Before coming to Italy for the first time, I spent many an hour reading and listening to the BBC language course Buongiorno Italia. The course book was supplemented with a series of authentic sounding cassette tapes (this was the early 90s), complete with sound effects, documenting typical situations like ordering a coffee at a bar that an average tourist might experience during their visit to the peninsula.
Given that I speak the language with great fluency by now I should be grateful to the course for setting me on the right track but I still remember the shock I had when none of the real life Italians acted anything like their counterparts in the course. After ten years of living in il bel paese I am still waiting anxiously for the counter staff at a bar to present my coffee with a welcoming “Ecco lo zucchero” (Here is the sugar).
Not quite reality:
The most embarrassing incident that came out of my reliance on the course was the time, keen to use my repertory of set phrases, I attempted to buy some stamps from a tabaccaio, the convenience stores which sell everything from cigarettes, lottery tickets, and government tax stickers to Kinder eggs. The Buongiorno Italia course included a long friendly conversation set in a tabaccaio where the obliging proprietor was so eager to chat with his prized English visitor that he did everything but give away a case of free smokes. You can indeed buy stamps at a tabaccaio but I soon discovered that, instead of being prompt to welcome postcard wielding foreigners, the local tabacconists found pronunciation challenged sightseers intensely irritating. My stumbling attempt to ask for a stamp was greeted with something I managed to recognize as “This idiot thinks he’s at a post office”.
Not a post office:
The sad thing is that even now I occasionally find myself reminded of my foreigness when I enter a small shop for the first time. A few days ago, distracted by a cellphone conversation with friends in England, I managed to send the proprietors of an unfamiliar bakery into a fluster as I gestured for a loaf of bread while continuing to discuss some urgent business abroad. After a pregnant pause, followed by some intense whispering involving the extensive repetition of the word “straniero” (foreigner), their elementary school aged son came out – English textbook in hand- and said “B-ree-d??”