Daily Failtales: Week 4

The awkwardness of running out of things to say in Italian

I’m getting better at holding conversations in Italian–or at least in a mix of broken English and broken Italian. However, my speaking abilities and vocabulary is still very limited. And most of what I know how to say is meant for an introductory conversation–my name, my university, what I study, how old I am, how long I’m in Florence, how I like Florence, what I like to do, etc. Likewise, I only know how to ask a limited number of introductory questions, too–your name, how you are, what you do, how old you are, etc.

A classic Scott Pilgrim & Ramona moment of awkward smalltalk and then abrupt silence.

So, once I burn through everything I know how to say, there is always this awkward, silent ending to the conversation. Even worse is running into the same predominantly-Italian-speaking people who have already had this conversation with me. It’s like an exchange of “hi,” “how are you?” “bene, grazie.” And then that’s it. I literally don’t know how to say or ask anything more that wouldn’t be either repetitive or ridiculously random and frivolous. So the conversation just dies, and we’re left awkwardly staring at each other kind of nodding our heads. Then I just casually turn around to my friends, or shrug a weak little “Allora, ciao” and walk away. Real good socializing.

LESSON LEARNED: Prepare some new, interesting conversation-makers in Italian before going out to places you frequent.

That time I [un]successfully bargained for heels.

I had been on the hunt for a pair of black heels–black heels that could go casual or fancy, weren’t too high, were 60 Euro max, and had thick enough heels to rough the cobblestone streets. I found them. They were 80 Euro. After clearly stating that they were beyond my price range, trying them on at the shopkeeper’s insistence anyway, and spending a long time pretending I didn’t like them that much, I got offered a special deal of 60 Euro: BAM, in my budget.

I was so proud. My friends thought I had gotten pressured into the purchase, until I told them I was just bargaining him. Then they were proud too. I felt awesome, in awesome heels, with an awesome talent for bargaining Italian shopkeepers.

Then I wore them out for a second time, on a longer journey than the first night I wore them. And what the hell!? My heels felt like they were going to break off at any second. They were sticking to the street and then jarring in random directions, and I felt and probably looked so awkward. Now I’m determined for them to feel right, just for the sake of my dignity 😥

LESSON LEARNED: Succeeding at bargaining yields no success if the product sucks in the first place.


So, the manager/bartender of the pub down the street who I’ve befriended decorated the pub with a bunch of random masks for Fat Tuesday. One of them was this absolutely horrifying clown mask of a creepy looking joker with a terrifying smile and popping eyes. I couldn’t stop looking at it. It was GLARING at me. I kept telling my friend that it was going to give me nightmares. So he covered it with a paper towel, and then from his perspective behind the bar, the joker’s eyes seemed to be creeping on HIM now.

So, the next day I made this sign for him. The words say “No strisciante” which means “no creeping” …except he told me that I apparently translated “creeping ” as in a worm creeping along on the ground. He laughed at my mistake, but still hung up the sign by the creepy mask nonetheless 🙂

LESSON LEARNED: Google Translate can be wonderful, but will not always yield the translation you’re really seeking.

Italian Haircut

I didn’t intend to get bangs, but I got them. This experience I blogged about yesterday: “Pulled an Audrey Hepburn: My New Italian Haircut

LESSON LEARNED: When getting a haircut from someone who speaks a limited amount of your language, either bring a picture, or truly go in with the attitude to let the hairdresser do whatever he/she is envisioning. And remember, it’s only hair 🙂


A month…ALREADY?!

I cannot believe that I’m already one month into this journey…

On the one hand, it does feel like I’ve been here for a while: I’m settled in to a place that feels like my home and my city. I’m a regular at a grocery store, a convenience/wine store, the corner caffe, and the bar down the street. I’ve bonded with a couple professors. I’ve befriended locals. I’ve said yes to a myriad of new experiences–from attending a discothèque, to cooking handmade pasta, to taking a flaming Sambuca shot, to attempting to read an Italian book, to playing poker with Italians and more. I’ve learned more information about Renaissance history than my brain could possibly retain. I’ve mastered the art of walking cobble-stone streets in heels. I have a running route around the Arno. I rarely need to use my map. I spend free time sitting at piazzas and sites without the urge to take pictures, but just to enjoy the atmosphere and read. I can form sentences in Italian and am–for the most part–past that helpless deer-in-the-headlights phase. I successfully bargain with shopkeepers. I prefer Italian bars over American student-packed bars. I’m confident and comfortable, and am often mistaken for a local because of it. And I feel like I’ve done laundry about 18 times already.

But on the other hand, there is still so much to do, see, and taste! I have visited some churches, but have yet to enter most of the major sites–the Duomo, Uffizi, Palazzo Vecchio, etc. I haven’t completed one sketch yet. I haven’t met enough new people. I still get lost (in the sense of taking indirect side streets towards an intuitively correct general direction). I’ve only traveled outside Florence once so far. I’ve only been to a handful of bars. I’ve only dined out a few times. Hell, I haven’t even eaten gelato yet.

Yet, every day and night is full of rich experiences.

These weeks and days are flying by faster than I’d wish. I’m making sure to make every day count, but that still does not leave me with nearly enough days! I did, in a sense, unfortunately “lose a week” from being so sick. And the recent Ice Age of Florence lasted up until only several days ago. But the other factor is that I’ve just found a few favorite places to go, things to do, and people to see–enough to regularly keep up some extent of repetition. This is repetition I enjoy, that still holds its aspects of unexplored excitement. But for now on, I’m making an extra effort to really seek something truly new each day, in addition to what has become familiar. This week, I shall climb the Duomo, visit a photography museum, enter the Baptistery, go out to dinner, try a new bar, buy a ticket to see a Fiorentina vs Cesena soccer game, and speak more Italian. And it all starts now… Off to the Central Market for the first time (finally) to gather some delicious fresh ingredients for a [hopefully] delicious dinner tonight 🙂

Daily Failtales: Week 3

Less language-barrier/cultural-differences fails than usual! Yay!

The Fall of Elisabetta, 2012 A.D.

You’ll find that stairs in the old structures of Florence can sometimes be awkward to walk up/down, and that stairwells can feel a little too narrow and dim. Well, when walking down one of these narrow, dim stairwells of awkwardly-spaced stone steps, I clumsily managed to slip or trip. This was at the top of this series of stairs, so I had quite a tumble ahead of me.

As soon as I felt my body falling forward, my instant reaction was LEAN BACK. (Last year I broke my two front teeth, and have been traumatized about rebreaking them since). So, I gracefully leaned back and knelt down, sinking back my weight towards my legs and backside–the only split-second option I had to prevent gravity’s beckoning of my teeth to concrete. Alas, I slid down the stone stairs on my shins, then quickly popped back up to continue walking on. It hurt quite a bit, but sacrificing the shins was far worth preventing another dental disaster.

Good thing it's not sundress season yet...

The I understood, please? 🙂

I’ve finally become more quick and natural with speaking Italian in shops, restaurants and with locals. (Still can neither speak much nor well, but I’ve graduated past the deer-in-the-headlights stage for sure). When I meant to ask for the bill for our table at a restaurant (Il conto, per favore?), I accidentally–and very confidently–said “Il capito, per favorte?” (The I understood, please?) …Such an ironic verbal mistake to make, since I clearly did not understand what I was saying.

Architecture student wannabe-student

Not gonna lie, my architecture class in Florence makes me feel far more sophisticated and artistic than I actually am. While I produce plenty of digital art and multimedia on the computer, I am quite challenged with actual hand-drawn sketches. When visiting sites in my class, though, I seem to forget the latter. And apparently I add really useless annotations too. Any students glancing at my notebook or trying to copy from behind me must think I am really special.

Heather spotted this in my notebook, and couldn’t help mocking me (well-deserved) and taking a picture.

I’m not as stuck-up as I seem

While in a store browsing some items, I noticed an Italian gentleman who kept looking over at me. While I was indecisively mulling over a potential purchase, he came over and greeted me, “Buona sera.” Then he continued to speak to me–a little too-quickly for me to translate his Italian or even understand the gist of what he was saying. So I just shook my head and walked over to the other side, where he followed me to. Then I kind of just shook my head again and crossed my arms saying “No,” like you sometimes have to do when someone is hitting on you. Finally he walked away…behind the cashier desk. He was an employee–not some random Italian guy hitting on me.  I felt mortified for being so rude and seemingly stuck up when he was just trying to help me 😦

Daily Failtales: Week 2

Continuing from my Week 1 recap of Daily Failtales, here’s some more funny little tales of fail from this past week or so:

Casually strolling through the Strozzi, nbd

Credit: italyguide.it

My Architecture class takes place in the Strozzi–the same building Day 1 of orientation took place in. Hmmm, this looks different than last time, I thought as I wandered into the Palazzo Strozzi for my first class. I obliviously strolled through an enormous, lavish room that reminded me of Mr. Darcy’s mansion in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice. As I looked around for any doors or stairwells, the construction workers inside looked at me. Oh shit…I’m not supposed to be in here, am I? Realizing my error, I hurried out the open door on the opposite side, puzzled. DOVE IS MY CLASE? I thought, as a construction worker at this doorway shooed me away. I then joined a student in walking to the Strozzi common building next to the Strozzi PALACE of Florence that I had just casually strolled through.

LESSON LEARNED: If the building’s interior looks like a palace, it very well may be. So do not continue walking through.

Mouse Maze

The grocery store around my corner is set up like a maze. It begins with the produce, and takes you through a one-way adventure of zig-zagging isles until you finally reach the cashier at the end. While purchasing my food, the employee was trying to tell me, in Italian, that I needed to weigh my produce before. Non capito, and I didn’t know what to do at this mid-purchase moment. There was someone behind me in line, so I said, “I’ll just go put these back then?” and hastily did this awkward speed-walk/jog/gallop through the damn maze of isles until I finally reached the produce section at the start, put back the bananas, and hurried back to the cashier to finish my payment. Hopeless.

LESSON LEARNED: Weigh your produce before paying.

An unintended walking tour

My textbook-purchasing errand involving four different copy stores and bookstores somehow turned into an unintended 2 to 3 hour walking tour all over the city of Florence, thanks to a few wrong turns and some unexpected traffic areas to get around. On the downside, I was carrying around what became a heavy backpack, and the heel of my boot broke on a cobblestone street. But on the upside, I had the fortunate experience of wandering into the final scene of the 1991 version of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves–minus the fighting. (Your movie tastes must be infiltrating my brain here, mamma). I have no idea what church this is, but it has such a beautiful medieval look to it!

LESSON LEARNED: Keep getting lost in Florence, but wear better walking shoes.

That time Chelsea caused a Fiasco

Chelsea, Heather and I finally built up the courage to check out a local bar on our street last Friday night, which we had been very curious but very intimidated about. “Ciao,” a tall, gorgeous Italian man standing outside the door greeted us as we walked in. We ordered beers at the bar and took a seat in the corner, slowly getting acquainted with the place. “Yeah, I can definitely see this is as a good go-to place by our house,” we were agreeing, feeling quite comfortable and pleased with the atmosphere. [Cue fiasco].

Brawny, I think I found your next spokesperson for a brand image makeover.

Apparently the table was wobbly, and with a little kick, Chelsea accidentally clonked the table enough to knock over the beers. Heather’s lap, the table and the floor were soaked in birra. The locals looked at us. The three of us looked at each other with that “Oh shit” look, and before we could get up to seek paper towels, that gorgeous Italian man appeared out of nowhere holding a giant roll of paper towels. “May I help?” he asked. Where the hell did he come from? we were all thinking.

“You know,” he said while beginning to wipe up our mess, “you didn’t need to spill your beers to get my attention.” He then introduced himself (in perfect English!), and we found out that he is one of the owners–Paolo. We conversed a bit, telling him that we are students here and whatnot. A little later, he brought us [very undeserved] drinks on the house…but asked that we drink them instead of spill them.

LESSON LEARNED: No crying over spilled beer–it might lead to something good.

Is this lotion?

Heather kindly ran some errands for me today. Personal products can be confusing to purchase when you can’t read Italian, though. She picked up what looked like a bottle of body lotion, and tried asking the barely-English-speaking employee to make sure. Apparently, it was lotion to be used for–errr, intimate purposes. The old lady behind her gave a strange look. “Ooooooh!” Heather laughed, “no, no.” So she picked up another one, which the employee nodded to.

At home I started rubbing it on my skin and instantly knew something was off when a clear, kind of sticky fluid came out. “Ummmm,” I said to Heather–not wanting to sound ungrateful for her running my errands, “this doesn’t feel right.” I inspected the container. “Detergente fluido,” I read. “Detergent? Did I just rub detergent on my arms?” We laughed about it and typed up a bunch of the text on the container into Google Translate (one of our dearest friends here in Florence), and gathered that it’s some kind of cleanser for the skin–but not soap. Honestly, I don’t know what it is!

LESSON LEARNED: Italian translation for “lotion” is “lozione,” and “intimita” means “intimacy”–as in for-sexual-purposes.

Italian cuisine [in casa]

Allora, as I shared in my last post, I’m house-bound for a few days until I get well. But even within il casa, there is plenty of culture to talk about….like the differences between my cooking/eating habits here in Italy versus back at home in the US:

1. Oldschool coffee-making

This interesting little contraption brews a mighty strong coffee in a magical way. It’s a small, three-part metal device. Water is poured into the bottom, coffee is scooped into the filter that is placed on top of the water, and then the pitcher-like layer is screwed on top, empty. I turn on the gas valve and light up the stove (yes, that’s oldschool as well), and after several minutes of heat, coffee magically starts emerging in the top. I still haven’t mastered the proper quantities to make a perfect cup of coffee, but at least I learned how to actually make it!

2. Low-quantity/high-frequency grocery shopping

In the United States, I tend to grocery shop once per week or so, buying items in bulk and stocking up to last a whole week or more. Here, it’s totally different. My housemates and I find ourselves going grocery shopping about every other day. We have a small fridge that isn’t as cold as in the US, we usually are paying in cash, and there are so many grocery stores just a quick walking distance away. There is also a great selection of fresh food, which is best to use right away.

3. Fresh, flavorful ingredients & Less processed foods

We succeeded in making the perfect sick meal 🙂

I am thoroughly enjoying the quality of most ingredients here. My meals feel more nutritious and wholesome, revolving around fresh vegetables, olive oil, fresh herbs, and delicious cheeses. This is my preference at home too, but it’s too-often dominated by the readily-available quick-and-easy processed fixes.

This afternoon, some of my housemates and I made a delicious chicken noodle soup from scratch. While it wasn’t difficult at all, it’s something I’ve never done at college in New York because there is always a colossal collection of canned Progresso soup in the closet, which would only take a few minutes to make. I’m not only learning to cook more home-cooked meals, but learning to appreciate them more, too!

4. Fancy cooking fancy

...The first pasta dish I made here. May the last one be 10x more delizioso!

Taking the time and creativity to prepare a delicious dish has been an enjoyable requirement here. Maybe it’s the availability of great ingredients; maybe it’s the pleasure of having more free time in my day; maybe it’s the inspiration of the cultural love for food here. Whatever the reason may be, I find myself constantly attempting to level-up my cooking skills and invent interesting variations for meals.

6. Vino, vino e vino

There are bounteous places that sell cheap bottles of delicious wine. I’ve found some excellent red wines for only 2 to 5 Euro per bottle. My housemates and I are enjoying trying different Chiantis (a key wine of Florence) and various Tuscan region wines with our dinners. Sometimes I’ll even make a meal out of wine, cheese, antipasti and bread. Mi piace molto 🙂

Credit: Heather Ayvazian

Ghetto Laundry-hanging

...our mighty little washing warrior

My six housemates and I have been desperately avoiding the dreaded task of laundry since our arrival in Europe. We’ve lowered our standards and raised our creativity to reuse, mix & match, and conserve the limited amount of clothing we could bring here.

This weekend, we finally reached that point that left us no choice but to inevitably take on the daunting task of doing laundry…all in the same two days…without a dryer.

Our apartment has one small clothes washer in one of the bathrooms. It fits a little over half of what’s a typical load of laundry for me at home, and the wash cycle takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes. You cannot use the oven during this time, or else the power will go out in our apartment.

While washing is not luxurious, it is perfectly manageable. Drying, however, is where the struggle exists.

Careful not to get clotheslined in our living room / dining room / hallway 😉

If only that light produced heat...

There are two drying racks in our house; there are seven of us. (It is rumored that a third drying rack exists, but we have yet to discover this lost treasure).There may be a clothesline hanging out someone’s window, but fa freddo (it is cold), and we don’t see any neighbors hanging clothes outside from our courtyard window view.

So, we combined out domestic laundry skills with typical Boy Scout survival skills. Never have we had to implement such strategic knot-tying and optimization of spacial resources.

On the downside, we have clothing hanging all over the place–our common room, dining room, bedrooms, hallway lamp posts and dartboard. On the upside, if our apartment were to be entered by burglars, they’d probably be intimidated by what appears to be intricate twine booby-traps all over the place.

While we’re making due with this ghetto laundry-hanging system for the first time around, we do have a few concerns:

  1. How long will these take to dry?
  2. How baggy will stretchy clothes become without a heated dry?
  3. How long can we tolerate having wet laundry hung in every view of our apartment?
  4. How mortifying will it be when we have family visits and guests over?

Desperation at its classiest.

There are two self-service laundry places on our street, which two of my housemates have already used. (Imagine how ghetto we’d get if none of us used it this time around)! Most of us are trying to avoid using a laundromat, because the small but pricy 3,50 Euro dry cycles will add up quickly. But this may be a resource worth allocating for 😮


(Written January 27th)

They say the cycle of culture shock is “Honeymoon” phase and then a “Crisis.” But I think it happened backwards for me: today, I finally took a 360 from from the jet-lagged anxiety I’ve been feeling, and fell under the spell of this city’s charm.

The more I explore and try new experiences, the less foreign everything feels. Suddenly things that seemed terrifying are no longer scary. Places that seemed unapproachable are no longer so intimidating. And aspirations I hope to do no longer seem so far-fetched.

The more I explore and try new experiences, the more I appreciate this city. It has the same excitement, diversity and containment that I love about New York City. But it’s more relaxed, inviting and beautiful. (Sorry, NY). Every corner I turn has a unique sight to admire, and everything I taste is just amazing. Businesses will close to spend time with their families in the afternoon, and a 2-3 hour dinner of indulgence is a norm.

Sure, there are still many uncomfortable situations that may feel scary, intimidating, embarrassing or stressful. But I cannot learn without making mistakes (like botching an order or making a wrong turn), and I cannot appreciate this city without trying new things. Every little positive experience I have feels so much more significant than one would expect, and every little negative experience is becoming easier and easier to blow off. Bye, Crisis. Ciao, Honeymoon!

Credit: Heather Ayvazian

Credit: Heather Ayvazian