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Reflection on Italian immersion

By Andrew Fuentes, Class of 2013

The sidewalk was thin, and the Florentine brick road was busy with cars (and their notorious drivers). I clung for dear life to my suitcase as I inched closer to the wooden doors.  I had never been so intimidated by traffic.

My driver Pablo pushed the button marked Vincini and its loud "BZZ" made me jump.     

"Pronto?" she asked. It was the first time I would hear her voice, and looking back now I marvel at the effect she's had on me ever since. 

I followed Pablo through the archway of the old building. The floor was paved in large gray cobblestones smoothed from years of weathering. I stared up at the ceiling to grasp the full size of the foyer.  On the far side of the open ground floor were gates revealing a neighbor's garden. Above the gates was a stone eagle holding the shield and crest of the building's owners.  I had never been so intimidated by architecture.

"This way," barked Pablo. He was already a level ahead of me. Apparently I had been staring longer than I realized, but he was not surprised. I could tell from his face that mine was a typical reaction. I grabbed my heavy backpack and started up the stairs.

Halfway there a tiny woman with reasonably blonde hair gave us a coarse and operatic greeting. "Piachere!" I bellowed back. It took no longer than my first syllable for her to realize I could not speak Italian.  She let out a breath of unmistakable exasperation, waved the driver goodbye, and bade me to follow her into the sunlit apartment. I had never been so intimidated by a woman.

Entertaining moments like these continued throughout my stay in Florence, from my first tour of our one-bathroom apartment (shared with six other roommates), to my first meeting of Senora Vincini's son Samuelli. I often had to re-introduce myself to Sam because he had the Wi-Fi password.

Dinner each night ran like clockwork:  mother and son would bicker starting right after the first course of pasta and ending at coffee. Sam would politely offer a cup, and his mother would politely grab it from me mid sip, pour it in the sink, and make another cup she thought was better. Who was I to argue?

During dinner Senora Vincini would serve hefty portions of the three courses she had prepared. If I didn't eat everything on my plate she would assume I hated it. Now I think about those generous portions and I miss them.

Soon Senora Vincini became my Italian teacher. She would point to objects around the dining table, saying the name for each. By the next evening I was expected to know their names by heart. Believe me; I didn't want to disappoint her.

When I took that first step into the Vincini apartment, I had worried I would be trapped in an unfriendly home for my six weeks in Florence.  In retrospect I realize I couldn't have been luckier. My interesting living arrangements somehow made the city more conquerable and I soon got over any awkward barriers that would have kept me from making new friends. My eccentric House Mom single-handedly dissolved the tension I felt being in a new country so far away from home.

Now I know that I have nothing to be intimidated by when it comes to meeting new people. Perhaps my greatest lesson was that we are all just people in the world, with likes and dislikes, things that make us tick, and reservations that could keep us from experiencing what the world has to offer.

No matter one's appearance, nationality, language or expression, I will always offer  a friendly salutation to new faces, thinking of Senora Vincini as I do it.

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