One of the things I like about SACI is that we get to visit cities I’d never go to on my own, or even know about. For example, last weekend the photo MFAs went to Latina and Sabaudia, two little towns south of Rome. The entire area was a swamp until it was built up by the fascists in the first part of the 20th century, and as a result, it feels entirely different from the rest of the country. As Romeo (one of my two program directors) would put it, we are “in the folds of Italy”. Getting to know these so-called folds was one of the reasons I came to grad school here in the first place; I’m glad that I’m beginning to really explore, but at the same time, there’s a problem. A huge part of Italy’s identity hinges on something I can’t engage with right now. I’ll explain in a minute, but first, let me give you a general life update.
By all means, Florence is my home. It’s the first city that I’ve chosen to develop an intimate relationship with; I can walk anywhere in the center without consulting a map. I know the neighborhoods and can tell you where to find my favorite panino or scoop of gelato in most of them. I have my own apartment. The longer I’m here, the more privy I become to certain methods and mentalities that I’ve come to think of as characteristically Italian. Even if I don’t share in them, they represent a culture that’s becoming increasingly familiar, and that alone is a comfort to me. All of this to say, I’ve adjusted pretty well.
That being said, when I think about my perception of Florence, I’m acutely aware that there’s a missing piece to the picture I’m building. Maybe “piece” is too mild of an expression; this missing element is more like a chunk or even a half. I can observe and explore all I want, but there will always be a barrier because my knowledge of the Italian language is very limited. How can I feel at home in a city in which I can’t communicate in the way that’s necessary? Yes, English is admittedly commonplace in touristic Italian cities. If I were to stay in Florence forever, I would never NEED to know the language to get by. However, I love and respect Italy too much to spend two full years here and not make as much of an effort as I can. Part of this is out of respect because I know that, no matter how comfortable I get in Florence, I am really just a long-term guest. Then, on a personal level, I’m missing out on a defining characteristic of the place I now call home. There is an entire side to this city and its community that I can barely decipher.
The longer I’m here, the more frustrating it gets. There are some days where I think about the things that I can say now as opposed to five months ago, and the fact that I’m able to understand increasing larger portions of overheard conversations. On those days, the barrier feels less daunting. However, those days aren’t as frequent as I’d like, and usually I’m just frustrated. I’m surrounded by people that speak two, three, four, even five languages, and I’m the dumb American who never thought she needed a reason to speak more than one. Moreover, I’ve always been proud of my language skills in English (hey, I have to have some practical skill to make up for the fact that I probably couldn’t pass a middle school math test nowadays). Not being able to express myself the way I’m accustomed to is a bizarre and uncomfortable feeling. How can I consider somewhere to be my home if I can't do that here? As long as I can't speak Italian, I have a very limited point of view.
On the bright side, I’m doing something about this problem (besides making weird photo series about it). Upon coming back to school, I enrolled in twenty twice-weekly Italian lessons. Obviously this isn’t enough, so my major professor/fairy godmother was wonderful enough to help me find a tutor that could meet with me every day indefinitely (Tina, if you’re reading this, you are amazing). I start my second helping of lessons this week. No, I’m not going to put pressure on myself to speak perfect, fluent Italian by the time I graduate; obviously I have a few other things to worry about these days (you know, like that MFA). Still, I want to get as close to Florence as I can, and I can’t do that without at least trying to surmount the language barrier. Maybe a year from now, my mental picture of this city won’t be so obstructed.