The Adventures of Interning in a Foreign Country When you Don’t Speak the Language
**Hint: the secret is patience, positivity, and a lot of hand signals**
Ciao! My name is Charlee Wilkerson and I’m a rising senior at the University of South Carolina. I’m a Retailing major with an emphasis in Fashion Merchandising and I chose to spend the summer in Sorrento, Italy interning at a boutique called Acanfora. Side note (which I’m sure you already gathered): I don’t speak Italian. I bet you’re wondering why I chose to live in a country for 10 weeks where I don’t speak the language. I wonder that sometimes too; sometimes I even think I was insanely crazy for not choosing somewhere that speaks English. But then I remember that life is all about adventure and going out of your comfort zone; and I know I made the right decision.
So, what started my crazy journey abroad? Mainly the fact that Italy had always been at the top of my traveling bucket list. Not only is Italian food my absolute weakness, learning about the culture and the fashion of Italy always fascinated me more so than any other country in school. When I decided to go to the University of South Carolina, I discovered we had to do two internships, and I thought, “Why not intern and study abroad at the same time?!”
And thus, began the process…
I emailed my internship advisor to see if it was even possible (great first step, I know). She said YES… but wait for it… that it was very rare and doesn’t work out a lot of times. So naturally I had to make it happen. This started the 2-month long process of research and emailing. After finding a fashion related internship that met all the requirements, submitting a formal petition to get the class approved, and telling every stranger I met on the street, I was ready to go!
Fast forward to May 27 and I’m in Sorrento, Italy; one of the most gorgeous cities I’ve ever seen. I met my supervisor, Carmen Acanfora, a few days later and toured the shops I would be working in. It’s a family business that has been passed down for generations. They have a main shop, an outlet store, and a watch store called Capri Watch; all with cute merchandise galore. Carmen and the other employees are so genuine and kind. Even though none of them speak very much English, they have made me feel so welcome. I think it’s rare to have employers that want you to give your honest input to improve the store, and they seem to really care about my opinion. I came to Italy knowing how to say “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “Do you speak English?” and after one week I can actually understand some sentences. In hind sight, I don’t know what I was thinking by not learning Italian beforehand; but it’s definitely been an adventure.
I mainly help with sales in the outlet store because most of the people that come in speak English. I’ve met some awesome couples and families! People are so surprised when they find out I’m American and working in an Italian boutique. I literally hear, “Your English is so good” at least twice a day before they know I’m actually from the States. I always respond with, “I would hope so, I’m American!” which always gets a laugh. I’ve honestly made a game out of things too. I try to spot the Americans, or sometimes I’ll try to listen to them to see what language they’re speaking. It’s kind of funny because before now, people in other countries would say how obvious Americans were and I always wondered how they knew. I finally understand it! It’s hard to explain how you know, but once you’re in the situation, you just do. I have definitely been stumped several times though because some people blend in or they’re just from a similar country to America. One thing that has been difficult is when people come up and start asking me a question in Italian. They can usually tell I don’t understand because I look like a deer in the headlights. I’ll usually just ask them if they speak English and if they say no, I’ll point to someone that can help. My co-workers have been great about being close by to help me when that happens though. They usually make a joke that I only speak English and most people are still grateful to me for trying to help. I’ve actually helped a few customers that have spoken to me in Italian. Thank goodness for hand signals because I’ve been able to play it off a few times that I actually understand them. On the bright side, all of my co-workers still try to speak English to me and love to joke around. It makes things easier when the people are so welcoming and I know it will only get easier as time goes on.
I’m definitely excited to see where I’ll be in a few weeks and I can’t even imagine where I’ll be in 8 weeks when the internship is over. I can say for certain that interning abroad has been the scariest, most exciting thing I’ve ever done and I can’t wait to continue making memories.
Charlee is an SAI Sorrento student from the University of South Carolina.