Siamo in arrivo a Firenze Santa Maria Novella.
A new month, a new station, a new city.
Just like the train from Prato Porto Al Serraglio that pulls into Florence, this New Year period is one of changeover as I move from slower life in a smaller Tuscan town to Florence’s frenetic pace. I have been studying at the Monash University Prato campus in the city’s historic centre, where the blur between Australian and Italian accents has helped the transition from my normal Australian life to a new life in Italy. Now as I settle into Florence I realise it isn’t only university history lessons I’ll take away from Prato.
On my first day in Prato a trip to the supermarket provides the first of many linguistic learning opportunities. While I’m told that I should “speak Italian at every opportunity,” keeping up a conversation in Italian is easier away from the tourist trail.
“Mi dispiace,” (I’m sorry), I say at the Coop cash register. “Non mi ricordo la parola per…” (I don’t remember the word for…) I gesture at the bunch of parsley drooping in my hand. The key to my conundrum is quite literally a magic word that bounces off the cashier’s tongue.
“Ahh, il prezzemolo,” she says, continuing to quote the price in Italian.
“Speaking Italian at every opportunity” means leaving time for incidental linguistic exposure, for the day to day conversations and practical words and phrases that don’t arise during university lectures on Dante or text book activities on the imperfect subjunctive.
My month in Prato doesn’t just help me get my tongue around my shopping list. As the waiters at the café Bar Tat next to university let us students use their bar as a second home, the city becomes a home. The staff turn into friends, bringing us extra trays of aperitivi and happily fulfilling our requests to turn down the latest Italian pop tunes while we hurry to finish off assignments.
This relaxed environment lets me experiment with language and culture. While I love indulging in Italian hot chocolate, its richness makes it unsuitable for the tri-daily consumption necessary to help me study into the night. The waiters listen patiently to this conundrum and together we create the cioccolata calda australiana, a milkier, less rich version of the Italian beverage. Much more than just a hot chocolate, it represents the welcoming embrace of a small town and the sense of belonging that comes with it.
“Australian” hot chocolate in Prato | Ph. Elin Jarnestrom
There are times, of course, when I yearn for the benefits of a busier, bigger city that runs on tourist time. After finishing class at 6:30pm our student minds turn to food, yet I quickly learn that unlike Australians, at this hour pratesi are not settling in for their evening meal. Despite knocking eagerly on restaurant doors, waiters shake their heads through shop-front windows and motion at their watches for us to come back later. A month later as Florence becomes home I’m pleasantly surprised to see meals being served as dusk settles and signs for restaurants open for dinner from the early evening.
Its tourist ways pose a challenge, however, as I face the overwhelming infiltration of the English language in shops, cafes and bars. While this helps to speed up proceedings when long queues form behind the Conad cash register, it leaves no time for sbagli (mistakes) and the lessons that can ensue. As New Year approaches, Florence reaches high tide with tourists, leaving a frenetic urgency in the tones of those who work here. Before entering shops and cafes I prepare to enter a language battle, undeterred when my best Italian receives English responses and pursuing this dual-lingual dialogue.
These crowds that swell in piazza del Duomo are initially daunting after Prato’s sleepy Sunday streets. Yet I come to learn that among the international tourists queuing to climb the cupola (dome) there’s another type of crowd. Just as I would watch the steady shuffle of smart leather shoes in Prato’s main square, in Florence I come to see through the tourists and distinguish the well-dressed Florentines out for their evening passeggiata (stroll).
Prato has given me an induction into Italian life and a linguistic and cultural confidence to take with me into Florence. From buying a bunch of prezzemolo to identifying the “italianisms” behind a piazza teeming with tourists, my time in Florence will now be marked by a few less sbagli and for that I say grazie to Prato.