Travelling to a different country has always been a challenging and lengthy task, especially if that country’s vernacular is different from your own. Everyone has big plans of learning a bit of the language before flying but sometimes all one manages to do is learn how to ask where the bathroom is (Americans are notorious for drinking too much). This was my predicament when I traveled to Italy last spring. Luckily, I found solace and adventure in my friend Rick Steves.
Personally I don’t know Rick Steves, the famous travel writer, but I did receive his Italian language phrasebook for Christmas last year in preparation for my week and half long trip in April. Touring and performing in Northern Italy with the music department of my high school, I was with many people with many agendas. My agenda was to learn as much about Italian culture as I possibly could, interact with the people, and overall to just experience the country.
First I learned how to count to ten in Italian. Then I learned how to ask where the bathroom was. DovÃ© la toilette? Wondering how that was going to help me experience the culture (apart from the flushing mechanisms of Italian toilets and bidets), I realized it would take being thrown into the cities to really try firsthand the phrases in my phrasebook.
In Vatican City, I asked one of the Swiss Guard if he spoke English, in Italian. I guess it’s a taboo to talk to one of the Swiss Guard because he turned his back and opened a gate for an important looking car. Also in Rome, due to some crazy connection my choir teacher had, I was able to meet with some Italian students and I acquired a pen pal that I still converse with to this day.
In Pisa, street vendors normally spoke some English so occasionally my skills went to waste but then one of my friends needed to buy stamps. We ended up going into a shady looking Tobacchi (a store that sells taxable items, cigarettes, etc.) where I bartered with a creepy man for the wrong amount of stamps. This awkward conversation never would’ve happened without me looking up such key phrases as Do you speak English?
In Siena I became semi-lost and terrified that I would be late for a parade later that day. Dashing around the steep, narrow streets of the town, I ran by a Carabinieri and half-shouted DovÃ© San Domenica? (Which means, “Where is San Domenica?”- a nearby cathedral). He gave me garbled instructions that I correctly interpreted and found my way.
In Verona and Venice Rick Steves helped me pay for meals with separate checks and decode the menus. I bartered for towels and soap in Hotel Universo, located in Montecatini Terme. Being female, perhaps one of the most exciting adventures I had with Rick Steves was looking up phrases so that I and my cohorts could converse with our incredibly good looking gondolieri, whose name I later learned was Alvis.
In the end I was very satisfied with my Italian trip. The stories and memories are something that I will live with for the rest of my life and they never fail to bring a smile to my face. Nowadays, whenever I observe my poor beaten up phrasebook gathering dust on my bookshelf, I’m filled with a little sadness for the good times. However, I know that with the help of Rick Steves, someday I will be able to take myself back and delve into the culture even more than before.
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