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English Gone Wrong

Speeding through Italy’s countryside to Venice, I was awakened from a half-conscious dream state when the train stopped in Florence. My cheek rested against the warm window as I sat in seat 52 despite being assigned to 58 – the aisle seat. Rousing my conscious further, a middle-aged American couple scurried toward me, loudly discussing Italy’s “inadequate train system.” The woman’s bleached blond hair wafted back and forth beneath her white safari hat that I could only imagine had been purchased at her last hotel’s gift shop. Squeezing her round body through the aisle, inching closer and closer, I heard them discussing the location of their seats.


“Here it is: fifty-two and fifty-eight,” she loudly announced.


Her husband jerked his head from side to side in confusion. “Where are we supposed to put the luggage?” he asked, sweat coating his thin, sun-burned neck.


“I don’t know,” the woman said, raising her voice and widening her eyes. “Isn’t there anyone that can help us?”


Realizing their large suitcases wouldn’t fit in the overhead bin, they continued to complain about the lack of service. While I would have preferred to be an Italian who didn’t speak English, I said, “There’s a larger luggage rack at the front.”


“Great,” she said.


But the luggage rack was full.


“So, what? Are we supposed to hold it all?” she said while other passengers continued to surround them on both sides. Fortunately, a British woman stepped in to inform them of an additional luggage rack. With the luggage issue resolved, they turned back to their seats.


“OK, now which is seat fifty-two and which is fifty-eight?” she said, studying the stick figure diagram on the wall. The Italian man sitting diagonal from me motioned toward the two empty seats in our quad – arranged so the seats were centered around a single table and faced one another. It felt like we were a family of four sitting around a dinner table.


My Italian friend’s attempt to seat her where I was assigned failed. “You’re in my seat,” she told me, tightening her lips and narrowing her eyes.


The aisle was still backed up and swapping seats wouldn’t be easy, but I complied. With some flexible maneuvering, we all settled into our seats, finally able to relax again. “So, where are you from,” she asked, making me regret my English tongue.


“I live in South Carolina.”


Ignoring my answer, she threw another question at me. “Does this train go straight to Rome?”

I barely had the heart to tell her. “This train is going to Venice.”

She jumped up and said, “Oh my God! We have to get off this train!”


Grabbing her husband, they pushed me aside and ran down the aisle toward their luggage and bolted out the nearest door. Despite differences in language, everyone within sight of the American tourists joined me in laughter. It’s people like this who give Americans a bad reputation in Europe.

While I hadn’t made it to Venice yet, the American tourists reminded me that Venice would be full of people like them and, sure enough, they were right. I’d never heard some many languages spoken within one day as I have there. It was nothing like the purely Italian-speaking Spoleto where speaking English wasn’t an option, because it isn’t a tourist town. I missed the Italian ambiance and challenge to use my foreign language skills when I was in Venice because almost every vendor and waiter knew English. If it wasn’t for the lack of cars replaced by boats and the ancient Venetian architecture, I would have forgotten I was in Italy.

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