No, non parlo inglese. Parlo solo l’italiano. [In an only slightly impatient tone of voice:] “No, I don’t speak English. I only speak Italian.”
So starts my first phone conversation with an Italian hotel manager. Something you should know: I have only one semester of Basic Italian under my belt, and while I can talk about my childhood experiences and communicate in other basic ways with Italians, I have not yet learned some of the more practical phrases that might be useful while actually living and traveling in Italy.
My Italian professoressa, I know already, is going to love this story.
Wanting to make the most of our time in Italy, a group of us had begun planning a weekend trip to Cinque Terre, a grouping of five towns in Northern Italy that constitute a ‘must-see’ for anyone in Italy looking for a beautiful getaway. We had gotten as far as hotels when we ran into this little snag. Mustering my courage, I replied, Va bene… “Okay…”
I paused for a moment, thinking frantically about how it’s been three and a half weeks since I really used my very basic language skills and so how could I possibly communicate with an actual Italian about hotel reservations and train schedules when I could barely remember how to ask where the bathroom was?!
Think. Breathe. This is not the end of the world. I’m living in Italy, after all—I really (really) should be speaking Italian. Glancing down at my cheat sheet, the few notes I made about what I wanted to ask just in case the manager didn’t speak English, I swallow and said in Italian, “I need to… make a reservation?”
The conversation just went downhill from there. Oh, to be sure, I understood a few words here and there. For instance, when he asked, “Quando?” (When?), I knew I should reply, “Queste fine settimana” (this weekend). And I could follow, somewhat, when he started telling me that we could have two rooms for five people, and it would be 30 Euros per person. But beyond that, he apparently assumed, as most people would, that my “va bene’s” meant that I actually understood what he was saying. There was something about when our train would get in, and something else about looking for him (I think I might have accepted his offer to have him pick us up from the train station, but I’m really, honestly, not so sure. In hindsight it seems a bit far-fetched that he would pick us up, unless I was in fact speaking to a taxi driver instead of a hotel manager. Hmm…). He also, I think, tried to give me his name, but at this point I had lost any grasp of what was going on in this conversation and didn’t even try to write it down.
And I felt bad, truly, I did. After all, that was part of the reason I took Italian this past semester, to be able to hold conversations like these and not feel like such a tourist, expecting everyone to be able to speak English when I, after all, chose to come to Italy.
But if there’s one thing I learned from being able to compare this experience of trying to speak with an Italian over the phone with several other experiences of speaking with Italians in person, it’s this: body language, facial expressions and being able to see the other person’s lips move are all extremely helpful when speaking a foreign language. I honestly don’t think I would’ve done so badly if I’d been able to see who I was speaking with. Honestly.
As I’m sure you all have heard, Italians in particular communicate strongly through hand gestures. And not just dinky little hand-wavings either. I’m talking big, expansive, all-encompassing gestures that put just as much body language into the motion as the amount of chocolate that goes into a cioccolata calda, a hot chocolate, here (and trust me, the hot chocolates are nearly gag-worthy… in a good way)! What I didn’t realize, however, is just how dependent I myself have become on being able to use these gestures and other clues to derive meaning from what might otherwise be an only semi-intelligible string of beautiful words.
In any case, now that that the bewildered yet strangely exhilarating sensation I experienced after this phone call has dispersed, I can see that at the very least I have accomplished one study abroad milestone: I have booked a hotel in another language. (Milestone indeed—just a few minutes ago a friend of mine at the villa booked a hotel for Madrid in Spanish, and as I write another friend is dialing a hotel in Brussels, preparing to do the same in French!) Now if only I could find some way to interpret body language through my ears, I’d be set.