I’m not hinting that they all should’ve learned the language, however, google translate may be shitty, but it gets the job done.

In an article about literacy, Austin Dickson states, “The ability to read is akin to breathing. If you breathe easily, you don’t think about it, but if you struggle with breathing — with asthma, allergies or sensitivity to summer smog — you have a profound understanding of its importance in daily life.” Moreover, reading, and literacy itself, in some cases, may only be grasped when our lives rely heavily upon its function. The moral of the story is; we take our literacy for granted sometimes. While we may feel secure in the safety of our own environments, once we step into a new realm, the game changes completely. Without literacy, everything is one giant jumbled mess, and overall, the correlation between society and communication would be entirely different than how it is currently. Simply put, there would be absolutely no way to effectively interact with one another.

If not for literacy, my trip to Italy would’ve been a nightmare. Sure, there were extremely good things that happened, including but not limited to, washing my feet in a bidet, taking a calm ride on a gondola in Venice, trying hot chocolate made of a melted dark chocolate bar, and when I smuggled sand from a beach in Venice through the airport in a pair of socks. However, it didn’t hit me until this narrative began to take flight that without literacy, I would’ve puked on some random person’s shoes and/or gotten lost in Florence. Either way, I still would’ve been called a stupid American by the uncivilized man with the rose.

With love, Alyssa

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