Smashing the Language Barrier – By Zoe Eager

Trying and failing to blend in with the locals

It’s pretty ridiculous that, even though I study languages, I have a fear of addressing native speakers in their own language. This originated during my time in France, actually, when every attempt I made at speaking the native tongue got shot down before I could say so much as merci. By shot down I don’t actually mean berated for trying, I just mean rebuffed by being replied to in English; and, if you have ever experienced this phenomenon, you’ll know that, while it sounds innocuous enough, it is shockingly effective at undermining you confidence. What did I do? you’ll wonder. Was it my pronunciation? Did I conjugate something incorrectly? Was it my inflection?

And above all, the eternal student abroad question: Am I so bad at this that I was incomprehensible, or were they just pretending to not understand me because I’m foreign?

It has to be one of the two, and to this day I’m not sure which one is worse.

Now, I know that this isn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be, and that my motto, especially at the time should have just been try try again. But, at the time, I didn’t.

What started as a fear of trying morphed into a deep fear of failure that was absolutely imminent; after all, there was no way for me to speak perfect French out of the gate, and there was no way for me to even improve without trying. But of course, being something of an overanalyzer, whenever I spoke to someone in French and was replied to in English, all I heard was, “No matter how bad my English is, it is infinitely better than listening to you butcher my language for one more eardrum-splitting moment”.

So, for a while at least, I stopped trying. Which, of course, was the worst move I could have made, and even at the time, I knew it, but I couldn’t help it.

That all changed when I went to intern in Paris for a summer. Not because the Parisians are such warm, helpful, nonjudgemental people (they’re famous for being the exact opposite, in fact); it was because my boss didn’t speak a word of English.

Actually that’s not strictly true; he could quote a movie line or two. But conversation-wise, it was either speak French, or don’t speak.

So I did; I had no other choice. And believe me when I say it paid off.

At the end of the summer I had completely conquered my fear of speaking to French people; in the words of my former boss, Ze failure was not being ze options.

So I was rather surprised when these old feelings of fear and anxiety followed me to Florence, especially considering how much more receptive the Italians are in general of foreigners attempting to speak their language. Florence, like Paris, is an extremely international city, and most of the people you meet will have some level of English – at least, enough to ask, “For here or to go?” when you take a stab at ordering a panino in Italian.

Putting my degree to good use by reading Harry Potter in Italian. In public.

It can be disheartening, believe me, I know. And still to this day, I fall into the trap of thinking, Ok, I’m going to study all night, and tomorrow, I won’t be tricked into speaking any more English.

But of course, it doesn’t work like that. Making mistakes in a language is inherent in learning a language – there’s no way around it, it is completely and utterly unavoidable. But slowly, as you try and fail, and try again, even if you’re success rate at making yourself understood is only one in ten tries (or one in fifty, or one in a million, or whatever), even if you’re speaking Italianglish, or Fritalian, or Spanglish with some random Italian words chucked in for good measure, the best thing to do is just to speak – it doesn’t matter if you make sense, just get in the habit of speaking. I’m still working on not taking my mistakes seriously; I probably always will. But I know that no matter how anxious making mistakes makes me, my anxiety is ten times worse when I don’t try at all, and then run through the horrible fantasy scenario of arriving back home, still at learning Italian square one.

So, for everyone in the same position as me, just know that we’re all in the same boat. Say what you can in Italian, and then switch back to English for a few words, or ask how to say something and then repeat it back until you have one more sentence under your belt; they add up, slowly but surely, and even learning a language sentence by broken sentence is better than immediately reverting back to English with the mentality that it’s better to be comfortable speaking than to be uncomfortable trying.

Advertisements

So, You Want to Intern Abroad – By Zoe Eager

As any other university student will tell you, finding paid work right now is murderous, pretty much wherever you go; finding work remotely relating to your studies can seem downright impossible. Which is why, like thousands of students before me, I turned to an internship abroad, figuring that I could bolster my resume in the increasingly unlikely event that I find a job opening for humanities students like me after university, and could experience a new culture to boot.

I also figured that, as a student of modern languages, I should probably try to graduate actually speaking the languages I study (French and Italian, if you’re curious).

I know it sounds like I’m over simplifying, and I am; so, let me explain how getting an internship abroad went down.

While I was frantically studying for my final exams, the summer was looming closer and closer, and I had exactly 0 plans for how to accomplish my goal of actually obtaining this  fantastic internship abroad. Looking for placements provided me with an obsessive procrastination outlet as exams approached, but after scouring website after website, and considering au pair positions of increasing dodginess, I finally submitted an application to an internship agency, figuring that if nothing turned up, I could always take one of the au pair positions and trust that, should things go awry, Liam Neeson would come and rescue me, à la Taken.

Italy was the natural choice for me, as I had worked in France twice previously, and my Italian skills were nonexistent in dire need of polishing.

As a side note, let me just mention the most frustrating thing about being a language student, which isn’t just that it leaves you next to unemployable, but which is the fact that if you didn’t grow up speaking more than one language, your odds of learning it well enough to be paid to speak it are slim. Someone else will always speak it better than you. No matter how much you study, killing yourself over pronunciation and the finer points of grammar in a common language, someone else is perfecting his Urdu because he grew up in Portugal with a French-Romanian mother and a Spanish-Italian father, and thus has had the main Romance languages under his belt since age 7.

Not that I’m bitter.

What I’m the most interested in is translation. Translation is something of an equalizer as far as languages go, because it involves striking a balance between objective and personal interpretation. Give five translators the same text and you’ll get five different translations. Not radically different, you understand, but slight differences in word choice or subtextual implication are common, which is why understanding a word’s connotation is just as important as the word’s definition, and why to really understand a text or book, it’s useful to know something about the culture and mentality of the native speakers.

It’s a depressing yet fascinating statistic that 93% of all communication is non-verbal. As Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a professor at UCLA found in the 1960’s, your tone accounts for 38% of how one communicates, and 55% of all communication is based on body language, which means that only 7% of all communication are the words you actually say.

Thus, working abroad has its own set of benefits beyond just professional experience and the opportunity to gorge on gelato and visit famous cathedrals. It forces you to problem solve, to think on the spot, to learn to communicate in new ways when the language barrier leaves you crippled and hamstrung. It removes your ability to fake your way through things and explain your way out of things, and forces you to rely on the skills you already have, while learning new methods of working and connecting with people.

So, if if this skill set sounds like something you’re interested, all I can say is that it’s worth it, but that you won’t know for sure until you do it yourself.

Enter the internship abroad.

Gelato: A Love Story – By Zoe Eager

Having come to grips with the fact that they were going to have to roll me off the plane nearly on, I decided to dive headfirst into Italian cuisine and work off the consequences later. With this rationalization firmly under my belt, I took up the grueling task of taste-testing ice creams from pretty much every gelateria I came across, and compiling a list of the best ones for my adoring readers (both of them).

Some of these places have been raved about for years and are considered Florence ice cream superstars; Grom (via delle Oche) is one such place. Situated a convenient stones-throw from the Duomo and boasting an impressive list of accolades, Grom has the air of a cooly arrogant gelato celebrity, perfectly secure in its ability to secure customers without providing particularly welcoming service.

It’s damn good ice cream though, don’t get me wrong. They make it by hand every day and take great pride in using the freshest ingredients from around the world. It tends to be a bit softer than the average gelato – more like American soft seve, wheras most gelato has a moldable, almost claylike quality to it that I actually prefer – but their salted caramel and pistacio flavors are hard to beat in terms of taste.

My personal favorite gelatereia is actually only two streets away, also just off the Duomo. Mordilatte wins best in show hands down in my opinion, scoring high in terms of quality, choice, value, and, most importantly, taste. Mordilatte is actually one of their flavors, a marscapone-based sweet-cream flavor that has an unbelievably amazing texture – an absolute must try.

Carabè (via Ricasoli 60/r), a Sicilian gelateria, is situated on Via Ricasoli, between Piazza Annunziata and the Duomo; its pretty tiny and easy to miss, but worth finding for the outstanding granità – if you go (and I strongly recommend that you do), go for the almond flavor; it’ll knock the socks off your Magnum bar.

Gelateria dei Neri (via dei Neri — between the Uffizi and Santa Croce) and Gelateria San Trinità are tied for a win in the Most Exotic category, the former boasting flavors like soy and passionfruit, as well as anti-Italian, much scoffed-at sugar free gelato; the latter offers up the bizzarre but completely awesome fondente flavor, a dark-chocolate-and-sesame blend. Awesome ice cream for those with an adventurous palate, and totally worth the extra euro they charge.

More info and pics coming soon!

Day Trips: Venice – By Zoe Eager

Venice

One of the best things about Florence is that it’s so easy to hop over to other cool places around Italy. I was pretty skeptical about going through a trip planner for the first time, actually; you see a million of those tour groups around Florence, and I had no desire to be one in a herd of sweaty tourists, following a tour guide around and straining to hear about monuments I wasn’t particularly interested in anyway.

I much prefer to wander cities by myself and, with my sense of direction, inevitably get lost – I’ve stumbled upon some of my favorite places in Florence this way, and it’s a good workout to boot. That said though, when I was planning a day trip to Venice I had to balance my desire for independent strolling with my general struggle to get my own act together, so I did eventually try a trip planning agency, rationalizing that now, as a legal adult, I wasn’t duty-bound to participate in any of the prescribed funtivities if I didn’t want to.

And I wasn’t. Hallelujah!

The bundle price of the trip included transport to and from Venice, a boat tour of the Grand Canal, a glass blowing demonstration, and a walking tour of two of the islands; the first two I was all for, as they were both fun and relaxing, but then by simply telling the tour guide that I would be back at the meeting point for the return trip to Florence, I was at liberty to wander the city as I pleased.

Thumbs up for successfully ditching the group

The glass-blowing demonstration was unreal though. Venetian glass blowing is a family art that has been passed down father-to-son for centuries, and can only be learned this way – there’s no school for it. The glass-blowers themselves go through a 20-year unpaid apprenticeship before being considered masters in their own right, which I suppose explains the exorbitant prices they were charging for glass figurines and such.

Glass-blowing demonstration in Venice

As a Jew, I felt a bit guilty for not going to visit the three supposedly incredible, ancient synagogs in Venice, but to be honest I was focused on more important things, like taking pose-y pictures in a gondola that I planned on uploading to Facebook the second I got my film developed.

Case in point

Getting to Venice from Florence only takes about three hours, and is totally worth it, if you’re looking for a cool day trip. I took a bus before catching a train to the Venice station, which is the cheapest option, or you can take a train the whole way: prices vary depending on how last-minute you’re trying to book, but check out train times and ticket prices at http://www.trenitalia.com/.

For other day trips (not for Venice, obviously, but in general), you might just want to rent a car, but personally, even though I have an international driving licence, I’m not sure I feel courageous enough to go head-to-head with Italians on motorinos.

Happy day tripping!!

Treasures of Florence: Secret Bakeries – By Zoe Eager

After a night of partying and carousing at Central Park or Twice, typical Americans will wander back to their hostels, desperate for a good old-fashioned 24-hour burger joint to satisfy their drunchies and cursing the lack of European all-night diners.

Fear not.

Few foreign students are aware that several Florentine bakeries, busy producing that day’s goods in the wee hours of the morning, will actually sell you little pizzas and pastries hot out of the oven if you knock on the back door and wait quietly. Even if you’re not tipsy and tired, these treats will still be some of the best things you’ll try in the city, besides having the obvious advantage of making you look cool and savvy – and only setting you back for about 1 euro a pop!

(Believe me, I recognize the irony of writing about secret bakeries and posting the info on the internet for all and sundry, but a blog about the best of the city just wouldn’t be complete without giving these spots a mention)

So, without further ado, two of my favorites so far:

Corner of Via delle Ruote and Via San Gallo – Devastating chocolate croissants, but they do salty food, too!

Via del Canto Rivolto 2 – Knock on the glass door and wait until someone comes to take your order

Pictures coming soon!

Il Duomo – By Zoe Eager

The Dome and Cathedral

The famous Dome of the Florence Cathedral is my main landmark of the city; I have basically zero sense of direction, so my first order of business was making sure I knew how to get from my appartement 15 minutes away to the Dome and back again. Once I had that down, I began to branch out, but the advantage of knowing your way around the Dome is that you can see it from almost anywhere, and if you do need to stop for directions, everyone will know which way to point you.

That being said, the steps going up to the top of the Dome are where leg muscles go to die. To climb up the Dome and reach the observatory at the top, with its panoramic view of Florence at your feet, be prepared to schlep up about 400 minuscule stone steps! The view from the top is completely worth it though, and so, all in all, I’d say it was definitely worth the trek.

View from the top of the Dome

Entry to the Cathedral itself and access to the top will only set you back about 8 euros, and there are plenty of places to go grab a recovery gelato once you’re back on the ground – more on this later.

Cathedral hours are as follows:
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and on Fridays from 10 AM to 5 PM, Thursday from 10 AM to 3:30 PM, Saturday from 10 AM to 4:45 PM, but on Sundays only from 1:30 PM to 4:45 PM.

Tip: The Florence Center for Art and Culture offers totally free guided tours every hour; definitely worth checking out, if you want to know what you’re looking at!

 

Whew! Made it!