I’d often heard that the best way to learn about a country’s culture and language was to go live there. So, from the moment that Italy first eked out a place in my heart when I was 15, I planned to one day return there and live. However, the transient life of a foreign exchange student didn’t do it for me. I wanted to feel like a local. I wanted to be Italian. So I enrolled in an internship program for a summer then convinced the tour company where I interned in Tuscany to hire me back the following year.
Allow me to start by saying that there is nothing more humbling than going to work in a foreign language, in a foreign country. The first thing that I, the holder of a 4-year university degree in Italian, realized when I walked into work was how little practical workplace language I actually knew. Sure, I could write essays and talk about the literary devices used by great Italian writers (not so practical), but I didn’t know how to ask for a highlighter and didn’t understand when my boss asked me for some company letterhead (very practical). My coworkers’ thick Tuscan accents didn’t exactly help the situation either. Luckily, I’m a fairly quick learner.
But let me tell you, trying to break down the language barrier while learning to do my job was a challenge. I learned firsthand the meaning of “baptism by fire”. There wasn’t much time for training – this was Tuscany in tourist season, after all. I just had to work: answer the phone, respond to emails, schedule tours, give information to tourists, and handle anything else that came up.
This would have been a more manageable task had our office not been a frenzied and frenetic place. Italian organization is outright chaos by North American standards. Imagine a host of volatile personalities, minimal office space, employees coming and going all the time, phones ringing off the hook, vehicles breaking down, and everyone trying to cater to the whims of thousands of tourists. You’ll understand when I write that the atmosphere was, at times tense, at times jovial, at times stressful, and always, always interesting.
The staffing situation in the office also afforded me a few opportunities that I may not have had, had I been working for a Canadian company. Being the only native English speaker and the only North American in the bunch, my employers gave me free reign when it came to anything English. I translated brochures, updated the website, smoothed over any issues pertaining to English speaking clients and collaborators, and even attended an international tourism trade show with two of the company’s owners.
Tuscany very quickly became my second home, and I soon felt like a local. At work, I was giving information to tourists and helping contribute to the local economy. During my time off, I made friends with my coworkers, other Italians and even some expats. By the end of my time there, many people (Italians included) were sure I was Tuscan. I had picked up the same accent that had baffled me at the beginning, could talk at length about local culture and events, and even started to think like an Italian.
My work experience in Italy, as challenging as it was at times, turned out to be extremely rewarding. I accomplished my goals and then some; I learned invaluable lessons about the country’s language, culture and business practices. I met some very kind, interesting and wonderful people, and I did it all in one of the most beautiful places on earth: Italy.
Sarah Mastroianni is a Canadian travel blogger and Italy enthusiast. If you’d like to read more about her adventures in Italy, check out her blog, Not Just Another “Dolce Vita” or follow her on Twitter @s_mastroianni.