Sick sons and brazen brothers: Notes from Florence episode 2

April 12, 2018, 1:00 a.m.

If there is one thing us Stanford students are familiar with, it’s tourists. Clogging the circle of death. Bunching around MemChu. Piling into the line for Panda Express. They are just another sometimes-inconvenient side effect of going to our school. When somebody asks for directions, we fumble for recognizable landmarks and send them on their way; if a group inexplicably takes up the whole street while walking, we grumble and then bike past them to continue to class.

I happen to like being someone who can point people to Avery for a swim meet, who knows the shortest route from the bookstore to Hewlett, and who can recommend places on campus to grab a quick snack or a cheap sandwich or a nice dinner. I don’t like being unsure of myself or appearing stupid, and this is where Florence is being unaccommodating. As Michael Scott would say, how the turntables have turned!

To be clear, I’m not usually invested in fitting in. Take Italian fashion, which I’ve ignored since I’ve gotten here. They dress for the season, not the weather, and I will never feel like walking several miles on a seventy degree day wearing a sweater, jacket, puffy coat, long pants, scarf, and a wool cap. I like sundresses and cardigans, and I like feeling a nice breeze on my skin, too! Later in the quarter I might need to sweat out extra weight from all these paninis and pizzas, but not yet…

Problem is, anytime I open my mouth, even to say something as simple as grazie, it doesn’t matter if I’m bundled up, wearing all black, or sporting a snazzy leather jacket. My accent is a mix of Spanish (which I hardly know) and English, and the only words I’ve learned thus far are basic salutations and kitchen items. It’s obvious I’m an American student.

It’s frustrating and humbling to be unable to express myself in any meaningful way, to flail to pick out even one line from a children’s TV show, to look in desperation to my roommate the moment a barista asks a follow up question on my carefully rehearsed coffee order. I feel terrible making it difficult for others to try and understand what I’m ordering, and I lack the vocabulary and pronunciation to even properly apologize. All I’ve got are sheepish smiles and my ravishing good looks! It’s not enough.

During dinner the other day, my five-year-old host brother turned to my roommate and told her buongiorno. Then he turned to me and said, in Italian, something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, you only know English.” He thought for a moment then, in his little-boy voice, carefully said “good morning,” separating each word into lilting syllables. He moved on after getting distracted and farting. I sat there, amused but also a tad insulted. I do know what buongiorno means, thanks very much little bambino.

But for all intents and purposes, he was right. I’m dead in the water if I need something urgently from a Florentine. And because of how I look, once I speak, nobody will think I’m streetwise. I’m probably just another American pouring into the city for tourist season, an American with a loud voice and deep pockets who will rush to take a picture in front of the Duomo before buying some gelato and Michelangelo souvenirs and flying off to another country.

Therefore, my pockets seem very interesting to some people, because they don’t know they’re empty. I’m a 5’2 female living in a city where I don’t speak the language, and I’m not a Brazilian Jujitsu master. How can I explain to some stranger how I need help if somebody scams me, or robs me, or mugs me? I can’t. So while those scenarios are very unlikely, precautions are necessary.

I avoid being singled out as a naïve foreigner or potential consumer of sketchy goods by walking fast, never maintaining eye contact, not smiling, and not speaking. It makes me feel like a terrible person, to blatantly ignore people, but any reactions besides stony silence are always taken incorrectly. Turning my head to look at a market stall as I walk by is encouragement. So is saying “not interested,” or pausing when somebody says “hello, hello,” or glancing at my phone near a tourist attraction.

On my way to a meeting a few days ago, I stopped at an intersection and glanced at the buildings around me, trying to read the street names. I wasn’t gawking or consulting Google maps, just getting my bearings. A man walking by asked what time it was, in perfect English. I responded without thinking twice, and his face lit up.

“You’re American?” he asked, and when I hesitated, he put his hand up for a high five. “Me too! Chicago. Where you from?”

I turned to move off but also answered him as I returned the high-five, partially because I didn’t think the city I was from mattered, but mainly because I hadn’t had an effortless interaction with a non-Stanford affiliated English speaker for almost two weeks. I wanted this to be a brief but nice run-in with a fellow American.

Of course, then the man was pressing two carved red wooden animals into my hands, assuring me they were a gift, imploring me to place them near a window for good luck, winding a rope bracelet around my wrist, and commenting on how nice the color looked against my skin. I backed against a wall because while I was distracted and off-balance, somebody else could come up behind me and swipe something.

“Money for my son, money for my son?” he said. “He’s sick. A few coins?” He’d switched from talking about America to asking for money mid-sentence, and was now far too close to me for comfort.

I didn’t tell him off. I had no idea how he’d react to an outburst of anger. I was also on a busy avenue, and didn’t want to be the foreigner making a scene—a purposeless endeavor, people like him swarmed all the popular parts of the city anyways—so I extricated myself as quickly as I could. I shoved all his “gifts” back at him, apologized and said I couldn’t help, and took off in a random direction.

Afterwards, I was furious. With myself, a little, because I’d fallen for his friendly act, but with the man most of all. How could I have known better? He’d used a perfectly normal, innocuous question to clarify a suspicion, then counted on this small, stupid American girl being so frazzled she would give him what he wanted. Next time somebody in the city asked me for the time, I knew I would remember him and probably pretend I didn’t understand English, or ignore them.

That is not the type of person I want to be.

So I’ll make an extra effort to be kind to the tourists at Stanford next quarter. When people from the place you’re visiting express annoyance towards you, like your presence is an intrusion, it’s unpleasant. Those feelings are often justified, but to be patient is to be a kinder human being. With few exceptions, Florentines are kind. I can be, too. And the next time somebody tries to take advantage of my politeness, I’ll keep in mind that maybe, they don’t deserve my politeness.

Anyways, now I have three reasons to learn Italian. To bond with my adorable host brother, who is altogether uninterested in playing with any grown-up who can barely speak. To communicate in this country without making the interaction uncomfortable, difficult, embarrassing, or stressful for any party involved. And to finally start fitting into Florence, if not as a native, at least as a competent and multilingual American who won’t be buying any merchandise sold on the sidewalks or accepting any gifts, thank you very much.


Contact Katiana Uyemura at kuyemura ‘at’

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