Three weeks in Sicily taught me some fundamental Italian skills. I could make pasta al dente in ten minutes. I could brew coffee over a gas stove rather than a plug-in machine. I could even navigate the rule-free roads as a biker and pedestrian.
There were a few complications too though... My first pasta was a bit too al dente and one of my failed attempts at coffee came close to explosion. There was also a minor motorcycle to car collision as a result of an abrupt stop I made while biking…
However, these challenges were nothing compared to the toughest one of all—living in Italy without speaking the language.
I hoped the combination of advanced French and basic Spanish was all the study I needed. I even let myself be fooled by the vague sense of familiarity in the Italian sounds; like “festa”; resembling the French “fête” or Spanish “Fiesta”.
When combined with the generous Italian gestures, these clues helped me fake my way through understanding. My best attempts at conversation were just bad Spanish cloaked in a French accent. Besides this, my Italian was nonexistent.
I felt ashamed but I think sometimes the Italians felt worse. Often they would apologize to me for not speaking English better.
“Yes but we are in Italy!” I would respond. “It is up to me to learn Italian not for you to learn English.”
“Well, I should know English to succeed in life. Even in my city. I must learn.” one Italian replied.
Sadly, there is truth in that statement.
After Italy I came to Thailand, where I face the same reality. This time, there is no faking my way through the language. This time I accept the tough truth that traveling without speaking the language only makes the problem worse.