By Ben Goodwin (’16)
As part of our university requirements, we take at least one semester of a language or culture course. So to fulfill this requirement I took a class in Florence because what better place to study Italian than, well, Italy. This is a great learning environment seeing as we study every time we go out to eat, go to a café or navigate the Florentine bus system. Being in a foreign country also opens all sorts of doors for our professors to use different teaching techniques. My Italian teacher took us to a café where she would only pay for our coffees if we ordered correctly using nothing but Italian. On another day we got a lesson in public transportation and took the bus to the neighboring hill town of Fiesole for one of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen, and with it a visit to one of the oldest Franciscan churches still standing in the world.
Those trips were fun and games, especially compared to our trip last week. We didn’t meet for class at our GIF building, but instead at Il Mercato Centrale (The Central Market) in downtown Florence. Picture a huge indoor farmers market where full cow carcasses (think Rocky’s punching bags), fruit picked that morning, and mountains of fresh bread filled a four-square-block warehouse.
This was the Italian 101 version of baptism-by-fire. We had 25 minutes to collect information about practically every kind of item that was sold in the market. We ran around this place trying to communicate with vendors who knew no English, acquiring basic information most three-year-olds would know. Now, in my opinion, two weeks into our class, we deserved a pat on the back if we got a question out without butchering the words too bad, but God help us if they answered. It was a lot of nodding and saying “Grazie!” then asking our partner “Okay did you get a word of that?” “Not one bit.”
Probably the most important part of our experience at the market was problem solving and embracing our ignorance. A few of us were scorned (and maybe sworn at, I’m not sure) by a couple of vendors who must not have had their morning cappuccino yet. We also survived the looks we got when we asked what a cherry tomato was, and what flat bread looked like. This is real-world and we all floundered like lost goldfish in the open sea. It was nice to see what it was like and challenge myself to use my new language to solve problems. I have a brand new appreciation for non-English-speaking visitors to America. I will now be the first to help them.
Foreign language is by no means my strong suit. Give me a lab and some chemicals and I can get by okay. However, experiencing new cultures is unique. I will never have this kind of opportunity again. I may be missing studying science for the summer, but I could think of worse ways to learn Italian.