Language Barriers

On February 24, I noted CNN’s report on the tragic death in Rome a couple days earlier of U.S. study abroad student John Durkin. The 21 year old college junior’s body was found in a train tunnel. He had been hit and killed by a train.

He was last seen alive leaving a bar called Sloppy Sam’s. Insofar as I know, there have been no major new revelations. However, yesterday I did notice the Portland (Maine) Press Herald had reported this on February 27 (my emphasis in bold):

….Italian authorities say Durkin was struck by a train in a railroad tunnel between St. Peter’s and Trastevere train stations. The tunnel is about two miles from the bar, Sloppy Sam’s, in the opposite direction from his dormitory.

The area where the bar is located, the Piazza Campo dei Fiori, has open air markets during the day and is a popular nightspot for foreign tourists. It also has seen incidents of violence in recent years, according to press reports.

Italian newspapers reported that an image taken from a security camera near the San Pietro train station shows Durkin walking along the tracks toward the tunnel at daybreak. He was described as “staggering” but uninjured….

….Durkin went to the bar with friends who left at about 1:30 a.m. while he remained. He left at 2 a.m. when the bar closed but his movements in the four-hour window from 2 a.m. to when he appeared on the camera near the train station are not known.

Besides how he ended up wandering on the tracks, what he was doing and where he was from 2 a.m to 6 a.m. seems something Italian authorities want to find out. However, of course it is entirely possible that it may never be known.

What caught my eye also in the article is this next paragraph:

Sloppy Sam’s describes itself as “the only dedicated American bar in Rome.” It has English-speaking staff and shows American sporting events on television, according to its Facebook page….

I suppose it’s little surprise that American students new in Rome would gravitate to an “American bar.” Yet the presence of the Vatican and the millions of pilgrims who visit it, as well as all of the other Rome tourist attractions, likely contributes to English being not uncommon in the city. For instance, the Rome Metro even offers its automated, on train station announcements, in Italian and English.

Politeness dictates that you don’t reflexively assume an Italian in Rome understands English; but, by the same token, until I’m sure I never assume someone does not understand English either. That’s not to say everyone you meet in Rome speaks some English. Far from it. But in most restaurants and bars in the tourist areas, even if they don’t have signs up announcing “English spoken,” someone working there probably can manage a bit of it.

St. Peter's at dusk. [Photo by me, 2013.]
St. Peter’s at dusk. [Photo by me, 2013.]

When we saw Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square in person back in September, in the crowd my 19 year old English nephew, who had never been to Rome before, briefly ended up standing next to a couple of Italian women. They spoke little English, and my nephew speaks almost no Italian; but he does know Spanish fairly well. He said to me afterwards that they had had a laugh together babbling in bits of the three languages.

Toward the end of our week there, my nephew announced that Rome is his favorite city.

Never let a language barrier be a turn off. Italians are usually very relaxed. My experience after several visits to Rome over the years is, yes, they appreciate when you try some Italian, but they don’t really expect non-Italian visitors to know too much of it.