It was approaching nine in the evening, which probably explained why the airport was uncharacteristically quiet. I was perfectly content to crack open the first pages of my new novel in solitude while waiting for my flight from Torino to Sicily. Relieved, actually. Not only to be alone, but also to be back in my beloved Torino where I had studied abroad a few years earlier, even if only for a brief moment at the airport.
So when a barely 5-foot tall nonna sat down next to me, I was slightly annoyed. Out of all the empty seats, why in the world had she sat down next to me? I scooted subtly in the opposite direction and put my nose in my book. Even though I craved connection now more than ever, the past few months living in France had made me not just shy, but withdrawn.
She started speaking to me. I froze.
That was the biggest reason for my desire to remain obscure – I couldn’t speak Italian. I had learned too few words too long ago to hold a meaningful conversation. My mind was linguistically confused, nothing but a mixture of Franglais, although I wouldn’t really say I could speak French either. Or, so I was told.
One day while seated on a public bench, peacefully contemplating the beauty of the Cote d’Azur in solitude, I was startled out of my reverie by an elderly couple. They wanted to take a seat…on my bench…when there were others available? (Incomprehensible for an American with an invisible personal bubble). A curious request, but I acquiesced.
I tried to respond politely that of course they could sit down, but the words tumbled out of my mouth as if they were tripping down stairs. I was caught off-guard, and my words wouldn’t come out fast enough. “You can’t speak French,” they scoffed with disdain, coldly brushing me off as if I were lint on a sweater. My heart sank as the years I had spent studying French at university were rendered meaningless, and my love for French went unrequited, or so it seemed.
This wasn’t the first incident like this in France, and perhaps why I took it so hard. If I was already shy in my native language, I was even more shy in French, and the teachers at my school in France hardly initiated conversation with me. Alone in a foreign country, I was yearning for someone to reach out to me (I was not as bold as I am now). So I was delighted the first time another teacher had taken interest in speaking with me, only for her to cut our conversation short with that very same definitive phrase, “You can’t speak French” after which she smugly showed off her English abilities. (On one rare occasion, I did fool an elderly lady into thinking that I was French for a total of five minutes – whether it was my accent or her age, I’ll never know.)
Now my mission in France was no longer out of selfish desire to gain access to a culture that I admired; I stayed because of the children. My students in France, ages 7-11, were full of pure innocence, curiosity and unconditional acceptance. However, I was required to speak to them only in English, and outside of school, I surrounded myself with other Anglophones from the U.K. and Jamaica.
French was a language that I adored, but had not yet perfected – and I wanted to SO badly – but I couldn’t even bear to make a mistake again even if it meant not trying. And just like that, I stopped trying. Speaking English was the only way that I could feel the comfort of home.
The nonna next to me didn’t interpret my book as a do not disturb sign as I had intended.
“Mi dispiace, ma non parlo italiano,” I told her, not wanting to be rude, but not willing to struggle through a conversation in broken Italian.
“Ah, but you understand!” she insisted. I don’t know why, but she didn’t give up on me.
“Try,” she coaxed me. “Piano, piano.” I had learned that phrase piano piano before ironically at the gym that I had attended when I studied in Torino. I knew that it meant encouragement, to keep trying, and I would achieve my goals slowly but surely, piano piano.
I softened towards the nonna next to me. She looked me in the eye, put her hand on my arm and listened patiently. Because she believed in me, I was able to put together enough words in Italian to convey that I was going to visit a friend in Sicily. I understood that she was on her way to a funeral. She never made me feel that my Italian was “bad,” in fact she praised me with “brava.” The more she listened attentively, the more I could say. I told her how my grandfather was Italian, but that he was no longer living. I explained that I had studied in Torino a few years ago and that I was teaching English in France now. She listened like I mattered.
When they announced that our flight was boarding, she linked her arm in mine as if I were her very own granddaughter, her head barely reaching my shoulder. She marched right up to the ticket agent to ask if we could please sit together on the flight.
No, the seats are already assigned, he said. And so nonna and I were separated unwillingly.
I thought I would never see her again, but she was there waiting for me as I exited the airport. It was late at night, and she wanted to make sure that my friend was there to pick me up.
I wish I knew her name. I wish I could fling my arms around her and tell her that even so many years later, I still think of her. That I will never ever forget her. To this day, the kindness that she showed me, a lonely American girl abroad, still brings tears of gratitude to my eyes. We are vulnerable when we can’t express ourselves in order to connect with others. She held a safe space for me to be vulnerable.
Her random act of kindness changed my life.
The way she believed in me, the patient compassion that she showed me, is how I strive to interact with my English students. And most of all as a language learner, I know that if I just try, I will get there piano piano*.
I am forever grateful to the nonna in the airport who treated me as if I were family. I was a stranger, yet she gave me the greatest gift of human connection: just be present to show that the other matters. I felt safe, protected, and looked after. For the first time since I had come to Europe to teach English in France, I felt at home in Italy.
If you ever wonder why I love Italy so much, this is why: connection. I feel such a deep connection to my heritage, the people, the traditions. The language of connection isn’t French, English, or Italian; it’s spoken from the heart.
*Language note: Unlike English piano doesn’t refer to the musical instrument (that’s a pianoforte). In some contexts, piano in Italian can mean floors or stories of a building (ex. first floor = primo piano), or in a musical context, piano means softly/slowly/quietly.