It’s a question I get asked at least once a day: So how did you learn to speak Italian? Depending on my mood, you’ll usually get either the perfunctory response of Going to language school, practicing the language every day, making sexy times with an Italian, and blah blah blah or a more creative Well actually, there’s this great guy who hangs out by the salsiccia stand at the train station who gives free private lessons and I learned everything I know in about two weeks! It’s amazing.
So how did I really learn Italian, you might be wondering? Well I’d like to say that it all came naturally to me just from hanging out in piazzas and listening to the daily chatter on the streets, but really, I owe all of my language learning skills to one life-changing source–from a can of Coca Cola.
Now now, before you start spinning crazy stories in your head about how I could have possibly learned an entire language thanks to one tasty beverage, I’ll stop you in your tracks with one very important fact: I do not speak Italian. I speak Fiorentino. The difference is in the details, my friends. Let’s journey back in time to the year 2009, when I was a young, fresh-faced American student who had just gotten my very first waitressing job at an infamous bar in town…
Pulling on the requisite black t-shirt and black jeans for my first night of work, I was a bundle of nervous energy. My boyfriend, whom up until very recently I had only spent about 4 weeks total with, had pulled some strings while I was back in the US finishing up my spring semester of my sophomore year and managed to get me a part-time job at the bar where he worked. This meant two things to me: one, that I absolutely could not screw up this job, and two, I could absolutely not screw up this job. My entire relationship depended on it.
As I looked at myself in the mirror, I thought Okay, Gina, here it is. Just act like you’ve been working at a bar your whole life instead of a crappy Panera cafe and you’ll be fine. It can’t be that difficult. You can do this. Nobody will know that you’ve never worked at a bar in your life, just be cool.
After a short walk to the bar, my boyfriend walked me over to a tall, white-haired man who gave me the perfunctory Ciao and nodded off in the direction of a dimly-lit back room. After being shown where to leave my purse, he headed into the back office of the bar and I followed, where I was greeted by a petite, dark-haired girl who introduced herself to me. “Ciao, I’m Ana,” she said. “Just follow me tonight, pick up any empty glasses that you see and try to keep up.” With that, she turned around and grabbed a full tray of drinks, hoisting it high above her head and heading straight into a crowd of already drunk Australians who were dancing and screaming wildly at the karaoke singer on stage.
Holy crap, I thought to myself. An hour had gone by, and the bar was absolutely packed with bodies. Tables were stretched to the max, and impatient customers kept waving their hands at us waitresses as we scuttled past, trying to keep up with the drink orders.
“There’s too many tables. Here, take this and write down the orders,” Ana said as she shoved a pen and pad of paper in my hands. “Then bring them to me and I’ll deal with the rest of it.” She turned on her heel and sprinted back towards the bar to fill her orders. Turning around, I barely had time to process what had happened when a I felt a tapping on my arm and looked down to see a table full of Italians staring at me.
“Um, hi. I mean, ciao!” I stammered. The man who had gotten my attention waved at the menu as he rattled off something in rapid-fire Italian. “Drinks?” I said hesitantly, trying to understand the jumble of words being hurled in my direction. “Si, si!” he said. “Prendo una hoha hola.”
Bent over my pad of paper, I held the pen to the page, unsure of what to write. A hoha hola? Although I’d never tended bar before, I was pretty sure that I had never heard of that drink name before.
“Um, scusa?” I said, a confused look on my face.
“Un hoha-hola!” The man repeated. “Voglio una hoha.”
“Okay, okay, va bene,” I replied, trying to cover up my confusion as I pretended to write down the order. The rest of the table ordered a few different cocktails, and as I wrote them all down, I thought to myself, Don’t worry, I’ll just ask Ana what an hoha hola is and she’ll sort out the rest. After taking all the orders from the table, I spun around on my heel and power-walked back to the bar.
“What do you have?” Ana asked me as she grabbed the ticket out of my hand.
“Um, just the normal stuff. But I wanted to ask you, what’s an hoha hola?” I said.
“A what?” Ana asked me as she tucked a new ticket of drink orders into her apron.
“An hoha hola?” I said. “At least I think that’s what the guy said.”
“No idea,” she replied. “Go ask him to tell you again, but slower since you don’t speak Italian.”
“Um, okay,” I said, as she grabbed a new tray of drinks and disappeared back into the chaotic din in the back room.
Slowly, I walked back to the table in a state of mild panic. What happens if I can’t understand him again? I’m so getting fired. Smiling faintly, I tapped the same man on the shoulder and he turned to face me.
“Si?” he asked.
“Um, I’m sorry, what drink did you order again?”
“Che drink? Una hoha,” he said, confusion starting to spread across his face.
“Ok, si. Una hoha. But…” I stammered, before trying again. “But what is a hoha?”
“UNA HOHA! UNA HOHA HOLA!” He said slowly, speaking to me in that loud, slow tone usually reserved for the deaf or exceptionally stupid.
“Can you show me?” I pointed at the menu. “Show me?”
The man grabbed the menu and placed his finger underneath the soft drink category. “UNA HOHA!” he repeated loudly. “VOGLIO UNA HOHA HOLA!”
As I saw the words written down, I suddenly wished that the floor would open up and swallow me whole. For the past 20 minutes, this poor Italian had been trying to order a Coca Cola from me, not knowing that I had no idea that Florentine Italian pronounces all words with the letter “C” as a soft “H” sound.
“Ohh!” I said stupidly. “You want a coca cola!”
“Yes! Si!” The man exclaimed. “Finalmente! Una hoha!”
Now obviously, my entire knowledge of the Italian language came about much later than the Coca-Cola incident of 2009. But the more that I think about it, it was this unsuspecting Florentine that actually opened the door to my entire ability to grasp the Italian language. You see, language is more complicated than just grammar lessons and vocabulary. Language is a fluid, ever-changing thing that is impossible to grasp 100% if you don’t adapt to its changing tides. As a writer, language is an incredibly important aspect of my life, and for most Italians, language is the door to a vast array of cultural exchanges, experiences and emotions that it takes a lifetime to grasp.
As for me, once I had understood that the accent of my city had a definitive sound, I was able to go into my Italian class the next week and smile when I saw the innocent red can of Coke sitting on my professor’s desk. I was finally learning how to speak Italian.
Want to hear more stories of how other expats learned Italian? Check out C.O.S.I–a collective experience of bloggers whose debauchery has only just begun. Here are some of their experiences:
- ‘An American speaking Italian is like a dancer having two left feet.‘ – Married to Italy
- ‘Italian the Hard Way‘ – Surviving in Italy
- ‘How I almost lost my native language‘ – Girl in Florence
- ‘Learning Italian in Florence’ – The Florence Diaries
- ‘Tongue Tied in Italy‘ – Unwilling Expat
- Englishman in Italy (article link coming soon)