33: Climbing the Tower of Babel

33: Climbing the Tower of Babel

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Climbing the Tower of Babel

Friendship is genuine when two friends can enjoy each other’s company without speaking a word to one another.

~George Ebers

During my four-hour wait on a bench at the Amerigo Vespucci Airport, I sipped my first legally purchased alcoholic beverage (a nice, cool Birra Moretti), shuffled through my Italian flashcards and wondered why America wasn’t called Amerigo. It was the fall of my junior year and I had elected to spend the semester abroad, in a city that oozed paintings, sculpture and the vigor of the Renaissance from its every pore. It didn’t hurt that Florence was also renowned for its culinary genius — a land of cannoli, homemade pasta, and mind-numbingly delicious gelato.

When my program’s van finally arrived, I piled in with eight other Americans who, like me, were all enrolled in the Accademia Italiana of art and design. We made small talk in the back as our Italian driver navigated the narrow, alley-like streets of the city, coming this close to ramming into a moped or a car with every lane change or turn.

I was the first to be dropped off, since my apartment was located in the outskirts of the city. Massima, a Florentine girl who had accompanied us, unlocked an enormous gate and led me up four flights of spiraling, never-ending stairs. Just as I’d caught my breath, I lost it again when the door swung open, revealing soaring ceilings, wooden floorboards, and beautiful furniture — a far cry from the small, bare-bones apartment I’d envisioned!

“Two or three more will come, maybe soon,” Massima said, referring to my future roommates, as she left to return to the idling van. I wandered around the stocked kitchen, the spacious living room and the two bedrooms, each with two twin beds. I was elated to discover a balcony, which overlooked courtyards and a school below.

Exhausted, I collapsed on one of the beds and slept until dark. When I awoke, I was ravenously hungry, but too fearful of going into the dark, foreign city alone to do anything about it.

The former brightness of my apartment had transformed into a stoic gloominess with the nightfall. With nowhere to go and no one to talk to, I was unsure of what to do with my jet-lagged self. I spent the night sleepless on my back, ignoring the growls of my stomach, and clapping my hands together left and right over buzzing mosquitoes.

At my program’s orientation the following morning, I learned that everyone else had already met their roommates. All of the American students had been grouped together in twos, threes and fours in apartments all about the city. They’d all had their first meals in incredible trattorias or cheap cafés the night before. I soon discovered that this was because I — and I alone — had noted on my application that I preferred to live with international students.

My first roommate, Michela, didn’t arrive until a few long days later. We cooked pasta together and I tried to apply all of my self-taught Italian to real-life conversation. Since Michela spoke almost no English, we made the Italian-English dictionary our third wheel, accompanying us everywhere we went. Surely, we thought, our other roommates would speak Italian or English and we’d soon be able to communicate more efficiently.

But the third arrived a few days later and, as it turned out, barely spoke English and could say only grazie and ciao in Italian. Benchawan (Ben, for short) was a thirty-six-year-old Thai masseuse, lover of meditation, and supreme fish sauce enthusiast. With every meal she prepared came a high-sodium, inescapable odor that filled every crack of our humid apartment! “You like to try?” she would say, hurtling a fork-full of rice and seafood toward our closed lips.

At times, seemingly out of nowhere, Ben would exclaim, “Welcome to Thailand!” by which, I came to realize, she meant that we should come visit her when our days in Florence together were bygones. Michela understood none of Ben’s broken English and would merely look at me with a furrowed brow, click her tongue and mutter, “È pazza...” (“She’s crazy...”).

I held out hope that an English-speaking girl would soon fill the last bed in our incommunicative apartment. A week later, Diana, who was not American, Italian, or Thai, finally arrived. “Where are you from?” I eagerly asked. “Mexico,” she replied, “Chihuahua.” Once I came to understand that she was referring to a city — not to the breed of high-strung canine — I felt rather ignorant.

“A little,” Diana said, when I asked if she spoke English. “Un poco,” she said, when I asked if she spoke Italian. I didn’t bother asking her about Thai.

During the first weeks, dictionaries littered the floors and tables of our apartment. We all became skilled gesticulators, piggy-backing off our limited vocabularies with elaborate gestures and props. Life began to resemble a non-stop game of charades and a successfully transmitted message was cause for great joy.

By the end of the first month, I no longer retained any desire to be living with my fellow Americans. I came to love surmounting the challenges of communication on the streets of Florence and also at home with my diverse roommates. I was grateful that my semester abroad was not only a foreign experience in terms of place, but also in terms of companionship. This was an opportunity for me to learn about aspects of myself and about others from around the world that I would take with me back to America, back to college in Ohio in the spring, and then continue to preserve in my mind, well beyond graduation.

The four of us overcame our real life “Tower of Babel.” We defied our language barriers, divided cultural backgrounds, and age differences. We came together over consuming sickeningly large amounts of Nutella. We bonded over the hilarity of fish sauce, over our shared love for art, and over the inherent comedy in our disparities. That fall, we all learned a little bit of three new languages, became familiar with three new cultures, and realized that it’s true what they say about laughter: it has no language, it knows no boundaries.

~Maya Silver

More stories from our partners