Florence is, of course, full of foreigners — from tourists passing through to permanent residents and everything in between. Little-known fact: it’s also full of Italians, Florentine and otherwise. But sometimes foreigners cluster in their bubbles and Italians in theirs, and the only contact between the bubbles is briefly bumping in shops, restaurants, and on the streets. For foreigners eager to immerse themselves in Italian life, this can be a bummer and make it hard to learn the language. For many Italians, interested in the cultures and language of the world, this can be just as much a bummer and missed opportunity.
The first time I came to Florence — 1994, junior year abroad with Sarah Lawrence College — I was ready and raring to practice the Italian I had learned in the classroom. But my social life was anchored to the school with other Americans and so the “bubble” formed naturally. Despite a whole country of Italian speakers, finding chances to practice was harder than you’d think (not counting creepy dudes on the hunt for short-term foreign “girlfriends.”) My Puerto Rican/American friend Dalina — who was already enviously fluent in Italian — and I found that the best conversation partners were barflies. They’ve got time and stories to tell. I developed a severe cappuccino habit, spending hours in the (coffee) bar across the street from the school and got to put my Italian to the test….