I’ve been an ethnic and linguistic minority for the better part of the last 2 and a half years. Between the moment I landed in Shanghai in February of 2010 and now, I’d gotten so used to being lost in translation that I’ve come to barely notice it anymore, or perhaps I’ve learned to just naturally work around it.
In the past 2 and a half years, I’d experienced enough culture shock – in Shanghai, in Perú and, a bit to my surprise, even in Tasiujaq – that by the time I landed in Paris to begin my month-long European adventure last June, there was a part of me that felt immune to the discomfort, the frustration, and the feeling of incompetence of the experience. And for the most part, culture shock didn’t effect me for approximately the first 20 days of my travels. In France, I was able to adapt my beginner-level handle on Quebecois français to the faster and more formal Parisian dialect without issue; I had little trouble navigating – be it on the streets or on Paris’ intricate metro system and rural trains; and I had no trouble functioning adeptly. Things stayed this way from Paris, through the border of Switzerland, to Venezia, all the way to Firenze’s Santa Maria Novella station.
It was sometime between the moment that my train pulled into Firenze’s Santa Maria Novella station and the moment I stepped off the train with the hopes of easy navigating to the monastery at which I was staying, that the culture shock hit me. In that moment, I was slapped in the face with the humbling experience that is being a solo Canadian non-Italian speaking tourist in Italy.
Firenze smelled of hot leather and sweat. All around, people yelled, pigeons flew and motorcycles sped by – it was loud, aggressive and rough, and it reminded me of a modern, Italian ‘wild west’. In Venezia I was sheltered by a façade of congeniality; I was protected by the tourism industry and the city’s endeavour to maintain it’s romantic Venetian feel (however inauthentic). In Venezia, Italy held my hand. In Firenze began a whole other story.
Emerging from the train at Santa Maria Novella, I was thrown without warning into the raw, searing cobblestone streets of Firenze and, what I came to understand from my experiences over the next several days, real Italy – or at least Italy for a solo Canadian non-Italian speaking tourist – in all its inhospitable, impatient, chaotic intensity.
As I argued with a bus driver who refused to even look at the directions to the monastery (written in Italian by the kind owner of the hostel at which I’d stayed in Venezia) and who eventually kicked me off of the bus for not speaking his native language adequately, I experienced, for the first time in my life, being utterly unimportant.
Fortunately, Firenze was much smaller than I’d initially thought, and my accommodations were easy enough to find on my own (thankfully, as the heat was unbearable and my backpack heavy). Exhausted and flabbergasted by excessive travel and the slap in the face that was the shock of Firenze, I showered, ate, and sought desperately for a remedy for my initial negative impression of the city. Fortunately, I was able to find some solace after I’d met a family from upstate New York as I stood in line waiting to get into the Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiore – with whom I’d toured the cathedral and afterward, shared lunch at a nearby self-serve panini bar in the piazza. Overall, however, the novelty of the city wore off quite quickly, and I even saw right through the most charming of street vendors. After just one day, I looked forward to escaping the city and its rough personality, and spending a day in Cinque Terre, on the Italian Riviera.
My trip to Cinque Terre allowed me to reassess the situation, and prepare mentally for much the same experience that I was to face in Roma. I’d returned from the Riviera ready to let go of my ego and all of my expectations as a Canadian tourist and succumb to my experience in Italy for what it was. It was either that, or hate every moment remaining of my time there.
From that point forward, I was fazed by nothing.
As I awaited my train at Santa Maria Novella early the next morning, I received my first-ever ass grab from an old Italian man who made no effort whatsoever to hide his big, meaty hand as he reached blatantly for my rear end (a gesture that could have either been an attempt at flattery, or to pick my pocket). This happened a few times more since then. I was refused service in restaurants; I was kicked off another bus in Roma for kindly asking the driver to inform me when he got to the piazza close to the monastery at which I was staying; I was told to “go away” by a panini stand vendor outside the Colosseum for asking in my extremely broken Italian if he had any chicken panino (despite the fact that I stood there with 10 euro – more than enough – in my hand, ready to pay); and, I was told to “get out of Italia” by the old curmudgeonly man running a small convenience store/internet point at which I’d checked my email, after I refused to pay the double the internet service fee that he tried to charge just because (as he shamelessly informed me) I wasn’t Italian. During the last few days of my travels, I heard more irritated “ciaos” than I could count.
But oddly enough, rather than depart from Italy at the end of my travels with a bitter taste in my mouth and completely disheartened, I’d grown used to it. I’d even become intrigued by the humbling experience that I had there, as it was an adventure in and of itself. Being a solo non-Italian speaking Canadian tourist in Italy not only taught me a little more about who I am, it taught me to appreciate a little more who I am – and this is why experiencing something humbling is awesome.