Rideshares and Five-Hour Silences, and Why You Should Study Language

Such a petite yellow car in Italy. Luckily, not the one I took with a 5-hour rideshare.

Such a petite yellow car in Italy. Luckily, not the one I took with a 5-hour rideshare.

Bla Bla Car. /blɑ blɑ cɑːr/  Proper noun. A ride-share site popular in Europe. Designed to get you from point A to point B, as long as you know how to say that point B in a shared language.  

Here is what I, a considerably well-traveled linguistics-degree-holding college graduate, learned during nine days in Italy in December:

Italian is not Spanish.

I know!!! I’m as shocked as you!!! They didn’t just randomly assign two names for the same language. Not all Latin offshoots were created equally. Italian and Spanish are not like Bostonian versus Texan English.

Sometimes my common sense and university background flat out fail me. I honestly expected to step off the plane in Italy and understand at least 70% of what was going on around me. I didn’t even look up the basics, like hello-goodbye-nice to meet you, because a) I assumed ciao works for every social situation imaginable, and b) Why look up the basics when I speak fluent Spanish?

Part of the confusion is that I have Italian friends in Spain who have learned fluent Spanish in a matter of months, just by living it. They had a 3-week grammar introduction course; then they were tossed out on the streets and came up breathing as much Spanish as I’d studied in 10 years. So my natural assumption was that they had a leg up. Which is in part true.

Italian is closely related to Spanish. But it’s not Spanish. Which, incidentally, is why they don’t call it Spanish.

The extent of my Italian, besides our adopted food words, is everything I’ve picked up from shops in my hometown in California. A baby clothes store was called Ciao Regazzi. A dinner joint was called Salute. There’s a pizza place named Arrivederci.

But I’m going out on a limb here to say that in most traveling situations, “Ciao Regazzi” will only get you so far.

My point is that Italian was much harder for me than I imagined, so many Christmas meals spent socializing with hordes of Italian generations put my poor hosting friends in the uncomfortable position of translating between English-Spanish and Italian. I’m so lucky, and grateful, I had them.

What I did not have, however, were any saving graces on a five-hour Bla Bla Car ride from Pisa to Naples.

Bla Bla Car Through Italy

Bla Bla Car is a popular ride-share site in Europe. With the rising cost of trains and buses, innovation struck and someone invented this now hugely popular page to set up carpools. It breaks just about every rule you ever learned as a child: Don’t accept rides with strangers. Don’t get into cars with impeccably dressed single men. At one point the driver even offered me candy and I knew I was doomed. But when train prices spiked to 130 euros the day I went to buy my ticket, I decided kidnapping was preferable to bankruptcy.

So what’s a 5-hour Bla Bla Car ride like with a complete stranger with whom you share two words in common? It was this moment, or should I say 5 hours of moments, when I learned why the hell we should all study languages. First off, it does blow my mind a bit that someone from as tiny a country as Italy, with a language that really isn’t spoken anywhere else, doesn’t know three words of English to rub together. But I also reflected that I should have done my part to learn some Italian, if nothing else so that I can tell this complete stranger if need be that I could use a toilet stop, or a barf bag, or possibly that he should slow the f#*k down!

I didn’t know how to make the first ounce of small talk. I couldn’t ask him what he does; why he was returning home; how his Christmas was. Italian became the Chinese of romance languages. I am not exaggerating on this linguistic crisis for the blog’s amusement factor. It’s the very painful truth. There was one point in our “conversation” when the driver told me, in Italian, what I later learned to mean “There is one hour left until Naples.” Except what I interpreted him saying was, “What time do you eat lunch in the U.S.?”  

Where does one go so wrong. I mistranslated not just the context, meaning, and the name of a city, but actually managed to misinterpret a statement as a question.

So learn languages. If not, your response to a pending arrival in Naples will be, “I usually enjoy a light meal around noon.”

Non-Linguistic Side Note:

The Bla Bla Car ride could have been an utter disaster, but all things considered it went off without a hitch. The guy was nice (for all I know); he drove well; there was no traffic; he dropped me off at my friend’s doorstep in Naples. He even lent me his 3G hotspot and called my friend from his Italian number. Plus, the upside to sharing only 2 words in common: The silences were inherently NOT awkward. It was commonly understood that we not only wouldn’t make small-talk; we couldn’t. Instead of thinking of a million different ways to comment on the weather, I could just sleep.

Important Take-Away Information From This Post:

  1. Bla Bla Car is free to sign up and normally very reliable. It currently operates in 14 countries, mostly throughout Europe (including Russia and Turkey), and just launched in India. It is almost always significantly cheaper than public transport, though you may be willing to shell out a few more bucks for the train in order to avoid the linguistic struggle.

2. Italian isn’t Spanish.

3. Jenny’s Linguistics degree is pending revocation.


Want more from my Christmas trip to Italy?

The Italian Diet: How to Gain 1,000 Pounds (454 kilos) in 9 Days

How Not To Approach the Italian Aperitivo

Changing the Way I Travel

The Leaning Tower Will Survive a Little Longer

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  • Jessica

    Haha umm…it’s just as well I read this before going to Italy anytime. I feel like from hearing my Italian friends talk here, all you have to do is change your accent a little bit while speaking Spanish and presto! Guess not lol.

    I’ve never taken Bla Bla Car, but not having to make awkward conversation because you literally can’t doesn’t sound too bad to me. :D

    • Hahah ya the secret silver lining to language barriers. I’m so surprised you’ve never taken bla bla car, with the amount of traveling you do around Spain!! It’s sooo convenient, I recommend checking it out :)