The Revd Alison Walker served as a Mission Partner in Florence with the Italian Methodist Church. Alison was accompanied by her husband Robin and their standard poodle, Gabrieli (the Italian name is just a coincidence!)
Below is some information from Alison's time in Italy as a Mission Partner:
Alison's first impressions:
First impressions may be misleading...we arrived into Firenze in the middle of the holiday season. It was hot. It had been hot since we'd entered Italy (in our camper-van) on the 6th August. Sun is lovely on holiday, but it has a strange effect when you are living in the city. You selectively open windows and shutters, trying to keep the sun out, but find the breeze (there isn't one). During the day, the apartment is so shady, you begin to feel nocturnal.
No matter what combination of windows and shutters, open and close, morning and afternoon, it doesn't matter. It is still hot. The apartment has beautiful floor tiles throughout, which we had imagined would be cold to our feet. They are now, in early January, but in August and September, they're hot. The terrace is too hot. You have to walk the dog before 8:30am, or it is too hot. And you simply have to go round for the corner for gelato at midnight.
The local neighbourhood:
We are sandwiched between the river and Santa Croce, just round the corner from the statue of David. The night-life is lively, with a nightclub and bar next door to the church, and a kebab shop and restaurant on the other.
The streets are filled with people, and the area therefore feels very safe, if somewhat noisier than you might like at 2am! However, it was puzzling when we arrived because there appeared to be no shops. Instead great corrugated iron shutters obscured any clues of what lay beneath.
Firenze is so hot in the summer (see above!) that anyone who can simply leaves the city, and that includes many local shop-owners. As August wears endlessly on and the heat diminishes into a hot UK summer in September, shops re-appeared, as if we were on Diagon Alley (the high street in Harry Potter novels).
We are not living in a graffiti inscribed, vacant lots, scruffy area, but instead can enjoy the small businesses - pet shop (Gabrieli's 2nd favourite place), fruit & veg. shops, butchers and ice-cream parlour (Gabrieli's favourite place). We are also a short walk from one of the Firenze markets with plentiful selection of meat, greens, clothes, household goods.
It is a good place to watch the world go by (as you sip your cappuccino at the market bar): the group of Africans selling dusters, tissues and umbrellas, the stall-holders are Indians, Italians, Filipini, the beggars are Romanians and Italians, the shoppers are from everywhere.
We knew before we arrived that travelling with our dog was going to be "a good thing". In fact, she has helped us talk to people from day one. Our Italian has slowly improved, but she was quick to learn that "Che bella!" was usually directed at her.
It seems the Italians are quick to praise and caress children and pets, so Gabrieli certainly feels right at home. With her, we are distinctive, and our neighbours quickly realized that we are not just tourists, but here to stay. However, without her, it has taken a few more months to reach the stage where we can smile, wave and "ciao" people as we pass by.
When we learned we were being appointed to Italy, we started Italian lessons and had in theory crammed in a lot before we arrived, after 60 hours of teaching. However, we were lacking in practice. We studied at a language school just round the corner (bed to school time, 3 minutes, rivalling the bed to pulpit time of about 30 seconds), 20 weeks for 20 hours a week.
Which in theory sounds plenty, however my brain has definitely slowed down in the 20-odd years since sitting GCSEs. We have a theoretical knowledge of all Italian grammar, but a significant lack in vocabulary. Fortunately, Italian and English are sufficiently close that you can say words with an Italian accent, and sometimes you get lucky. It does however, make you sound like a bad actor doing a bad impression.
I thought I was doing fine with the grammar, until we hit the 'subjunctive tense'. It is practically obsolete in English, but alive and kicking in Italian and entails learning another 4 tenses, making a total of 15.
Mastering the Italian accent:
Everybody knows that Italian is a beautiful language. Firenze is the home of Dante, who significantly shaped modern Italian when he wrote The Inferno. Italian is the major language of opera and musical terminology. Shakespeare knew Italian, TS Eliot quotes Italian verse, and it is of course, the language of love.
Until I start speaking. My Italian accent starts somewhere in London and progressively moves south of the river until I reach a broad Kentish (my home county). I have not yet mastered the rising and falling intonation which makes Italian sound musical, and I really don't understand the difference in pronunciation between "e" and "è".
I wish I could say that speaking a bit of French helps. What makes this more frustrating is that Robin seems to have a flawless accent, courtesy of his musical training and misspent youth singing in Latin.
Formal language training completed, I started full work on 20th December 2009. So far, I am still working out what makes this small church tick. In theory, my work is to be in 3 parts: the usual work with the Church, developing youth work and reaching out to migrants, who form a significant part of this busy city.
In reality, the Church needs love and attention to raise their confidence to a point where they feel able to undertake the developmental work and outreach that is clearly needed. And so I try and provide cake, encourage them to share coffee after church every week, and suggest that it might be a good idea to actually talk to the few new people who have found their way through our doors.
It is all reassuringly familiar, as I know that churches in the UK face exactly the same issues. But at the same time, it's all Italian, and foreign, and culturally different and I am always left wondering if I have understood, and been understood, or if I am looking the wrong way at a different view.
• Give thanks that Robin has found work on Sunday mornings at St Mark's Anglican Church in Firenze, that Gabrieli has settled in well, that we feel at home.
• Please pray for some practical matters: that we can obtain Gabrieli's medicine and that changing the camper number-plate is an easy process.
• Please pray for the church: that we can start to grow in fellowship, faith and numbers, increasing our confidence so that we can look to engage in outreach.
• Please pray for me as I start to make contact with the members who are on the list but do not currently attend worship.