by Melinda Gallo

Switching into French

After being woken up by a bright sun shining in our room early this morning, I decided to go shopping toward the Co-op in via Gioberti. Because I haven't seen my friend Yoshie in months and her newborn Lorenzo, who is now 6 months old, I called to see if I could pop by to visit them both.

I walked down via Gioberti past Yoshie's place to find something to bring her. I remembered that there's a chocolate place that I wanted to try. My friend Debora's boyfriend, Paolo, told me about it and I just haven't had the time to check it out.

I looked through the window and then walked in and said "buon giorno" to the empty shop. I heard a woman who was speaking French on the telephone behind a small nook. She peeked her head out and told her caller that she had customers and she'd call back. When she came back out, something in my head just switched over. When she stood in front of me to greet me, I said, "Bonjour" before she had a chance to say anything. It wasn't that she looked French, but I guess when I heard her speaking French, it was my queue to speak French.

We spoke to each other in French and it almost felt normal. I stumbled a few times as I interjected a few Italian words like "oppure" (or) instead of "ou" in French. I found out that she's from Belgium and has been in Italy for over 10 years. She was telling me that had she known how difficult it was to integrate in Florence, she never would've come. She said that the people in Rome are much friendlier and nicer. Here, she continued, the Florentines are superficially nice to you, but they don't want to associate themselves with you. And, not only are they "chiusi" (reserved/standoffish/cold) with foreigners, but also with other Italians.

She's not the first one to tell me her story of having difficulty integrating. I know of many Florentines who say the same thing. A Florentine woman who works in a shop that I go to quite often mentioned to me that "i fiorentini sono chiusi." (the Florentines are reserved). She was telling me that you can live in a building for years and never know your neighbors. And, supposedly that's not the case in other parts of Italy; they both mentioned Rome not being that way at all.

After talking for quite a while, I decided to leave the shop with the Belgian woman when her phone began to ring. She told me to come back by sometime even if I don't want to buy chocolate so that we can just chat again. I must say that only non-Florentines have ever said that to me. I'm quite friendly with A few Florentines who work in shops I go to, but none has ever told me I could stop by to just fare due chiacchiere (to chat).

I walked a few blocks to Yoshie's apartment and my Italian came back to me with no residual French words. Maybe in my brain, language is associated to particular people.

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