Living in a country whose language I’m not yet fluent in has made me more willing to push my comfort zone in all aspects of life. I view risks differently; I interact with people in ways I never did before. I talk to strangers, listen more actively, and most importantly, I seek interactions everywhere I go. And so much wholesomeness has come out of this. I want to share some of these interactions and maybe give you a little hope for your study abroad experience.
First is Cafe G. Now, I came to Italy knowing very little Italian, so I found myself frequenting the same shops, seeking comfort in what little familiarity I could form, avoiding any interactions made awkward by a language barrier. One of the places I became a regular at was Bar Livraghi, a small cafe near my dorm. I usually went with a couple of my friends, and we went so often the cafe owner began recognizing us. We were too nervous with our Italian to ask him his name, so we called him Cafe G, and the affectionate name stuck since. Cafe G helped us order each time, kindly correcting our Italian and affirming the few sentences we could form. He watched our language skills develop throughout the semester, and now we speak enough Italian to keep proficient conversation with him. We wave to him each time we pass Bar Livraghi, and we even have inside jokes with him.
One day my friend wanted his morning croissant from Bar Livraghi, so I, having woken up with pink-eye, miserably followed him into the cafe, careful not to touch anything. Cafe G’s wife was in the shop, and when she asked how we were, I told her I’d somehow gotten pink-eye. She inspected my eye, then told me to return to the cafe at 8 that evening. I dutifully returned, and Cafe G was there waiting in her place. He gave me unused eye drops their son had recently purchased and sent me off. My pink eye healed in a day. That weekend, during a trip to London, I picked out a soap for each of them as a thank-you gift for their kindness.
On our last days in Milan, my friends and I made them a letter and a small painting, and we said our final goodbyes. Cafe G gave us hugs along with the kindest words, and he told us to email him soon. Despite the language barriers we’ve had, I’ve found it beautiful to feel this friendship blossom between a bunch of foreign students and the cafe owners down the street.
THE OLD MAN AT THE CASTLE
I don’t know what it is about older people in Italy wanting to take in the visiting Americans, but the saga continues. I was at Castello Sforzesco, just having been scammed (another story for another time), embarrassed and frustrated. As I wandered around the outskirts of the castle, letting the beautiful scenery soak up my self-pity, imagining how ruthlessly I’d ignore the next scammer, an older man called out to me, “è una bella giornata!”. I didn’t process the words; I just ignored him, as I was training myself to do. He looked at me, confused, and repeated, “bella giornata?” I continued to ignore him, and he said, in broken English, “Don’t speak Italian?”
I processed his words, then; he was only telling me it was a beautiful day. A little shamefully, I told him I was learning Italian and was only distracted. He asked what I was doing in Milan, and I told him I studied; he asked what I studied, and I told him music and writing. He didn’t speak much English, and this was back before I could converse clearly in Italian, so our conversation included words from both languages, and lots of gestures. I remember wondering why he kept putting effort into the conversation, and what he might get out of it. I held my bag close.
He wanted to show me a video of his favorite opera singer, but when it wouldn’t load, he asked if I’d like to sit on a bench a while and chat. Although still suspicious, I agreed, and we talked for quite a while about an array of topics; things to do around Milan, the beauty of nature, the recent weather, our lives. Underneath, I became increasingly nervous that he had an ulterior motive after all; why would he have this conversation with someone so difficult to converse with? I told him I had to get to class and got up to leave; he grabbed one of my hands with both of his, and with kindness flooding out of his eyes, thanked me for the conversation and wished me a good semester in Italy.
Sushi Plus is another spot near our dorm that my friends and I regular. Cheap prices, good food—what’s there not to love? The waiters at Sushi Plus don’t speak English, so, like Cafe G, they watched our Italian improve. Our friendship with the waiters came unexpectedly; we knew they recognized us, because each time we sat down, they’d deliver two forks to our two friends who don’t enjoy chopsticks. But one day, after our meal, as we were getting ready to leave, they got us each a drink! When we asked why, they said it was because we’re like their friends now. They’ve done this twice, and now occasionally offer us all-you-can-eat deals as well. Business strat or not, we’re sure to wave hello to the waiters in Sushi Plus each time we pass.
DANCE CIRCLE IN VENICE
My friends and I were wrapping up our trip to Venice when we came across a stage where performers played an accordion, a guitar, and some drums. The crowd, though, was what drew us in; circles of people, holding hands and dancing some choreographed dance we weren’t familiar with. We didn’t know the dance, but it looked simple enough, and we ran to join. The circle grabbed our hands to draw us in, and quickly recognizing that we were unfamiliar with their dance, explained the steps as we went. Soon enough, we were one with the group, stepping and twirling in time with them. This remains one of my favorite experiences yet.
DANCE CIRCLE IN MILAN
The same group of friends ran into another dance circle later in the semester. It was after a Måneskin concert (bucket list item: checked) at about 2 am near our dorm. A circle of (probably drunk) middle-aged Italians spun in a much-less-choreographed circle, chanting something we didn’t recognize. My friends and I, always looking for a good dance circle, ran to join, and they quickly dragged us in. After the chant ended, we all joyfully wished each other well and went on our way.
I love the beautiful Duomo of Milan, the great Colosseum of Rome, the canals of Venice. But honestly, I could live without the landmarks. It’s the everyday bonding experiences like these that have fulfilled my semester abroad so far.
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I'm Abigail, a junior studying English and music at Macalester College, and I'll be in Milan, Italy for the spring semester. This is my first time leaving the country, and I want to share my experience as a low-income never-traveled-like-this-before student with you. My interests include writing stories, making art, writing music, learning languages, and exploring the outdoors.