“Ugly American” students in Italy

Warning: Incoming rant!

This morning I spent two hours waiting in the Italian Immigration building to have my number called so that I could be fingerprinted for my Permit of Stay. No, I’m not going to rant about this process of red tape similar to going to the DMV. But, I am going to share some thoughts about the “Ugly Americanism” that I see too much of in Italy–the blatant insensitivity and even disrespect towards the Italian culture that is too-often demonstrated by American students here. Remember–as sitting in the Questura this morning reminded me–we are foreigners here, and foreigners who have been here for enough months to understand respectful etiquette and behavior. There is no excuse for the blatant obliviousness, obnoxiousness, insensitivity and lack of effort to respect Italian culture that portrays you as an “Ugly American” student.

Stop expecting Italians to speak English. If someone walked into a shop in America and asked for something in a language other than English, the shopkeeper would be annoyed and look at that person like he or she is crazy. Believe it or not, this concept works in other countries too! If you are in a country which speaks Italian, then you should expect that the people speak Italian. After months of taking an Italian course [and living in Italy], you should at least know how to say the simple phrases that you need in order to get by…and you should actually use them. It blows my mind when American students capable of saying something simple like “Buon giorno. Posso avere il panino con mozzarella e pomodori, per favore?” will instead ask “Hi, can I have [points to desired sandwich].” Some students will even get frustrated and annoyed with the shop keeper if he/she reacts in a confused manner. You’re in a different country that speaks a different language: why the hell would you just expect them to gracefully receive your speaking in English? Just TRY to speak the Italian you know!–A failed effort at Italian is much better received than an ignorant assumption of English. Furthermore, if you don’t know how to say what you need to say in Italian, then you should first ask if the other person speaks English. “Parla inglese?” is all–hell, even just “English?” can communicate that question. Stop walking up to a front desk and immediately speak in English without any respect for the possibility that the Italian you are speaking to in Italy might only speak Italian and therefore not understand you.

Stop getting frustrated with people for cultural differences. Once again, you are in a different country, so some things will probably be different. No one can make you stop being frustrated with adjustments you can’t handle, but you need to stop attributing your own culturally-conjured “faults” towards the people from another culture. That barista is not a horrible employee for not serving you coffee in a to-go cup: to-go cups for coffee are not the norm here. That waitress is not giving you bad service for not bringing your bill yet: the norm is to not rush your dinner, and to wait for the customer to ask for the bill. Stop evaluating people based on your own cultural norms.

Don’t parade effusive American patriotism. The other night, a bunch of students threw an “America Party” at an Italian bar I was at. They piled in with their red, white and blue and exerted their American pride, even with Italians in the same place. Another night, someone kept hollering an obnoxious “TO AMERICA!” at dinner in a quaint Italian restaurant. Stop making us all look like arrogant assholes, please…


My prospective Italian husband made the big move

Let me begin this post clarifying two major points:

  1. The four-part Spring Break series about Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris is indeed on its way (better late than never, right?)–but I must delay it un po’ more because of the absolutely uncanny occurrence that fate bestowed upon me last night.
  2. Yes, I acknowledge that today is April 1st, but no, this is not an April Fools joke–contrary to what you may suspect. This actually happened.

Allora, it was about 1:30am and Heather and I were on the hunt for a kebab after a lovely evening with some friends at our beloved local pub on our street. The late-night food places in our area generally are closed at this hour, as we’ve unfortunately discovered. But I was fixated on this kebab. We ventured towards the Duomo–where nightlife is always still hoppin’–to seek any of those Mediterranean fast-food places that would hopefully still be open. We were on a mission.

One phone call instantly aborted this mission.

-“Ciao Chelsea, whatsup?” I answered to a call from my housemate.
-“Liz, where are you?” she asked in a dead-serious tone.
-“By the Duomo.”
-“Guess who I just ran into.”
-“Luca the First!” I jocularly exclaimed, and laughed at our inside joke.

(To fully appreciate this story, you’ll have to read the background story about Luca I in one of my first blog posts, “Day 4: Prospective husband? Si.” Back in January, on the first night that my housemates and I went out in Florence, we met an Italian who showered me with compliments and passionate declarations of love in the way you’d stereotypically expect an Italian guy to do. As American girls who had just arrived in Florence, it was hilarious to see the stereotype already come to life. That night was left to rest without any exchange of contact information, leaving us only with a good story and never-ending inside jokes about my prospective Italian husband. (Since then, I’ve also captured the eye of two more Lucas–Luca II who liked my red dress, and Luca III who said “I love you” at “Disegno video giorchi” (“I design video games”). But Luca I is the one who my friends and I continually reference in jokes).

-“You’re kidding.” I was overcome with disbelief. It was only a few hours ago when I had casually used the “that is danger” remark that we often jokingly use in reference to our initial conversation with Luca that first night. We have spent months joking about the unlikely idea of just happening to run into Luca I in the large city of Florence again. Not only did it happen, but he actually recognized my friends and remembered me.
-“Where are you?” Chelsea asked. She and our other housemates she was with apparently all took Luca and his friend to that local pub on our street, where they were expecting to find me. I told her where I was, and she told me they’d be there waiting. The pub was technically going to close soon, although, they always stay open later on weekend nights–especially for regulars.
-“I’ll be right there.”

“Abort mission!” I yelled to Heather, as we instantly turned around from our kebab hunt and headed back to the pub as I filled her in on this freak incident. I was so excited, but also a little nervous, and overall just completely flabbergasted. We were utterly in awe. I’m still amazed.

Walking into the pub was unreal. As soon as I entered, I saw him in the back sitting with the group of friends, and suddenly reached an even higher level of overwhelming disbelief. Usually I greet the bartenders and other regulars I know, but my mind couldn’t acknowledge anything else in the room. When I joined the group, I looked at Chelsea and the other girls, and we just burst into laughter.

Unlike when we first met, this time I could speak and understand a little Italian. So, we were able to communicate a little better–but still with a struggle. I tried to tell him that I was surprised he remembered me, and that I am glad we met again, and that we are still just friends though. When you only know a little vocabulary and a limited ability to form sentences in another language, the “conversations” can get really funny. In order to prevent the conversation from going dead, you either end up repeating the same content a lot, or you end up making random comments on anything you notice and are able to express a a comment on. For example, our conversation consistently came back to how surprised we both were, but with random interjections like “In America, il tuo orrechino significa che, uh, ti piace ragazzi–non ragazze” (In America, your earring signifies that you, uh, like guys–not girls.”) Again, when you’re desperate to form sentences about something relative to what’s present, some funny and random remarks will definitely be made.

A little later, my prospective Italian husband made the big Italian gesture: he bought me a flower from one of those damn flower guys. Mamma mia…

Daily Failtales: Week 5

Why did I eat that?

Today, I went to the annual gastronomy fair in Florence–a trade show of culinary delicacies that infuse the science, art and consumption of food and drinks. (I might go into detail about this in a near-future blog post). Anyway, the place was swarmed by food snobs and buyers in the food industry, but visitors could pay a 15 Euro entrance fee to also access all these fancy samplings of products. So, I skipped breakfast/lunch and made it my mission to make the most out of my ticket. I figured, why not try everything?

WRONG THINKING. Sure, some of the unfamiliar tasted fantastic! But when handed a fishy product on a toothpick, my instinct was “Do not eat this.” I ate it anyway. And then I suffered.

As soon as I put that fish in my mouth, I looked at Heather with this forewarning look of DON’T DO IT. I couldn’t bite into it again, and I could not tolerate the accumulation of horrible fishy taste sitting in my mouth. As I slid towards the wall and frantically searched my purse for a tissue, I noticed bystanders notice me holding back gags. I managed to somewhat subtly spit out the fish into a tissue and toss it away, but THE TASTE WAS STILL SO POTENT. AND SO HORRENDOUS. I couldn’t even tolerate to swallow the tainted saliva in my mouth. I looked at Heather very seriously and said, “We need vino.” So we quickly sought the nearest wine stand. Of course the vendor took her jolly time opening the wine and schmoozing with the wine snobs in front of us. I was dying.

My stomach has felt weird for the rest of the day. Non mi piace. 😦

LESSON LEARNED: Trying new things is part of traveling, but sometimes it’s ok to trust your instincts about not trying food that you suspect you may have a PHYSICAL AVERSION to.

A seriously NOT OK miscommunication

I really enjoy mingling with locals and attempting to converse with them in Italienguish. It generates the most fun, interesting and cultural experiences, but it also lends itself to some of the most mortifying mistakes.

Last night, Heather and I were playing poker at our regular hangout, and had a couple different groups of Italians join us at different points. After a while of playing and talking with one of these groups, one of the guys pointed to my ring and asked if I am married. He then jokingly asked if I am hoping to get married while I am in Italy. (Well, I thought he was joking). So I jokingly replied, with exaggerated facial gestures soaking in sarcasm, “è possibile!” and laughed…except he didn’t catch on that I was joking.

I did not know the translation for “I am joking/kidding/playing,” but Heather tried to see if in English he’d understand “She’s just playing.” He and his friends understood “playing” not in the context of the tone of our conversation, but in the context of the subject of our conversation: they understood it as I am playing around with men in Italia.

That one took a moment to clear up. Good thing they weren’t creepy.

LESSON LEARNED: Either don’t be sarcastic while speaking Italian, or learn how to say “I am joking.” Better yet, if someone asks if you’re married, just say SI! 😀

I’m not crying…

I went for a glorious 7-mile run yesterday…but ran into an issue. The cool air was making me sniffle, and the pollen was making my eyes tear. These were especially affecting me during a part of my run when I was charging up a steep hill–“charging” as in using every ounce of might in me to slowly ascend up the hill like Wile E. Coyote failing at acceleration. As the tourists and Italians atop the hill looked down on me, I realized that I did not only look like I was struggling to run up the hill, but the sniffles and teary eyes additionally made it appear that I was crying. They were probably like, “Poor, fat American girl…too out of shape to run up the hill without crying.” 😦

LESSON LEARNED: Well, not much I can do about this one…

Ho biscotti per tu!

Maybe Monday’s cooking class inspired me to try baking Italian cookies on my own. Perhaps I’ve passed by too many bakeries pervading the smell of fresh pastries. Or maybe my mind feels like embracing International Women’s Day (“Festa della donna” in Italia) tomorrow. Whatever the cause may be, I am going through a baking frenzy.

I’ve been having the itch to bake ever since my Monday cooking class, when we made cantucci di prato (what we generally view as “biscotti” in America–and something my family often makes) from scratch. Then yesterday, Anna, the sweet elderly lady who lives in the apartment below us, came upstairs to bring us a jar of homemade meat sauce and a package of pasta. (Is she the cutest thing ever or what?!) Our “grazie” and smiles could barely do the “thank you” justice, though, because she doesn’t speak any English and we are still just learning Italian. That’s when I decided I have a good reason to bake!

So I gathered a few basic ingredients to make a simple almond butter cookie, because it’d be quick, easy and simple. Then I felt like getting fancy by adding in variations–chocolate in the center for some, a coating of beaten egg with sugar and vanilla extract for some, a topping of sugar for others, and I left a good amount plain. Overall, I was dissatisfied because they tasted too sweet and buttery in my opinion (probably because we don’t have measuring cups, so I was just eyeing everything). Luckily my housemates really liked them, so at least they’re being happily scarfed down 😀

But today, the baking frenzy only intensified. I decided to go all-out and recreate that biscotti we made in class. So I ventured out to gather everything I needed–from almonds to an orange to yeast. I had a blast jamming out to tunes in my apron as I handmade the dough on our kitchen table and infused my own variations to the recipe we learned in class based on my judgment–more orange grind, almond extract, more vanilla extract, and a couple other variations. They came out pretty damn good! (Still not as delicious as yours, Aunt Marianne). I decided to be fancy and top some with melted chocolate, too. I can’t wait for it to harden so I can go deliver a plate to Anna!

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 🙂

Pulled an Audrey Hepburn: My New Italian Haircut

My hair was getting out of control. The side bangs were drooping too long, the shape was completely lost, and my split ends were frizzing out: the time had come for a haircut.

So on my way back from class, I passed by this hair salon on my street and decided to step in to see if anyone speaks English. The hairdressers were these three gorgeous Italian men wearing tight, black V-neck shirts. The guy with the giant muscles and Goo Goo Dolls-style long hair welcomed me. He spoke a little bit of English…enough that I could make an appointment for 6pm this evening, but little enough that it took us about 3 minutes to make that exchange.

My Audrey Hepburn Roman Holiday haircut experience was on its way.

So at 6pm, I walked into the salon and was immediately attacked with butterflies in my stomach as it suddenly hit me: “Shit, how the hell am I going to describe to him what I want?” Through broken Italian, I tried to explain that I only wanted it a little shorter, with improved layers for a better shape, and a new face frame with the side-swipe right along my cheek bone. There was lots of crazy gesturing and facial expressions involved, and he understood most of it…but he had some ideas too.

At the time, I didn’t quite understand everything he meant. His English was by no means bad, but it still was somewhat limited. We especially struggled with the concepts of “layers,” “gradual,” “dramatic,” and “face frame.” As he played with my hair and expressed his ideas, he seemed to know what he was talking about, and I really did want a look that is sexy-standard in Italy. So I told him to go ahead and do what he thinks will look good.

Mamma mia! One moment, hair was blocking my eyes; a moment later, my view was opened up and I could watch my side-swipe fall down to my lap slow motion-style. I didn’t realize he’d be giving me bangs! And bangs with a strange piece that comes out further than the rest–very choppy and odd to me. It was too late to stop him from starting that short, so I just let him go with it, in hopes that his final vision would not look horrendous on my face. Ciao, hair.

At one point–I kid you not–this dramatic violin song played on the radio station. I couldn’t help smirking at the perfect soundtrack to my comprehensive feelings. When I thought he was done, he told me he wanted to [insert something I couldn’t quite understand here]. So I said ok, and he cut the bangs even a little shorter. “Ah, bigger window for your beautiful eyes!” he said. That I did understand. It was around this time when he remarked, “I am dangerous with the scissors.” SI.

Maybe the haircut is bad. Maybe it’s just different and not what I intended. I guess tonight out on my group date con un bello ragazzo italiano will be the true test 🙂 (Yup, just casually sliding that in there :D)

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 😦