You all know me. I’m extremely pale, with no tan save a few merging freckles, with blond hair. I have absolutely no Italian heritage and even someone who was being extremely charitable probably wouldn’t even concede that I could be from far northern Italy (where there are a few pale blonds amongst the population). In effect, I am obviously, demonstrably, and sometimes damnably not Italian; instantly spotted as an Americana (or, on occasion mistaken for a German). I am also pretty quiet, relatively shy, and co-president of the Mumble Club. My obvious non-Italian-ness and my quiet tendency towards mumbling frequently ends in pretty comical results when I try to speak Italian.
Now, if you add up all the Italian classes I’ve taken and all the time and all the effort, it’s not an insignificant amount. To add to that, I am currently taking a course at a language school here to try to further improve. Bright and early I trudge across il centro and have my brain turn to mush while trying to remember when is the crucial time to use the condizionale passato or the trapassato prossimo. Lord knows, I try. And that’s the important thing I suppose, trying. But sometimes you’re not necessarily helped along. Depending on where you are, and this does seem to happy more frequently in Florence, once you are ID’d as an American (or a non-Italian), Italians (particularly those in the service industry) speak to you in English. Even when I try to persevere with Italian, I often get responses in English. I understand this can happen for many reasons; perhaps at times, the person I am talking to wants to practice their English as much as I want to practice my Italian. But more often I think it’s a near automatic response to non-Italians, which again is understandable. In a tourist destination, it’s savvy to make the tourists feel comfortable. Most non-Italians here are probably grateful for the English spoken by many in the service industry. For me however, it can make me feel stymied and frustrated.
I have also witnessed in the short 8 days I’ve been here more than one instance of the “Ugly American,” who rudely expects their English to be understood in all contexts (particularly earlier today while buying a cell phone, it was ugly and embarrassing and I wanted to apologize to the store clerk on behalf of all English-speakers), so I fully understand why Italians who deal with many, many, many stranieri might have little patience or desire to deal with my stumbling attempts at their language. But I’ll keep trying. And in the meantime I’ll think of this whenever I get frustrated: