Sitting in her car before driving to work, Primo Aviere Giorgia Dentamaro’s cellphone lights up with a text message from her friend.
“Hey! How do you say ‘It was a great night’ in Italian?” the text says, written in Italian, except for the unknown phrase.
Dentamaro’s face brightens at her friend’s enthusiasm for learning her native language.
The text came from Airman 1st Class Marisela Hocker, a security forces Airman assigned to Aviano Air Base, Italy, and is representative of many messages the two have sent back and forth over the past two years.
Dentamaro, an Italian air force’s force protection airman, and Hocker met nearly two years ago while working as gate guards at an entry control point on base.
That first morning, Hocker arrived to work with a goal in mind — the same goal she had when she first found out she was getting stationed at the northern Italian air base, and the same goal her parents had when they arrived in America — “I’m going to learn as much as I can about this culture.”
On Aviano, security forces Airmen from both countries regularly work shifts together at the base gates, typically one or two from each country on duty at any given time.
“The first day we were at the gate, I’ll never forget,” Dentamaro said. Hocker was immediately forthright about wanting to be friends, walking directly up to Dentamaro and introducing herself in Italian. “I said, ‘OK, I can teach this girl.’”
The two instantly clicked.
While working shifts together, Hocker would teach Dentamaro English, and Dentamaro would teach her Italian.
Previously, Dentamaro’s interactions with Americans at the gate were pleasant, but limited because of language barriers.
But that changed.
Dentamaro said she not only wanted to learn English to help pass the time, but she wanted to better help those coming through the base gate. “I wanted to talk to someone to spend my time, but learning English helps me translate for people too.”
Overcoming language barriers is nothing new to Hocker, whose parents were both born in Mexico but moved to Arizona before she was born. Because her parents weren’t fluent in English, Hocker didn’t fully learn the language until she was enrolled in an English-speaking school when she was 7 years old.
“My mom put me in a school where they only spoke English, so I learned from other students,” Hocker said. “They felt it was important that I learned English as well as possible. My dad always stressed that I take in the American culture because I am American.”
Airmen stationed overseas have the unique opportunity to immerse themselves in foreign cultures, and Hocker has seized that opportunity from the first day she arrived in Italy.
“We’re visitors in their country,” Hocker said. “We’re their guests. We’re living in their world. I’m going to respect them. While I’m outside with an Italian, I want to talk to them. I want to get to know them. I want to get to know their culture. When the local nationals pull up to base, I may be the first thing they see. I think about that, and it matters to me that I show them we care about their culture.”
During the past two years, Hocker and Dentamaro have shared their cultures with one another. Dentamaro has shown Hocker how to make Italian coffee, a new favorite, and Hocker has introduced Dentamaro to American pancakes, although it took her a while to perfect the recipe.
“It called for a measurement I haven’t heard of: cups,” said Dentamaro, who’s from southern Italy. “I had to text her ‘What is this measurement?’ We use weight measurements.” She proceeds to hold up her phone, showing a picture of a biscuit box and her version of square-ish looking pancakes.
While Hocker is halfway across the world from her hometown and Dentamaro is nearly 200 miles from hers, through their friendship, they don’t feel far from home.
“(Dentamaro) is like my family,” Hocker said. “We all hang out like normal, as if there’s no culture difference, though there is. It helps me feel normal, like I’m having a normal social life. I work so many hours, it helps get away from the security forces world and feel like a normal civilian. I feel like I’m living with Italians.”
Learning Italian has made Hocker’s life in Italy more enjoyable, but it has also enabled her to better serve the people of Aviano in her duties.
“You never know when they’re going to need help,” Hocker said of the Italian people coming through the base. “We have to work together. We’re both here doing the same exact job at the gates. It helps being able to talk to ITAF.”
The two sometimes laugh at their conversations when they realize they’ve created a hybrid form of Italian and English, but the approach allowed each of them to learn the other’s language more quickly.
“I’m always trying to speak to her in Italian,” Hocker said. “There are times when I’m speaking in Italian and will have to stop, say the word in English, then continue speaking in Italian. Then, when I’m done, I’ll ask her, ‘How do you say that word?’”
Their friendship has also positively impacted both women in other facets of their lives.
Dentamaro has progressively lost weight through the motivation of Hocker, who works out nearly seven days a week.
Hocker, who continues to cope with the loss of her husband, an Army officer, has gained a friend to help her on the bad days where a phone call to family, some 3,000 plus miles away, just won’t do.
Both have learned a new language and have earned a new sister, but the realization of Hocker eventually being reassigned to a new base and leaving Italy hangs on the horizon.
“I don’t want her to leave. I’m like, marry someone,” Dentamaro says, partially joking, but mostly serious about Hocker finding a local Italian man to marry. “Stay here. I don’t want to think about her leaving. But I know this isn’t her home.”
As the two girls sit around the Italian dining facility for lunch, barely a word of English is spoken and the meals served are far from anything found on a typical American menu.
But somehow, Hocker doesn’t feel like stranger in a foreign land.
“I like to think I’ve made it more of her home,” Dentamaro said.
Hocker confirms that Dentamaro has achieved this goal. “I feel like I actually have family here.”