It was almost midnight but Via del Pratello was crowded with people, flowing out of the sitting areas of the bars and into the narrow street that during this time of night unofficially becomes a pedestrian-only zone. I stood with my back to the wall near a bar, an empty plastic cup in my hand that had cost too much and had not lasted long enough. It was my friend’s 21st birthday, so I met some American friends from my program on Via del Pratello, which was not near my house. I showed up late, sweaty from the long walk across the city, and could tell that I was not as fired up as the others about my friend’s 21st, a uniquely American celebration.
I stood by the wall next to Jack, and watched people pass along the street. They walk slowly down the middle of the street, dressed casually but well, a style that comes naturally to Italians. They look comfortable in their own clothes; no one tries to look like anyone else. Everyone has an individual look that seems to hint at who they are, but I couldn’t tell what they were really like from my vantage on the wall. I needed a closer look.
‘Hey Jack, you want to go talk to those dudes over there?” I said in English, nodding at a group of four Italians guys that looked about our age.
“Uh, I don’t know, why-” he started, “Let’s go!” I said, cutting him off by walking towards the group.
“What’s up,” I said to the tallest guy in the circle, “Uh, come ti chiami?” I asked, trying to act like introducing myself to random people on the street is a totally normal thing to do
“Donato,” he replied, sticking out his hand to shake mine. “Piacere, Donato, sono Peter” I said. “Questo è Jack, siamo americani.” Jack shook Donato’s hand. The circle expanded as we shook hands with everyone in the group, and they all made a polite effort to introduce themselves.
We quickly became the focus of the conversation. They wanted to know if we voted for Trump and what state we were from, if we owned a gun and if we ate a lot of steak. They asked if the women and food were better in Italy, and if I liked Travis Scott. “Certo,” I said.
In my experience, Italians, especially my generation, have a great respect for Americans and our culture. They think we are cool, and they want to know what we think about Italy and the life here. While most university students speak English almost fluently, they are always impressed and honored that we choose to study and speak Italian.
As an American, it is not hard to make friends with students in Bologna. I just walk up to people with my hand out, tell them I am American, and usually they want to be my friend.
The best way to speak fluent Italian is forcing myself into conversations with native speakers and I find that I have developed stronger language skills from standing in the streets until 3am than I do in the grammar review we have every morning at 10. After some beer I always speak with more confidence and more words, yet the next morning I sit in class regretting my decision to stay up all night ‘studying’. It’s fun, but exhausting.
I like being the only American at the party. I learn something new every time and it’s interesting to walk through a crowd of people my age talking and laughing in the same way they do back home, but not understand anything.
But Europeans always treat me with respect and want me to feel included. When my Spanish friends realize they are speaking in Spanish, which I barely understand, they switch back to English so I can follow the conversation.
My name can be translated into almost every language, but they are not mine. Spaniards want to call me Pedro and there are some Italian girls that think it’s funny to call me Pietro.
“No,” I always tell them. “Mi chiamo Peter, sono l’americano.”