Tuscany 2017: For the “I don’t speak Italian” Traveler

I am in the bad habit of saying “merci!”, “gracias”, “gracias muchas”, when I want to be flippantly thankful. And si signor/signorita when I am feeling playful.

I learnt Swedish as an young adult. A process that stretched my patience, my self esteem & my intelligence to their thinnest. In my learning exhaustion, I have been very resistant to learn any new language in adulthood.

San Mignano wineryImagine my pleasure then, when I decided during this Tuscany trip that I will learn Italian! Even if I just manage to learn the basics, I will learn Italian.

It is not that Italians don’t speak English. Most Italians speak lots of good English. But; every day, we found someone who spoke very little English; like the little restaurant where we had the most wonderful quiet breakfast on our last day in Florence. The husband was totally dependent on his wife to listen to us & translate for him. It was a young-ish couple too!

Computer says No - Old Man
Foooor F#¤k’s sake!

We had booked a retreat to Diecimo Pescaglia in the Borgo a Mozano province. It is a nice hidden oasis hidden in the hills just 20-30minutes from Lucca. We arrived at the Diecimo-Pescaglia train station to find an abandoned station with an empty office. An old man was was approaching us at snail speed. Slower than snail speed. We were glad to wait because we needed to ask him if we could order a taxi or something to take us to Borgo Giusto Hotel. He eventually arrived. We said a jolly gracious Buongiorno! Buona sera! He answered back. In Italian.

We were so impressed with ourselves we looked at each other proudly. We then remembered why we had been waiting for him.

“Scusi signor, can we ask you how to get to Borgo Giusto?”

He stopped kindly to look at our printed booking, and read the address.

He said “I don’t know. I don’t recognize that. I cannot help you. Bye bye.” In Italian.

We, in unison asked “taxi?” we got kindly head shakes and finger wiggling.  “oh no. no taxis here. if you walk up the street there, you may find someone who speaks your language & can help you”. In Italian.

We turned in the direction he pointed & saw a man unloading his bags from the trunk of a red car. A Volvo. I am convinced that one of us said “oh! another tourist! we can ask him!” We dragged our 3 bags – we were 2 adults – towards the car. By the time we got to the car, the man had gone into the building. We thought it was a B&B so we were relaxed. There were 2 men standing outside, one quite old, another middle aged.

Scusi, can you help us call a taxi, call the hotel, or something to get here? – we were pointing at the print-out of our booking. Both men of different ages poked their noses into the paper, got into a long dialog with pointing wiggling fingers, head shakes and nods. “We don’t really know, but, it must be behind the hills. Far. And there are no taxis to take.” In Italian.

We: “English?” in english

Middle aged gentle man: “Non. a little French or German.” In Italian

What the holy f£$€!

Me a little edgy: “telefono” pointing at the telephone number to the hotel.

The gentlemen spoke among themselves a little more. heads shaking. laughter.

We were stamped. The oldest gentleman pointed at the younger man and says a lot. “he will drive you. That’s his car.” more pointing. “if anyone can find it, he can. He is great, fantastico, the guy pf the month!” In Italian.

Middle aged gentleman took our 3 bags to the car. We are young, we help out.

snaky circling roadWe had no idea what kind of contract we had signed or how much it would cost us. Trust in the lord. Or not. We needed to go places and someone was willing to take us there in any language. We got into the car.

Middle aged gentleman made a call on his mobile, spoke to a friend. In Italian.

“hola Montalbano! do you know where Borgo Giusto is!? two idiots I have to drive there! they seem nice, but totally lost. Can’t speak Italian either! Who doesn’t speak Italian??! Morons, that’s who. haha! siiiiii, round the bend? turn by the big oak? I know which one! oh ja, the yellow ones? they smell nice!” In Italian

For 15 minutes he spoke on the phone. We drove through a small village or market. I felt relieved. There were people here, behind the big hill. He hang up. And kept driving. Turned right into the bushes, by the big oak tree, on a winding road.

I am brought up in Africa. I am trained to depend on & trust other people’s kindness. Ubuntu. We are one, you live, I live, you die, I die. The wars for crude oil, land & other resources continue to rage in total disregard for ubuntu. My Swedish travel partner is brought up different. I have no idea how. He was fidgety, wondering if we really should trust this which we couldn’t understand. I kept my hand on his hand. To transmit calmness and trust.

Borgo Giusto ViewAfter 25-30 minutes drive, around the bend, after the old fig tree, we saw the hotel parking lot. A wonderful view, worth paying for. We were here. Since we didn’t know how much we agreed to pay, we gave our gentleman a note. It was not too big & not too small.

“no. it was my pleasure. I am glad we found it & that you are safe. Shall I help you with the bags?” In Italian.

We are Swedes, I say, My name is merry-traveler-1 and this is my person, calm-traveler-2, do you want to join us for a drink? In English. All is lost in translation. He drives off with a smile.

Weddings.
A couple taking photos in Florence. After their wedding I suppose. It is a universal language, isn’t it? the language of declaring eternal love to another person in all sorts of ways.

I am amazed at how much we can communicate with others without words. I am so happy to find that my childhood trust in basic kindness is intact. We are so humbled & thankful that with all the changes and online-lives, someone in Italy is still concerned about the safety of young people traveling in the unknown.

This happened to us so many times, I could write a story for every day. Not always someone driving us somewhere, but someone helping us out in Italian. Gladly, kindly & memorable.

Byron Lord.
I wonder if Lord Byron learnt Italian? […] But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:   My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,   And my frame perish even in conquering pain;   But there is that within me which shall tire   Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;   Something unearthly, which they deem not of,   Like the remember’d tone of a mute lyre,   Shall on their soften’d spirits sink, and move In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love.
Tips:

  1. Dont need help
    Ask for help! you will need it. We all need help sometimes.
  2. Relax! I believe if you only ever speak with people who understand you on the first try, you never really learn patience or appreciation of the simple truths.
  3. Plan some margins in travel. That way, even if you are a little delayed by language hitches, you still have time to listen in another language. It is part of the experience.
  4. If you are even a dot of the control freak that I am, you need to relinquish control & trust in basic human kindness. All is well if you find one person who is willing to listen & reply; even in Italian.

Safe travels!

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