Learning to Speak: A Love Letter to my Italian Family

Phebe O. is currently a senior at SYA Italy and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from John Bapst Memorial High School in Maine.

Cheering erupts, echoing across a bright green lawn and drifting into the pink and gold sky of an Italian sunset. The sweetness of sun-baked earth and fruit trees hangs on the air, evoking a sense of calm that I cannot embody. My legs straighten under me, my shaking knees a testament to the excess of nervous energy pumping through my veins with each breath. Weaving through a maze of chairs, moments blur until I see their faces. Faces I have spent months anticipating. I don’t know how to speak. 

A few attempts at understanding, and it becomes clear how difficult communication can be. I am in love. And terrified. These are the people I will spend the next nine months with: living in their home, eating meals with them, leaving with them for school each morning and returning home to them in the afternoon. My Italian host family. 

I treasure my last few moments with fellow English speaking students, then make my way to the car, alone with my family. Terror slowly settles into nervous excitement. My host mom turns on the radio, pointing out the walls of the city where I will attend school, explaining the configuration of roadways and villages over the lyrics of Italian pop songs. My eleven-year-old host brother tries to correct her use of Google Translate. My host father laughs, stepping on the gas as he shifts gears with characteristic Italian enthusiasm. 

The picturesque walls of another tiny town appear, and then the small pink apartment I will come to call home. My host parents walk me upstairs. My bed has been covered in balloons. I will discover small miraculous gifts strewn across desks and tables for days to come. All I can say is “grazie, grazie.” My host mom responds with a grin and a hug. 

A month later, my Italian family already feels like home. I am used to waking up as my mom heads into the kitchen in the morning, light shining dimly through the crack under my bedroom door. I head downstairs dressed and usually slightly late for school, to a chorus of “buongiorno!” from my host mom and brother. Breakfast is coffee, biscuits, and nutella. Rushing out the door we drive to school, listening to American rock music and complaining about traffic. My host mom could outdo Boston drivers in aggressiveness any day. She drops me off outside Porta Romana, the medieval roman archway leading into my school’s city, before taking my host brother to school. 

Returning home in the afternoon, after a shower and homework, we eat dinner, watching an Italian comedy show mocking videos of Americans biking into pools and walking into glass doors. My family finds this endlessly entertaining. 

We often sit at the table for hours, maybe with a guest or two, just talking and joking. It is easy to settle into the cadence of Italian conversation. I sit and listen, picking out words and phrases and piecing together the puzzles of sentences and stories. My host mom begins laughing when she notices the intent concentration on my face: watching a conversation I am not even part of with utter fascination. 

Arriving in Italy, I was so afraid to speak: afraid of embarrassing myself in attempting basic communication. Afraid of silent awkward dinners, and the discomfort of miscommunication. None of this was worth fearing. I have embarrassed myself, but only ever to the point of a family dinner devolving into hysterical giggles. Miscommunication is only another chance to laugh, and to marvel at how easily we take our ability to communicate for granted. My host family are the most forgiving and humorous teachers I could ask for, and the most wonderfully loving and hospitable family members I could imagine. From them, I have gained a level of comfort with Italy, and a level of comfort with myself, mistakes and fears included, which spans continents and years beyond description.

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