The Pretenders

Excerpt From The Venice Experiment- A Year of Trial and Error Living Abroad

by Barry Frangipane with Ben Robbins

In our first few months of living with a new language and culture in Venice, the hardest part of communicating with the people around us was our pride. We found ourselves pointing, gesturing, and holding up a map while nodding or shaking our heads. The few words we knew were hard to pronounce correctly, so out of fear of embarrassment, we didn’t even try.

We pretended to blend in.

The guidebooks didn’t help, making claims like “You don’t need to know how to speak Italian” or “Everyone speaks English.” At the most basic level, for example, if you were a weekend tourist, it was true. You could survive without saying much and get by ordering in many restaurants without much knowledge of the local language. Service workers were trained in at least the basics of the “traveler’s English.” Simple phrases, such as “Where is the bathroom?”, “Two nights for two people,” and “Three scoops of vanilla ice cream, please” were generally understood. Of course, when they did respond, we didn’t understand their answers anyway. In Italy at least, locals had learned to be patient, for the most part, as American visitors repeated their requests over and over, each time louder and more slowly, as though that would make English immediately more understandable.

When attempting to buy maple syrup, I drew a picture of a tree with a cup next to one of the branches. “Sciroppo?” the shopkeeper guessed. “Sciroppo d’acero?” he continued the guessing game. “No, we don’t have it.”

Our first weeks in Venice were filled with frustrating encounters in stores while trying to buy items such as a sifter, flyswatter, yeast, food processor, corn starch, and duct tape. Such items were difficult, or in some cases impossible to find, and the words we knew them by were not in the typical shopkeeper’s English vocabulary. It was humbling, tiring, and more than a little disheartening to come home empty-handed after playing an hour-long game of charades with a store clerk.

To truly become Venetians, it was clear we would need a much broader vocabulary. My own Italian had matured enough that I could converse with my neighbors about many everyday topics—the weather, the high water forecast, and the vaporetto delays, so long as it was in the present tense. My wife Debbie was learning, too, but we both had a long way to go.

So I wasn’t surprised that during our second week in Venice, as we shopped at the Coop supermarket, Debbie reached for the grape juice on the top shelf without asking for assistance from anyone at the store. As she grabbed the juice, the wrapping caught on a case of tomato juice, six bottles of which came crashing down. As the bottles hit her head and then the floor, tomato juice splattered everywhere.

Shopping a few aisles away, I cringed at the sound before rushing around the corner to find Debbie covered head to toe with juice from some of the best tasting San Marzano tomatoes in Italy! Still in shock, and very embarrassed, we tried to apologize as several Coop employees came to help. The young men assured her that it was okay while the older local women tiptoed around the mess and stared at us with disapproving looks.

Arriving back at our apartment, Debbie cried as soon as the door closed. “I was so embarrassed,” she said, tears mixing with streaks of tomato juice. “Why does everything have to be so hard?” She seemed to be feeling better as we finished putting away the groceries. “At least I found the grape juice I needed for my recipe,” she sighed. “I’m going to take a shower.”

I waited until I heard the water running to peek in the cabinet. The label on the purple bottle clearly read in bold script, Succo di Mirtilli—blueberry juice! Discussing the meaning of mirtillo could wait until our Italian classes began the following week.


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