Standing In Line
By Liz Barney
Standing in line at the post office was not my plan for the afternoon, and so when I found myself still shifting from foot to foot after waiting 20 minutes, I grew restless. Looking around, it wasn’t difficult to see the same feelings mirrored on my line-companion’s faces; wrinkled brows, tapping feet, bulging eyes, and sweat-drenched brows all seemed to cry out together, “Can we just be done already?”
The line had been moving along at a slow, but steady pace that resembled the sludge of half-dried concrete crawling down the spout of the mixer, when suddenly it came to an abrupt halt. “Lo siento, no hablo Inglés,” the voice faltered, apologetically. I silently groaned inside, as I watched the short little man with weathered hands and thick black hair try to negotiate some form of meaning with the clerk.
“If you don’t speak English, move,” muttered an older man in front of me, and several people nodded or smiled with their eyes in agreement. As much as I felt the need to be accepting, it was hard to be understanding as this man held up the whole line, and I felt annoyed at the people who found it convenient to come here, but not speak English.
It is ironic, then, that months later, as I found myself packing for my study abroad in Rome, Italy, the one thing I did not pack was a book of Italian. What for? It was Europe, after all, and I had been assured that everybody in Europe speaks English. My plane arrived late, and I was directed to a taxi driver hired by my college. It only took a few barked orders in Italian for me to realize that he did not speak a word of English. The tables had turned, and I was now the strange, foreign, annoying girl who didn’t have a clue what was going on.
As we hurtled down narrow streets, narrowly missing cars, people, and animals on the packed cobblestone streets, I held my breath and listened to a steady flow of Italian chatter as the driver screamed on his cell phone and swerved with every emphatic statement. My sense of adventure was quickly smothered by my steadily growing worry. I had no idea where I was going, every thirty seconds I was catching my breath at yet another close call, and I really didn’t expect to even make it to my destination in one piece.
What seemed like an eternity later, we arrived at the location, and I was dropped off in front of a graffiti covered building holding three bags and a suitcase. I stared at the building while the sweaty taxi driver sped off, still hollering at somebody on his cell phone. A woman at the front desk informed me in broken English that my destination was on the 2nd floor. I slowly struggled up the flight of steps to discover yet another cultural difference; in Italy, the first floor is 0, and the 2nd floor is, in reality, an American 3rd floor. Had I known this, I would have taken the elevator. Nevertheless, I was able to acquire my apartment key and directions to the building.
What followed over the course of the next few weeks was a whirlwind of confusion, adventures, and slowly, an understanding of life through the eyes of another culture. A half hour walk to the electronics store resulted in the discovery that all stores are closed from 1pm-4pm for the strict 3 hour lunch break observed in Italy. Here, eating was a ritual, and there was no such thing as skipping lunch or scarfing down a burger in 30 seconds to resume a task. Three solid hours are set apart in the middle of the day to relax, renew, and truly delight oneself in the luxurious tastes Italy has to offer. As I slowly grew to overcome the culture shock and appreciate the mindset behind these differences I faced, I also began to realize how hard it would be to adjust if it weren’t for the helpful people I found myself surrounded by.
Despite the fact that I was taking a beginner Italian class and practicing on a daily basis when I went out, I still found it necessary to carry an Italian-English dictionary with me everywhere I went. This was most painfully apparent when I had to face the grocery store. It was three weeks before I was courageous enough to even approach the bread counter and try to buy bread in Italian, and I ended up coming home with the wrong food item more than once because I misread the label.
The first day I arrived, it took me an hour and a half to figure out where I could get cash from an ATM. This was my first realization that most people who say “I can speak English,” can probably speak about 3 sentences and name our president, but I had no room to talk, seeing I was the one in Italy and couldn’t even perform on the same level in Italian. Everywhere I went, people patiently helped me and tried to understand what I was saying, and directed me as best they could when I was lost.
This flow of good Samaritans to help the poor non-Italian speaker through her daily life was not uninterrupted, however. There were more than a few times when the clerk at the grocery store rolled her eyes and curled her lip at me for asking for a grocery bag after buying my groceries. I found out later you have to actually include the bags in your purchase, and if you ask for one after you have already paid, they think you are trying to rip them off. The most significant of these encounters, however, occurred when I tried to mail my first set of postcards back home. I discovered that I had bought the wrong postage stamps, and needed twenty cents more postage on each of my post cards. I arrived at the post office, to find out that the “take a number” system had three different stations, each for a different purpose, and I had no clue which was appropriate to mine, so I took a random number and sat down.
When I got to the counter, the lady raised her eyebrows. Clearly, I had picked the wrong station. “Posso avere.. venti mas?” I said, trying to point as the Italian words escaped me. The postal worker thought I wanted twenty more stamps. “No, no, no…. differente,” I frantically protested, before breaking back into my familiar English. The whole post office was staring at me now, and I could feel my ears turning bright red. I could see the look on all their faces, “What is this silly American girl trying to do? Who does she think she is, expecting us to be able to speak to her in English?” The statement was clear to read on the rolled eyes, scornful sneers, and smirking lips.
“I can help,” a voice cut in, and I found myself face to face with an English-Italian speaker. Relief washed over me as she communicated my needs to the postage worker, who rolled her eyes at me as if to say, “Well why didn’t you just say so?” and quickly stamped my postcards each with twenty cents. As I left the post office that day, I was struck with the realization, how similar was my situation to that of the many immigrants who come seeking refuge in the U.S. and must quickly struggle to learn English and communicate in a strictly “English-only” world.
Just like the man at the post office back home, I found myself in a country, unable to communicate my needs and ideas due to a language barrier. If it had not been for the understanding, patient Italians that worked with me to improve my Italian and understand what I was trying to communicate, I would never have been able to explore the country like I was. Because of helpful Italians, like Giuseppe, who spent hours working with me and my friends to help us improve our Italian, or Margherita, the friendly baker who used hand gestures to help recommend the best breads to me, I was able to acquire conversational Italian and experience the Italian culture in a richer, deeper way than I would have ever thought possible.
Since returning to the US, I started volunteering at the refugee center, and I am often frustrated with my lack of ability to communicate with low-level English speakers. I recently found my frustration growing as I tried to explain a simple English word to a refugee girl. I stopped myself, and took myself back to the summer when I was surrounded by strange words and customs. Smiling, I slowed down my speech and started pointing and using a basket of pencils as a prop to explain my point and emphasizing my words with gestures. She smiled and relaxed, and I understood. Sometimes all we need to do to help English learners develop the ability to communicate, is show them the same patience that people like Giuseppe, or Margherita, showed to a lost American girl one summer.
Liz Barney Bio:
I like colorful things. I think life is more fun when you’re flexible. I am a Special Education teacher with a passion for research in Autism.
My life motto is:
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful”
I’ve found a lot of passions that make me happy:
Feel free to contact me! email@example.com or
visit my website
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