On my way home from work recently, I stopped for lunch at a restaurant in a small town called Traver. Traver is in California’s Central Valley, between Tulare and Fresno. Although I pass it almost everyday, I rarely stop in Traver, because there is not much there except for a restaurant and a couple of gas stations. For some reason, I stopped this time, and I’m glad I did.
I placed my order and waited for my food. While waiting, I noticed a man and a woman in their mid-to-late twenties in line to place their order. I sensed they were foreign tourists because of their European fashion and the backpack the man was wearing. When I heard them speak Italian to each other, my suspicion was confirmed.
When my food was ready, I moved to a table near them and asked them if they were Italian. They confirmed they were, and I told them that I speak a little Italian. They were surprised and pleased, and we started talking in their language.
The couple was from Milan and had just spent two days camping in the Sequoia National Forest. They were headed to San Francisco for the weekend, before flying back to Italy. They explained that the people they encountered in America, especially in California, were friendly, which pleased me, having been a tourist in a foreign country. They enjoyed American barbecue, and even had a friend in Milan who recently started barbecuing for his friends. I told them about my time in Italy, and how much I liked the language and culture. We spent a half an hour talking to each other before I wished them a “buon viaggio” and continued home.
I admit I was nervous speaking with them. Although I have studied Italian for a few years, a sense of anxiety creeps over me when I talk to native speakers. It is one thing to do grammar drills on a computer program. It is a completely different experience to engage a fluent speaker in his native tongue. Making sure the verbs are correctly conjugated and the adjectives match the nouns in gender and number can send my head spinning. I did it, though, even if I may have stumbled over my sentences and sounded like a child at times. It was rewarding experience, one that I will remember for many years.
This was not the first time I have encountered Italians in random places. Seven years ago, I met an Italian couple at a burger stand in Big Sur. These chance encounters add a serendipitous richness and excitement to life. Even though I had never met these people before, I was able to connect with them and establish instant rapport. That is the beauty of learning another language. Italian provided an instant social glue with people who live thousands of miles away. Grazie ai miei amici italiani per la bella esperienza.
If you have had any chance encounters with people who speak a foreign language you are learning, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.