Florence is, of course, full of foreigners — from tourists passing through to permanent residents and everything in between. Little-known fact: it’s also full of Italians, Florentine and otherwise. But sometimes foreigners cluster in their bubbles and Italians in theirs, and the only contact between the bubbles is briefly bumping in shops, restaurants, and on the streets. For foreigners eager to immerse themselves in Italian life, this can be a bummer and make it hard to learn the language. For many Italians, interested in the cultures and language of the world, this can be just as much a bummer and missed opportunity.
The first time I came to Florence — 1994, junior year abroad with Sarah Lawrence College — I was ready and raring to practice the Italian I had learned in the classroom. But my social life was anchored to the school with other Americans and so the “bubble” formed naturally. Despite a whole country of Italian speakers, finding chances to practice was harder than you’d think (not counting creepy dudes on the hunt for short-term foreign “girlfriends.”) My Puerto Rican/American friend Dalina — who was already enviously fluent in Italian — and I found that the best conversation partners were barflies. They’ve got time and stories to tell. I developed a severe cappuccino habit, spending hours in the (coffee) bar across the street from the school and got to put my Italian to the test.
For me and many foreigners, there seems to be a magnetic pull to Florence that keeps us coming back, almost against our will. In 1998, I returned and taught English (briefly, soon realizing I had no teaching talent). No one I knew was left in Florence, but I was no longer in an American bubble or any bubble at all. I moved in with Italian roommates and got my first full immersion experience.
I moved back to the States but kept on getting drawn back to Italy. Though I dabbled in other cities — Perugia, Rome — Florence is jealous, and I kept circling back here.
This is a city where people come and go, especially foreigners from countries with stronger economies, pulled between better job prospects at home and better food, weather, etc. here. As I came and went between New York and Florence for several years, my few local friends left town. When I was back in 2004, I was working as a translator and living alone, and I had one real friend in town, the inimitable Luca. Since I couldn’t go out with him to eat every night, I sought other social arenas. I started taking a modern dance class and then an African dance class. I met like-minded people who are still my friends to this day. Four years later, one of these friends, Cecilia was present at the birth of my daughter whose father I met in an African dance class. Fair to say the dance classes changed my life.
Now I have a diverse group of friends from many countries and five continents. A major bonus of Florence is its big international population for a small city. I’ve learned about the whole world just staying in my neighborhood.
With Italian friends, I’ve had versions of the same conversation countless times:
“Miriam, you have to help me with English!!! I know it, I learned it, but I never speak it. I have a mental block [gesturing to their heart, not their head because it’s really an emotional block]. Aiuto!!!!”
I used to answer: “I can speak English anytime you want. It’s easy for me. Rolls off my tongue like no one’s business!” And then we’d go back to Italian. Now I say, “Come to Speakeasy!”
A few years ago, my friend Lexie and I were talking about this mismatch between the many foreigners in town eager to meet locals and speak the language, and the many locals who would like to meet foreigners and really want to practice English. We thought of ways to stop them just drifting by each other in their bubbles. Lexie is an English teacher and mentioned how everyone wants evening time slots.
So we started Speakeasy Multilingual Happy Hours. At first, the idea was a “happy hour-lesson” with Lexie giving English guidance. Soon it evolved into a purely social event and went from just English to multilingual. We started with a handful of people, then a dozen, then a few dozen, and now between 50 and up to 80 every week from a dozen different countries. In the beginning, I was strict and would use my daughter’s ladybug wand to whip anyone speaking the “wrong” language. But I’ve since retired my ladybug whip, and everyone chooses what language to speak helped by name tags noting everyone’s languages. The informal (much ignored) rule is that we speak the weakest languages between us. If I am speaking to Jason, a Chinese guy who is super fluent in English and learning Italian, we speak Italian. Irish Allen and I always speak Italian. Paola and I speak French. Though English and Italian are, naturally enough, the most common, we get a bit of almost everything. There are usually native speakers of Spanish, French, and German. Recently a septilingual woman from Moldavia wanted to practice her Mandarin Chinese, and I sent her to a regular from China. One time, an Italian friend just learning Persian came. I had barely finished saying that we didn’t get a lot of Persian speakers when the next person through the door was Mashad, a gracious, sparkly-eyed Canadian-Iranian man whose native language is Persian!
After we started Speakeasy, I realized that there actually were other groups for meeting new friends and/or practicing languages, like InterNations, Couchsurfing, and English schools that put on such events. Girl in Florence has a nice list of groups here. And some groups have been inspired by Speakeasy, like Dinners in Florence for Locals and Foreigners.
We’ve started doing special Speakeasies, like an occasional one just for women, and multi-course dinners with limited numbers and more structured language exchange (we switch seats and languages every course). We’ve started doing bilingual theater improv sometimes before Speakeasy. We also promote our members’ events and classes, such as a Karate class taught by an American father and daughter team (in English).
We have met some truly fascinating people at Speakeasy. For instance, one regular is a deeply elegant yet kick-ass Florentine woman who owns a gold shop on Ponte Vecchio, has a black belt in karate, and recently married her long-time girlfriend in Palazzo Vecchio. Or the Belgian lawyer-turned-chef-turned-sculptor scouting his next adventure. Or the Florentine hyperpolyglot who seems to pick up languages like sweaters pick up lint.
Each week there are both regulars and new faces. We’re a Speakeasy community. Lorenzo brings plums and olive oil from his property. Paolo carved a wooden Speakeasy sign. On our WhatsApp group, we share tips about what’s going on in town. People have made friends, found conversation partners, teachers, electricians, and even fallen in love.
In our world of extreme virtual connection and often just as extreme real-world isolation, we need places to come together face-to-face and toast all we have in common, all we have different, and all we have to learn from each other.
Tips on bursting your social bubble and getting immersed in Italian
- Do things you like to do. For me, this was dance. I’d never taken dance classes so it was also outside of my comfort zone, and I found people who liked to go out on a limb and dance out of their comfort zones too. Meetup and Facebook groups like Foreigners in Florence and Creatives People in Florence are places to start looking.
- If you want to speak Italian, gently insist. In Florence’s tourist center, you might find your valiant efforts at Italian met with a cold douse of English. Just say politely, “Preferisco parlare in italiano.” [I prefer to speak Italian]. My extroverted bilingual daughter does this for me now, piping up, “You can speak Italian. I am Italian, and my mom speaks it even though she’s American!”
- Make the first move. I’m not a natural hostess. I don’t cook. I don’t clean. But, inviting people over and offering food and drink is an age-old way to form connections. I invited my whole dance class to a potluck picnic (sharing this great American low-effort way to host).
- Put your shyness aside. I used to be very shy. Living in another country and speaking a foreign language helped, as taking on a second language can be like taking on a new persona. Enjoy the freedom of being foreign: the rules don’t really apply to you.
- Come to Speakeasy! Or events like it. There are language exchanges and international social events almost every day of the week in Florence.
Originally from Oregon, Miriam first came to Florence for her year abroad with Sarah Lawrence (possibly inspired by having watched Room with a View too many times). She is a certified freelance translator from Italian to English (www.miriamhurley.com) and now lives in Florence with her bilingual, multi-cultural (though Florentine before all else) daughter.