Their Campus: Learning the language of “café Italian”

Milan is an international hub of fashion, finance and food — but as much as it may be globally represented, it is still Italy. Knowing the language is essential here, which I learned the hard way.

When I arrived, the several months of Duolingo practice and watching Italian movies with subtitles proved useless when spoken to by locals the language turned into a rapid string of consonants and hand gestures that I could hardly begin to grasp. I had to gain a foundation, and I learned that the best place to do this was the café.

I started to visit my café every day to get on a first name basis with the barista. Seeming cold and stoic at first meeting, he became amicable and helpful, used to being social with people from all walks of life.

The pace of conversation quickened every day, starting with the basic “how are you” to talking about school, family and aspirations — all of it made possible because of the Italian pace of life, where it is acceptable to take one’s time when sipping a shot of caffè. Mistakes are made often, but I tell him that I am learning, that I’m from Canada. He asks about the cold and the “Mounties” and tells me he has family in some part of the country. I exaggerate stories about the cold and tell him he should visit sometime.

The best way to view learning Italian may not be as a survival mechanism, but as a gateway. It is about being more than a guest in the country. Although the Milanese have a reputation for being reserved and exclusive, they want nothing more than to show you why they love their city and their country so much. And there are some things that just make more sense in Italian.