Italian Immersion: Travel Report From Italy

My trip to Italy is More than half over now, but it's been quite interesting so far. The experience has been rather eye-opening! Things got off to a rather negative start. In fact, for the first few days, I was beginning to question the entire idea.

Upon arrival in Rome, all of my "romanticized" ideas of Italy were shattered. The city is ugly, dirty, covered in graffiti, and crawling with homeless people — of course you won't see any of that in Eat, Pray, Love, but it's an unavoidable reality the moment you board the train from the airport.

But that wasn't to be the worst of my disillusions. Far more concerning to me was the fact the I was having a really hard time understanding people! In Rome, in Pisa, and in Florence, I was having a dreadful time with comprehension... something abysmal, like 40% of what I heard. At times, even less.

At first, I was starting to question myself and everything I had done for the last year. I wondered, "Am I a fraud? Have I been fooling myself, and everyone else?" But every time I started to think that, I would talk to someone and realize it's not as bad as it seems... maybe I just need to get more listening practice.

But then I went north, and everything was different. From the moment I boarded the train in Florence, I seemed to understand everyone around me. Within my first hour in Milan, I had no problem talking to people at the deli, people on the street, and the desk clerk at my hotel. That's when I realized what was happening — all of my practice had been with northerners. With the exception of a few movies, I'd had no exposure at all to other accents!

The last two weeks have been in the north, in Milan, Turin, Genova, Verona, Bologna, and Venice, and my comprehension has been far more satisfactory. I'm no longer questioning the work I did this year.

It's been a valuable lesson. I've really learned a lot from the experience, and I can't wait to get back home and update the ebook with a lot more information that I've learned as a result.

And speaking of the ebook, there are only two days left to get it at the current price. On February 1, the price goes up 40%. Updates will be free for those who have already purchased it, of course, so don't miss your opportunity to get it now, at a great price!

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  • was that photo taken with your iPod? It's a very good quality image.

  • Yes, that was made with the 1mp backward facing camera. Just further proof that megapixels are a myth, and lens quality is everything.

  • You've done a wonderful work last year with your Italian mission. Simply, you couldn't imagine how the spoken language could change in such a little country XD Italian spoken by people from Rome or Florence could really be different from the standard one because of rythm, accent, and also vocabulary.
    I hope you enjoyed my Milan although it is a grey city ;D

  • Ya, that happens to people. My German teacher is fluent in German, lived in Switzerland for three years, and goes to Germany every other Summer, but there was an actor in a movie we watched that she said she could hardly understand. He was from Austria and was Hitler in the movie. She said his accent was really thick so I guess she hasn't had much exposure to Austrian accents or at least that particular Austrian accent.

  • I understand your feelings about Rome. The griffiti is pretty disgusting in what I feel is a very beautiful city. I want your readers to know that there are really beautiful areas in Rome if you give yourself time to explore. I also found the people there very warm and friendly. It it truly one of my favorite cities.

  • She probably meant the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, who based his performance of Hitler's Austrian accent on some secret recordings where his Austrian inflections are supposed to be more pronounced.

  • There are beautiful areas is every city in Italy, but they are overshadowed (at least in my mind) by the prevalence of graffiti, litter, and dirt. Everywhere.My first impression of every city I visit is a bad one. And then I'm left trying to find something to appreciate. This is the opposite of how it should be.

  • Hitler is well-known to have had a strange accent.

  • Milan was very grey and depressing. But there are some beautiful sights, and some great food there.

  • I think most of the northern Italian cities are gray and depressing in winter time. They all come alive in the summer though.

  • Yes, yes, yes!I had same feeling about Rome when I first went there. You need to ditch your preconceptions and accept something for what it is.And the understanding thing...yes. Learn "German" and then go to Munich, or "French" and go to the south. For that matter learn "English" and go anywhere in the UK, especially Newcastle.Mostly it's just getting used to the local dialect and accent. You might want to think about tweaking your language strategy. For example, with Turkish, perhaps there's an Istanbul or Ankara dialect or accent. Seek out TV shows, radio shows (say a phone in) where people are speaking colloquially so you can familiarise yourself with local forms of expression.

  • Preconceptions were ditched in five minutes. But I think is kind of thing is somewhat unavoidable. I'm sure it will happen to me again. After all, that's why I travel — to see what a place is really like!And yeah, I've already been thinking a lot this week about how I can get accustomed to multiple accents as part of my strategy. My experience with Italian has made it clear that people speak mostly pretty clearly in tv and radio, though, so I don't think your suggestion is going to work. I think I need to find something more authentic.

  • At first, I wondered if it was winter making Milan so ugly, but then I saw Venice, Verona, Turin, and Genoa... all beaytiful. That's when it became clear that Milan is just ugly. It's as if there were a half-inch layer of ash covering the entire city. Come on, Italy, hose it down!

  • I had almost your exact same experience when it came to the accents, mainly because all of my listening practice had come from the talk radio programs in Milan. I spent a good deal of time in Rome though and it only takes about a week to get used to their accent. Its almost as though they half pronounce everything and start the next word before the first word ends. I actually didn't find the city all that dirty though, not compared to Chicago anyway.

  • By my understanding, the Roman slang mostly consists of just dropping the last syllable from words. I was only there one day, so I didn't really get much time to get accustomed, but I'll spend a few days there before my return flight and I'm hoping I get used to it quickly.As a resident of Chicago, I can tell you that most of Italy is quite dirty by comparison. But why compare to Chicago? Both Rome and Chicago are disgusting when compared to Barcelona.

  • Now see, I much prefer Madrid to Barcelona. I like the natives in Barcelona, can't stand the tourists and what they do to a city and its businesses (I dislike Rome for the same reason).

  • I can't comment on Madrid, as I haven't been there yet, but I do agree with your dislike of heavy tourism. I prefer a place where I can walk without being bumped into by 100 lost foreigners, and where there are more things to do than just shopping for clothes and shoes and souvenirs. But in that respect, you can find that in any city (even in Barcelona) once you leave the main center.

  • It may differ country to country (and Italy might be an exception), but IME there are quite a lot of shows with local accent/dialect. For example, on the BBC often you hear so called BBC English, but there is also Eastenders where people speak cockney , Rab C Nesbitt which will get you used to Glaswegian and the presenters Ant & Dec who speak Geordie.Or, for example, on Czech Radio, they speak errr...properly, but on commercial phone-in radio people will speak very colloquially.On French TV, there was a Quebequois show in dialect that they subtitled into 'French' French for the native French audience! Speaking of French, a technqiue that was used on me, was local TV and radio broadcasts where the interviewees spoke in thick accents (although the presenters spoke standard French).So, there are some ideas. I have no idea what relationship Turks have with their media and whether they will all jump into formal Turkish as soon as presented with a microphone. I also don't know how Turks themselves see the various registers of their language! Although it seems to me you could simply ask someone.I think this problem is fascinating so please keep us informed how you try to resolve it and pros and cons of each method.Thanks too for being such an inspiration to all us language learners.

  • I'm sure that I'll try several things regarding accents, with regard to Turkish and also regarding maintenance of, and improvement in, my other languages.And indeed that's one of the main purposes of my blog — to make myself a guinea pig for learning experimentation, so that others can learn from my experiences. Thanks for noticing and appreciating that.

  • I've also heard that the North is also much, much nicer than the South, have you found this to be the case?What have the people been like? I hear that the Italians are generally some of the most hospitable people in Europe. Is it easy to strike up conversations with natives? Do they tend to switch to English like the French the second they realize you're not a native, or do they humor you?Thanks for the update, keep 'em coming!Cheers,

  • To this point, I've spent one day in Rome, an afternoon in Pisa, and two days in Florence... All of which are really more central than south... And all of which feel very touristy, so I can't make any fair comparisons just yet. But in an hour I will arrive in Bari, and after that I'll go to Naples, so when I'm done I should have a decent idea.I've got a lot of details related to your other questions, so I'm going to save those answers for the follow-up post when I go back home.

  • Ok, fair enough. I thought you'd been there longer than that. You've got, what...another 3 weeks or so there, then? I recall you said you were spending a month there.

  • Oh, I'm sorry, I wasn't clear in my meaning. Those places were the most southern. I've been in Milan, Turin, Genova, Verona, Bologna, and Venice... all northern cities. I simply meant to say that I hadn't been south yet.

  • Ha, that was my first impression of Rome 12 years ago. I haven't been back since but it doesn't sound like things have changed!Have you seen Benvenuti al Sud? The characters based in Milan are so easy to understand, but then they go to Naples and it gives me a headache trying to figure out what the heck they are saying.

  • With the exception of a few cities, I'm left with the overall impression that the entire country of Italy is basically a slum. Really eye-opening.Haven't seen that movie. I'll check it out.

  • Some places are definitely dirtier than others, especially in the south. Personally I prefer the north, but only in summertime. Everything is so depressing during winter in Europe.Aosta Valley and Veneto are my favorite places, but mostly because I spent time in small towns in the countryside where there are fewer tourists and beggars/homeless people on the streets to harass me. I despise large cities in general though (mostly because of the trash and harassment) so I'm a little biased.

  • It's vital to get exposure to various accents early on. That's why people who learn British English have such a ride awakening when they come to the States. Good thing you quickly picked up what was blocking you from the beginning and got past it.

  • Grazie per descrivere un anno davvero interessante del tuo viaggio attraverso la lingua italiana. Allora che il tema é ora il turco, probabilmente non ti leggerò così spesso, ma visto che vivo abbastanza vicino da Chicago forse un giorno potremmo vederci per una buona conversazione. Ciao.

  • Davvero? Dove vivi?

  • Cynic! Italy is beautiful..:D Like I said you must go to the countryside to really see the beautiful Italy. Tuscan countryside, Sicily (in the south), Amalfi (in the south), abruzzo, Lucca is an amazing city. I find the toursity cities with the exception of Florence (cuz I am a biased Renaissance sort of chic) are always over-glorified. but that too is my opinion. I cannot wait to get out and travel more. so much to see. I would really like to hear what u think of Bari...

  • I'm italian and have travelled enough and still think that my country is one of the ugliests out there. Our coutryside is isolated and forgotten by the regional administrations, cities are overcrowded, full of unauthorized and ugly buildings, there are not many parks and actually many cities don't have parks, green areas are poorly protected and the traffic even in cities as small as 100.000 unhabitants is's far better in american cities with millions of inhabitants. Italians are actually pretty provincial, snob, materialist and lazy as far as political activism and having new ideas is concerned. In fact Italy is not a modern country, it pretends to be a modern country with all its obsession for cheap technology like cells, plasma TVs and ipods but it's not really modern and even the technology is just superficially modern but then when you take a look at ADSL lines, movie theaters, train stations you realize how poorly technology is used in this country. Italy is not modern because even though the average italian kid has 3 cell phones its ideas are not modern, its politics are not modern, its economy is not modern, its social attitude is not modern and it's creativity is not modern. Italy is a scam because it sits on its butt believing that the past glories can make up for its like of modern glories, lack of culture, lack of arts, lack of ideas and lack of civilty. Unfortuately the myth about Italy that you believed, the myth of a sunny land of happy and lively people and great pleasant cities is what is preventing Italy from improving to something more than the chaotic gothic swamp it is now, because people believe that a glorious past means makes the present glorious as well and whatever happens and however ugly your country is... all they need is reminding others how great the past of their coutry was, centuries ago, to fool themselves into believing everything is fine.

  • Wow, that's exactly the impression I've gotten, but you stated it much better than I could have."Italy is not a modern country" -- I believe I've used those exact words with someone recently. Nice to see that I'm not getting the wrong idea.Thanks for your reply.

  • Damn, that's harsh! C'mon, Randy! Where's the love? :-)Don't tell me that you travelled to the former heart of the Roman Empire, and the heart of Western Christendom for over 1,000 years and the best travel report you can come up with is "I'm left with the overall impression that the entire country of Italy is basically a slum".Is this from the same man who says in his "About Me": "Ever since I was a kid, I imagined myself one day being some sort of cosmopolitan citizen of the world. I’ve always had a fascination with different people and their cultures".Yes, Italy has its problems, but so does Chicago, or Barcelona, or Paris, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. Just do a google (image) search for "Chicago" + "graffiti" or "homeless" to see what I mean.I've travelled through Europe a fair bit in the last few years as I lived in the UK and then Germany. My best bit of travel advice is to get quickly away from the main train station, or your impression of a city will be scarred. I loved travelling to Italy - all the different parts, all the history, the scenery, the different ways of living, and though I wouldn't want to live there (yeah, it has its problems :-) ), it certainly doesn't deserve the label "basically a slum".

  • I'm tired of people bringing up Chicago in their responses. Don't make this personal.If you I lived in Afghanistan and I said it's really hot in Egypt, you could tell me "go Google Afghanistan and hot" but that wouldn't change the fact that Egypt is fucking hot!Yes, I know that there are homeless people in Chicago. And graffiti. And I'm telling you that those things are only in the bad parts of the city. The slums. But as I travelled Italy, those things were EVERYWHERE. And that leaves me with the impression that the entire fucking country is a slum.So what?As a point of comparison, you can take a bus through Barcelona, and in every neighborhood, you'll see people with brooms, sweeping the areas in front of their businesses or homes. But in Italy, I'm not even convinced that they own brooms. Every sidewalk in every city is layered in a collection of confetti and cigarette butts. In Barcelona, the only place I saw graffiti is on the roll-down metal doors that cover shop windows, whereas in Italy, every flat surface within reach has graffiti on it.And for your information, if you come to Chicago, you will see that there is no graffiti at the train station or the airport. And while our airports are nothing compared to the hospital-like sterileness at BCN, they are infinitely cleaner than airports in Italy. (Of which I visited three.)

  • The entire country is a slum by north american standards. The country is heartless though gives the impression of romantic. Shatters all illusions for sure. I have never seen to much garbage and doggy doo under foot. It is like living in an insane asylum. Sorry folks all Italy has is fish and 4% of the world's art.

  • The people are generally friendly and helpful in the north. If they do not speak English they try to find someone who does.
    Surprisingly many have a basic understanding of English and French. Farther north most understand German.

  • Indeed. I found people were quite helpful throughout the country... almost frustratingly so. Even if they don't know more than 5 words of English, they will try the best they can to use all five of those words to help you — which for me was at times frustrating because I wished they would just help me in Italian! :)

  • Well, it has art, and fish, but also history... and don't count out the people. While the country may be in a tragic state (I sure wish they'd throw out Berlusconi the way the Egyptians did Mubarak) you can't really say anything bad about the people. Italian people are some of the nicest you could hope to ever meet.

  • Ah ok, thanks for that. That's good to hear. The only place that I've heard where people aren't like that, honestly, is Paris. It seems everywhere else people are happy to have foreigners and are eager to help them and welcome them to their country.Cheers,

  • Visiting Italy for ten years-I stay four months a year and not one thing has changed in that time -- nothing upgraded or cleaned. Parks for children are shameful. Yes the people for the most part are very nice and quite helpful too but they do not take pride in their surroundings. Italy has beautiful old buildings and very ugly new ones. I go to Italy for the history and try not to see the garbage and crowded living conditions. The air pollution is unbelievable. It gets worse each time. Italians are interested in fashion and food but not much else, my opinion is based on living with them for so long. One thing about the people is they make every attempt to understand English at least in North Italy. A gothic swamp is a powerful way to describe Italy. For years I thought it was only me who felt this way. Actually I feel a sense of pity for those who cannot get out to live in a clean modern place. Children of Italy have no life at all. As for the health care system I wonder why they rate so high with WHO? It is a terrible situation for the elderly or the sick in Italy.

  • Thank you so much for your comments, I did laugh so much! If you all want to know better Italy, you have to understand: 1) All what matters here is beauty. Try translating "bella/brutta figura": it's not "bad" nor "good", got it? 2) The exeptionality is the normality. If an italian goes to the train station and the time to board the train has already passed, he will hurry since he knows Trenitalia is almost always late while the foreigner guy will look for another solution. 3) Most of italians believes only on his/her family and relies almost only on his/her connections. In an unstable enviroment as ours I guess that's natural, sadly...but I do believe in the "fairy tale" of meritocracy, ok? 4) Old generations and new generations are VERY different, since the young are much more disillusioned and materialist than their parents. I hope, dear blogger, you get in which moment you are visiting this land: we have thousand of immigrands who escape war in the Mezzogiorno, we are dealing with a boy-scout, a fool, other kind of people that don't get they have to leave their seat in the top, not to talk about a non-existing Europe (even though I like it for the Erasmus'project), or the fact that we are striving to find a legal job (the most of them are in black, since factories are transferring in the East) and I won't mention all the other disaster we have, if not my mail will become too long. I'll give you a tip: you should visit the little towns, those resemble the films, the books, the music you've all heard about since somewhere it seems that time has stopped.

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