I scanned the line of buses that had just arrived at the stop through my too-big designer rip-off sunglasses that let me pass for Italian when I wear them. The 14C pulled up, probably late, although, in nine months of taking it, I never bothered to check the schedule, and I pushed through the tiny doors en masse. I rode the 14C once a week — every Thursday afternoon. Every time I got nervous, though I tried to keep my stoic “I don’t want anyone to bother me or think I’m foreign” bus face.
The nervousness continued as I walked up that hill from the bus stop to Villa Lorenzi, not because it was steep but because of what awaited me there. Today would be my last visit, which made me remember my first. I had only been in Italy for a month and had been assigned to a volunteer job here, an after-school program for kids who come from troubled families. That first day I walked in, pretending to be confident, I felt out of place — my Italian was still broken at times, and I learned that understanding a professor’s lecture in perfect academic Italian and understanding a group of ten adolescent Florentine boys with thick accents were two different things.
One boy immediately stuck by me — the smallest, Ivan. He wanted to sit by me at lunch and asked me if I had a boyfriend before trying to sneak in some kisses on my cheek. He seemed crushed when I told him ten years was a little too much of an age difference for me. I tried hard to concentrate on the conversations spinning around me but only got frustrated by the few sporadic words I could catch. Why weren’t the other adults helping me? I thought, Can’t they see that I’m completely lost here? I had to remind myself painfully that this is what I’d been wanting this whole time, to get out of the tourist center of Florence, to have people treat me as if I did understand Italian, not special because I’m American. I stayed silent at lunch, and every time one of the boys would venture out to ask me a question, I could only smile back — I didn’t understand a thing.
Not being able to use my words, I got the respect from the rest of the boys on the soccer field — they aren’t used to seeing girls who know how to play a sport, and when I was able to steal the ball from Alessio, the show-off and ball hog, and then make a goal, they were in shock: “Che Forza, Margherita!” I helped Alessio that day with his English and math during study time and was immediately struck with the drawbacks of the Italian school system — Alessio didn’t understand a word of English when I said them in my American accent, but when I spoke them as he did, thickly covered in Italian pronunciation, he knew it all.
As I left that day, I could count the number of words I had spoken all afternoon on one hand, had had my grammar corrected by a 13-year-old when I did speak, and found out I was a terrible English tutor. Nonetheless, on the bus ride back into town, I couldn’t help but feel elation at having made it through five hours of a completely foreign experience, and the names and faces of the boys filed through my head: Alessio, Mohammed, Daniele, Michele, Peter, Marco, and Ivan. I already knew somehow that I would get attached, even if I could never understand a word they said, and every week felt like a battle I had to fight wholeheartedly just to make it back to the bus.
Today I walk into lunch and the boys say “Ciao,” though they all pretend that they don’t care to see me, except Ivan, who says, “Margaret! Vieni qui! Come stai?” (Margaret! Come here, how have you been?), then continues to ask excitedly how my mother is, how my boyfriend is, and how school is going. I now understand the conversations at lunchtime, and I have gotten used to the Florentine accent and even pick it up by accident at times, breathing in my c’s as if they are h’s. A few weeks ago I turned and smacked Mohammed when I heard him cursing, and Andrea, one of my colleagues, laughed at us. “Capisci molto piu adesso.” (You understand a lot more now.)
At playtime out at the campino, I was playing a soccer game with Mohammed and Alessio, a game I didn’t understand the rules to, just going where they told me to go. I glanced at my watch and saw that it said six, time to catch the 14C for the last time. Andrea noticed me idle away from the game and leave the campino only to stand watching the boys as they played. “E difficile di andare via, non?” (It’s hard to leave, huh?) He called Alessio over to say goodbye to me, he yelled “Ciao!” at me, barely glancing my direction before sprinting back to his game. Andrea assured me that that’s just how they say goodbye, but I already knew that. I don’t like goodbyes either. I walked down that big hill from Villa Lorenzi and hid the tears in my eyes behind my big fake sunglasses, on my way to catch the 14C.