For all of the confidence you gain living abroad, nothing will humble you more quickly and make you feel completely out of your element than getting sick in a foreign country. For the past two weeks I have been battling some sort of cold/flu virus. To add insult to injury, I woke up Saturday morning with an incredibly swollen and painful left eye (it was a bad eye infection)!
Not only was I worried about my eye (and in lots of pain), I had no idea where to go or what to do about it! I started googling eye doctors in Florence, but it was a Saturday morning and not only was no one open, but I couldn’t find any nearby. Desperate, I left my apartment and wandered to the center of town hoping I could find a sunglasses or eye glasses store that might be able to help. I finally found one but, of course, there was no doctor on a Saturday. Fortunately, the kind sales lady recommended that I walk down the street to the Misericordia. I only had a vague idea of what the Misericordia was. I knew it had something to do with health and emergency services, but other than that, I was at a loss. But I was desperate, so I walked in.
In stressful situations I tend to lean on speaking in English more than I should. All I wanted to do was walk up and ask for help and advice in my native tongue, but nobody at the Misericodia spoke English. I managed to convey what was wrong and that I was looking for an eye doctor. The lady at the desk was so sweet and reassuring. She explained that there wasn’t one in town, but she could give me directions on how to reach the Misericordia just outside of town, and that she could make an appointment for me. A bus and a tram ride later I arrived and was treated by a wonderful eye doctor (all for the low price of 48 euros).
While everything worked out, that day got me thinking about what it feels like to be a foreigner. The stress and pain of being ill shook my confidence. Although I ended up being capable of navigating the Italian healthcare system in Italian, the process was certainly intimidating as a foreigner. I remember growing up in Florida and listening to people complain about foreigners who didn’t or couldn’t speak English. Lines like, “if you come to our country, you need to speak our language.” As a sheltered and privileged youth, this made sense to me. But as someone who has lived in a foreign country and had to learn a foreign language, I am completely appalled at what I used to agree with.
Living in a foreign culture with a foreign language is hard! Plain and simple. And language fluency isn't as simple as we think. Fluency isn’t black or white. It is a process that has its ups and downs and is often affected by situations and stress. Furthermore, it takes years living in a foreign language to truly gain fluency. I will never again judge those in the U.S. who struggle to speak English or who sometimes revert to their native tongue in stressful situations.