FLORENCE, ITALY — The moment the pair entered the cafe, something changed. Conversations halted. Eyes darted back and forth. An elderly woman rubbed her head and sighed. Somehow, everyone just knew: The Americans had come.
The two girls struck an amusing pose, both hunched forward to ease the weight of their bulky backpacks, both dressed in cargo pants and university-emblazoned sweatshirts. But they employed a loud, commanding tone - in English.
"What kind of ice cream is that?" one of them asked the man behind the counter. He paused. "Chocolate chip," he replied, his voice rich, deep, and distinctly Italian.
"Oh, OK; well then I'll have some of that," the American stuttered, failing to specify cup or cone, one scoop or two. But the man nodded and scooped the chocolate chip gelato into a cone. "Please," he said politely, and handed it over.
When the duo left, a few diners rolled their eyes and the cafe quickly returned to normal. But I, biting into my brioche in the corner, burned with shame.
All it would have taken was a couple words - or charades, for the girls to communicate without using English. And yet, completely oblivious to those around them, a simple order of gelato had proven to a small group of Italians that Americans can be a loud lot unwilling to speak anything but English.
Beyond leaving a trail of irked Italians in their wake, the Americans were missing out on a priceless learning experience, one that might have exposed them more intimately tothe Italian people and their culture.
Studying a language before going abroad, even if only for a few hours, can open so many doors. The duo either didn't know, or they didn't care, that a simple "Mi scusi, no parlo Italiano" might have been met with a much warmer reception. Or that the tiniest sign of humility might stir patience and kindness, and could even have a positive, if small, influence on the already shaky image of Americans abroad.
I myself was an American tourist with my own bulky backpack and a keen hankering for chocolate gelato. And two weeks before my departure, I knew exactly two words in Italian: grazie and sí.
So I studied a dictionary and guidebook, and I played a few simple word games, mixing and matching Italian phrases on an old CD ROM.
By the time I boarded the plane, I had not learned much. But the most basic words and phrases would prove to be vital as I strolled through the Piazza del Duomo, studied the paintings and sculptures at the Uffizi, and ordered double chocolate chunk at corner gelaterias.
I had considered enrolling in a six-week Italian course prior to my departure, but time and money did not permit. And yet, with the smallest amount of self-instruction, I got around without once relying on English.
I even held a conversation with an elderly man at the bus station, who was very interested in what I was doing so far from home, and who peered curiously at my creative hand gestures and dictionary referrals.
What surprised me the most about my minuscule amount of language preparation, however, was how often I was mistaken for an Italian.
People asked for directions more than a few times. And as soon as I got past buongiorno (good day), when it became immediately obvious that I could not say much more in Italian, everyone then assumed that I was French.
It may have to do with my refusal to revert to English, or my quiet voice, or the appreciation I expressed when people patiently repeated themselves until I understood. But to know formaggio is cheese, per favore is please, and no lo so is I don't know - it didn't make me any less of a tourist, just a less ignorant one.
With the wealth of language preparation available in books or online, it remains a mystery why, everywhere I went in Italy, I could always hear the Americans.
Dave Sperling, creator of Dave's ESL Café, a website that receives millions of hits each month from more than 150 countries, lists his favorite online resources for travelers who hope to tackle the basics of a language before venturing off to a foreign land.
A listing of free online language courses for more than 90 different languages.
Online and CD-ROM courses on 20 languages, with 5 million users in 108 countries.
A free resource to learn the basics of dozens of languages. Audio is included.
Outstanding resource of online courses and more than 280 foreign-language dictionaries.
Books, software, and video on just about every language imaginable.