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Lost in Florence: Communicating Beyond Language Barriers

Kelly Pflaum

Two American girls in their early twenties, alone in Florence, Italy, lost. Neither of us spoke Italian, we were far beyond the edges of our map, and our train to Rome that cost us ten Euros each to reserve a seat was leaving in less than an hour. With no time left to panic, we needed to enter survival mode - or at least ''think rationally" mode. 

I think it's safe to say that one of the most highly advertised and sought-after benefits of studying abroad is the freedom to explore a foreign place on one's own terms - to gain the confidence to understand a new culture and navigate within a way of life different than one's own. But it also has its challenges.


My story starts in Norway, where I studied abroad for a semester with Concordia College's Scandinavia and the Baltic program. In this particular program, we studied with a group of ten students from Concordia and Luther College, as well as a faculty leader from Concordia. II of the American students lived together, and we often traveled as an entire group. Now, there were definitely advantages to having this sort of security, such as having planned excursions and not having to worry about the logistics of travel, but it also made it more challenging to really gain the freedom and confidence to be on our own in a foreign country.

I got a small taste of this, though, during our two week Easter holidays from school. Since we were already on that side of the Atlantic, it was the perfect opportunity to explore other parts of Europe. But we were on our own. On our own to plan, to travel. and to make it back to orway safe before final exams. I realize that many study abroad programs are like this from the beginning, but during our semester abroad, everything had been planned for us. Sure, I took a few weekend trips away from Norway, but two weeks was a long time to plan for. Nevertheless, I took on the challenge. 

I made plans to travel with another girl who was studying abroad with me. We decided to    explore Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Italy before heading back to Norway. Four countries in two weeks. It would be quick, so everything had to be carefully planned in order to fit in all that we wanted to do and see. We bought Eurail passes so that we could travel by train. During the weeks before we left, I spent time planning train routes and timing, researching, and booking hostels, learning about public transportation in each city, deciding what sites we would be sure to hit, and printing out tons of maps that would help us get safely from train station to hostel o    tourist sites and back each day. I had confirmation emails, directions, and a detailed schedule at we would follow to make sure everything went smoothly.

And it did. For the most part. We spent only a day or two in each city, but we made the most of it. From Germany's capital full of World War II history, to Easter Markets in Prague; from Vienna, the cultural center of Austria, to Innsbruck, a quiet town in the Alps; from the canals and bridges of Venice, to Florence, the birthplace of the renaissance; from Rome, the great Eternal City, back up to Munich, the Bavarian home of Oktoberfest. We moved from city to city by train, walked miles with luggage to hostels, and saw everything that our short amount of time would allow. With each step, we were gaining confidence in our ability to navigate a foreign place. And each day that we arrived in a new city, we would reserve seats on the trains we would need to take next. I knew exactly which times and train numbers we needed to take in order to follow our plans. 


When we arrived in Venice, we decided to book seats through Trenitalia for each of the trains we would need to take while we were in Italy. This meant a train from Venice to Florence, a train from Florence to Rome, and an overnight train from Rome up to Munich. I explained to the man at the ticket window, in the simplest English, which trains we would like to take and the paid a few Euros for the reservations. We got our tickets, and we went off to explore Venice - the bustling Ponte de Rialto, Piazza San Marco, gondolas on the winding canals. Two days later, we used our first reservation to make it safely to Florence, and we had another whirlwind tour of a amazing city. The Piazza della Signoria, the Ponte Vecchio over the River Amo, and, of course, real Italian pizza all made the cut of things we had time for. When we were too tired to walk any farther, we made our way to the campsite where we stayed the night. 

The morning that we were to take a train from Florence down through the rolling hills o Tuscany to Rome, we caught a ride on a public bus that took us from our campsite near Piazza! Michelangelo to the train station. During the half hour ride, we wound down the hill on the south side of the River Amo, a panoramic view of Firenze, the burnt orange dome of the Santa Mari del Fiore, and the single brick tower of the Palazzo Vecchio passed by the window. I knew the train wasn't supposed to leave for two more hours, but as we descended towards the center o town, I took my folder of scheduling. maps, and information out of the front pocket of my too full backpack and found our seat reservation ticket for the train. I examined it, double checking that everything I had planned was still on schedule. It was printed in Italian so I knew I couldn't be too careful. I don't know if it was luck or if my instincts had kicked in and told me to take out the ticket, but sure enough, I noticed an error. 

Apparently Florence has multiple train stations. We had arrived at the main, centra station, Stazione di Firenze Santa Maria Novella, the day before, but our ticket listed our departure from Stazione di Firenze Rifredi, and we had no idea where that was. Even though the train left a the same time as the one we had planned for and went to Rome, it was a different route than w had intended to take, and I hadn't specified from which train station we wanted to leave when w had reserved our seats in Venice. My planning had failed us, and I didn't have my trusty laptop o Google Maps to help me out. 

Panic ensued. We had two hours to figure out where this other train station was in order to    make our train. We got off the bus at the central train station and walked across the street to he nearest tourist information center. Travelers lined up, waiting to be called to one of seven or eight windows, behind which local representatives stood to answer any questions asked of them. We waited in line for nearly fifteen minutes before a gentleman in a navy blue uniform called us o    his open window. He greeted us in Italian, and already I doubted his helpfulness. Using simple English once again, I asked him for directions to Firenze Rifredi. He handed us a tourist map of the city, one that highlighted all of the sites we had seen the previous day, and pointed to the space above the map. The train station that we needed to get to didn't even make the cut for their map, so we wouldn't have any sort of visual help in finding where we needed to be. It would be a blind search. The representative did suggest that we could take one of two city buses in order to get there, though he wasn't sure which one, so he told us to ask the bus driver before we got on if that was the correct bus.

So we ran back to the central station, at which all buses stopped, backpacks and duffel 
bags weighing us down. We found one of the buses the gentleman had mentioned, and we stepped on. Looking at the driver, a large Italian man focused entirely on his cell phone and not on whether or not patrons paid the fare or scanned their bus passes, I took the tourist information man's advice and interrupted the bus driver, asking if the bus would go to the station we needed to get to. Good thing, too, because it did not in fact go there. The driver did tell us, though, which bus we should take. So we stepped off, and I sat on my duffel bag, waiting for the other bus to arrive. When it did, I again asked the driver if this route would go to Firenze Rifredi. It did. I asked him if he could tell me at which stop we needed to get off. He said he would just tell me when we got there.


Great. We had to trust this guy. He couldn't have been older than twenty-five, a scruffy beard on his chin, his hair shaved, the gray-blue shirt of his uniform untucked. I guessed that driving city buses day after day was only a temporary job for him. So although I was happy to be on the right bus, I was not comforted by the fact that I had to trust this man that I had never met and would probably never see again in my life.


Still a little wary of the situation, I sat in the first seat behind the driver, my friend behind me. I piled my duffel bag and backpack near the window and sat half in the aisle, leaning forward, making sure to keep watch on him in the large rear-view mirror as he drove. We were down to only an hour before the train left, but if this bus brought us where we needed to be, we wouldn't have any problem being on time. As we continued through the stops on the route, I kept glancing at the driver, but I also saw, out the window, traffic signs on the side of the road for the train station we needed to get to. A moment of relaxation, but still waiting. I knew we had to be getting close, so I fixed my eyes on the driver's through the mirror, waiting for him to tell me when to get off.


Soon, though, I stopped seeing the signs. Looking around the bus, I had no idea what to do next. I turned to my friend and knew she was thinking the same thing. We needed to do whatever was necessary in order to get on that train and to move on with our plans. Having no knowledge of the Italian language other than simple greetings, I turned to an elderly woman - white hair atop a round olive face, a pastel pink cardigan over a gray dress - sitting across from me and said, ''Scusi, Stazione Rifredi?" She shouted in quick Italian and waved her arms, pointing behind the bus. Other locals joined in with her Italian jabber, and I knew something was wrong. My few years of Spanish classes from high school helped me guess that she said we passed the train station three stops ago -and, of course, the bus driver never told me. I thanked the woman and stood up, exiting the bus at the next stop. The driver apologized and said he forgot. He told us to go back in the direction we came, taking a left, a right, but not giving us any street names for reference.

We were lost in a city, in a country that was foreign to us. We didn't speak the language, and we didn't have a map. With only forty minutes to get to the train station, and absolutely no idea where we were or where we needed to be, we ran back in the direction we came from, hoping to see any sign that might direct us. There was one, so we followed, but soon we saw no more signs. We looked for any sort of shop where we could ask directions, but this was a strictly residential neighborhood. Multi-story apartment buildings, fences, and closely parked cars lined the streets, but no people. So we kept running, looking, hoping that we would turn a comer and see the station.


Time was running out, and, planning to be riding on a comfortable train for most of the day, I had worn a warm sweater, a scarf, and sandals. With all of this running with my backpack and duffel bag slung over my shoulder, I was sweating and my feet hurt. Combine that with my worrying about catching our train and forever being lost in this foreign city, it was difficult to be optimistic.


That's when we saw an Italian couple walking down the street in our direction - the man in a dark suit, the woman in a dress with a blue and red floral pattern; they were probably close to sixty years old. I knew this might be our only chance to ask for directions. So when they got close, I stopped them. I pleaded, again with my nonexistent Italian skills, for directions to Stazione Rifredi. The gentleman just grunted, showing his mouth of missing teeth, and waved his hand as if to follow them. I looked at my friend, questioning whether this was a good decision, but I also knew that on the off chance this man was leading us in the right direction, it would probably be our best option for finding the station. We followed a few paces behind them, wondering if we had correctly interpreted his gesture, since neither of them once turned to look at us.


Then they stopped walking. The woman began talking in Italian and pointed left towards the cross street at the next intersection. They turned right, and we thanked them. And when we turned left, there it was, Stazione di Firenze Rifredi.


We hurried down the street, into the station and onto the platform just minutes before the train arrived. We made it, thanks to some quick thinking and troubleshooting in broken Italian. But as we sat on that train bound for Rome, I couldn't help but wonder what we would have done if we had never made it to the station on time. If I had never stepped out and tried to communicate with all of these helpful people who spoke little to no English, and if they, in return, had not taken the time to help us. After all of our wandering we would have had no idea how to make it back to the center of the city, the part that was actually on our map. We were completely on our own. two young women in a foreign country where we didn't speak the language.


Luckily, this was our only mishap during our two-week tour of Europe, but it sure taught me that traveling as part of a group from an institution like we had done all semester is a very different experience from traveling on one's own. It takes confidence, willingness to deal with challenges and changes to plans, and an ability to think for and rely on oneself. In this case, I had to find a way around the language barrier. I had no choice. Had I not, we may never have made it out of Florence-although I really wouldn't have minded staying a few more days immersed in the Renaissance art and architecture of the capital and cultural center of Tuscany. 

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