March 2007 Archives

National Language

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The town I live in is an industrial area, but it's still very beautiful. It lacks somewhat in historical value, so it's not a popular area for tourists. You're not likely to find Scandicci in any of the guidebooks. In a way, that's why I like it.

I like the smaller communities that are relatively undisturbed by American influence. I feel like I'm getting a more authentic Italian experience by visiting them. But more-so, I like how people react to me differently outside of the tourist traps.

One day I went to a largish gas station in Scandicci to feed the Punto. I indicated to the non-English-speaking attendant what I needed in a few Italian words, perhaps even pronounced correctly, but definitely in a foreigner accent. I come prepared by knowing a set of useful phrases to get me through situations like these relatively unbefuddled.

The attendant quickly realized I wasn't from 'round these parts, and so he summoned another guy to come over. This is not uncommon--if there is an English translator available then that person will probably get involved. But I was confident the English language wasn't necessary in this transaction.

As it turns out, the guy was very interested to hear about how I came to be in Scandicci. He asked me where I was from, where I worked, where I was staying, and all kinds of other small talk questions that you would ask a single-serving friend.

The guy was excited to learn I was from Texas, and he asked me how it compared to living in Italy. When I told him I thought his country was much nicer, he was absolutely astonished. I'm not making this up, he said "You would rather be in Italy than in the US? I do not believe it!"

His enthusiasm made me feel like a minor celebrity. I think he was a bit disappointed to learn I wasn't a tourist but that I was in his town primarily on business. I asked him if many tourists came to Scandicci, and the answer, as I expected, was "none."

Like many Italians I've talked to, the station attendant apologized for not speaking English well. I generally return that with compliments on their linguistic abilities and a comment that their English is much better than my Italian, which is why we're having the conversation in English and not in Italian.

This made me think--I don't ever apologize to, say, Mexicans in Texas when I can't effectively communicate to them in Spanish. Quite the opposite: I expect them to be able to speak English, the national language of the country they chose to live in (even if I'm being slightly hypocritical).

I can't argue with how remarkably nice and accommodating the Italians are, but I remain that you should make an earnest effort to learn to communicate with your hosts if you want to live amongst them. It makes life easier for everyone, not the least of whom, yourself.

The wrench in my thinking is that there are probably more Hispanics in Dallas now than Caucasians. Although that doesn't change the national language, it could mean more Spanish speakers than American English speakers. So as it turns out, I'm going to have to learn to speak Spanish now too. Or just learn to let it go. Whichever.

Life in the Big City

When I was out to dinner tonight with one of my coworkers, I was musing to myself that I never thought I would consider walking down the streets of central Florence to be just another typical day. I don't say that to invite envy, but to give an overview of my perception of living in Tuscany these last couple months.

Undoubtedly it has been a great life experience and an opportunity I well appreciate. Such a prolonged break from the ordinary really lets you take a look at your life from almost an external perspective. The longer I'm here, the less I seem to care about my "things," the less I let little annoyances bother me, the lower my blood pressure becomes.

I've thoroughly enjoyed driving around the hilly countryside, seeing vineyard after vineyard, one olive orchard after another; stopping at little bars for drinks and panini; and absorbing the culture. I've stared at some of the most famous statues and paintings in the history of human civilization. And no matter how many times I've gazed up at the Dome of Florence Cathedral, it's never any less magnificent.

But don't let me tell you this place is all wine and roses. I could be the first in line to say Italy is an awesome place, but it's just another country. It's just a bit different--better in some ways, not as good in others. I hear Americans talk about (or imagine) what a wonderful country Italy is, and I hear Italians talk about how great they think (or imagine) the United States is. I see it both ways.

The major cities around Italy are overrun with tourists, especially starting this time of year, and they make a mess of the historical areas. Graffiti by the local kids is common, but not on anything of cultural significance. I'm at least impressed by their respect for their peoples history. Although violent crime is rare, petty theft is rampant, especially targeted at tourists.

There are so many cars in Florence that the air quality is, well, just as you would expect in a big city filled with cars. Driving around here is crazy too. You either become one of the aggressive drivers or you get honked off the road. I don't know what I'm going to do when I get back to the US, where there are actual traffic laws. I'm going to get ticketed daily for illegal passing and parking.

Public services are unreliable, to the extent that we've jokingly referred to Italy as a 2nd world country. Using the postal service is considered gambling. The electricity in my house goes out for reasons only explained to me as "technical difficulties." It took seven weeks for the telecom company to get out to my house and install ADSL (and I still don't have a modem). And the data connection on my mobile phone is too intermittent to be useful, and too expensive to be used anyway.

Even after spouting the cons of Italy, all of the good things certainly overwhelm the bad. My time here is running to an end, and I know I'm going to miss it. Fortunately I think I'll be coming back someday.

A Hint of Scandicci

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It seems some people don't believe I'm really in Italy. To quell suspicions that I'm actually just camping out in Tulsa for a few months, let me post a picture with a background you're not going to find in Oklahoma. As far as I know.

Scott In San Martino alla PalmaThis is me in my locality of Scandicci, downtown San Martino alla Palma.

No smile for you.

There's a little meat market in the near background. In the distance is mostly Scandicci and the Apennine Mountains.

I have tons more pictures, but I haven't yet had the motivation to organize them in a photo gallery. Someday, though.

Trapped at Work

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I knew it was going to happen.

Tonight, I was the last person to go home and I got stuck at the office. They closed the outside gate, and I had to sleep on the cold, hard ground under a tree. Okay, I didn't really, but I thought it might come to that.

I never bothered to get the keys to the building where I work. I always assumed other people would be there before I arrived (I'm not exactly an early riser), and as long as I left before 9:00pm when the security firm comes to lock up, I would be fine. Except as I was leaving at 8:45 last night, I drove up to the front gate and found it solidly closed. The security people came and left early, so they could get an early start on caging wild animals and eating spicy meatballs.

So there I was, staring at a set of metal bars that needed only spirals of barbed wire to really be my prison. With no way out of the parking lot, and no way back into the building, I considered climbing the ten foot gate and walking home. But I was already not feeling well and it was too cold and rainy for a 1.5 mile walk. After a survey of the area I decided there was no good way out, on foot or in car.

If only I knew the phone number of someone with a gate key, I could have called for help. But I checked my phone, and all I had were numbers of coworkers that were currently in the US, and they weren't answering.

The idea that would get me out came 15 minutes after I starting wishing I had a sleeping bag with me. I had a computer in my bag, and a wireless Internet connection to get on the company network and find somebodys phone number. Lucky for me, the first person I tried (who lives closest to the office) answered and agreed to come let me out.

First thing when I get to work tomorrow, I'm getting the office keys.

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