Darcara: Good question. Of course we need a native speaker's comment here. But your comment made me realize that there is of course the possibility to say: 'il primo ad arrivare lì', you can construct 'il primo' with an infinitive if we put the particle 'a' in between. The beginning still has to be "Ero", imperfetto, to show that it was a habit. English is so clear with its phrase 'I used to'. If it was not accepted I think you should report it. What I wonder is how an Italian would construct the sentence to be just as clear ?
That would more likely be "Sono stato il primo..." because, to me, it sounds like it only happened at one point in time.
I think a good translation might be "I used to be the first one to arrive there". What does everyone else think?
For sure the translation given is uncomfortable english.
Ero = I was, begins this sentence that tells us what happened some time in the past (1 week ago, or 1 year ago?). The English has the opportunity to shorten the following subordinate clause,, which the Italians cannot. The first one that arrived = il primo che arrivava, but in English you can also say 'the first one to arrive'. It is the conjunction 'that' = 'che' that initiates the subordinate clause. After 'che' you cannot put the infinitive 'arrivare', you have to conjugate the verb. The English infinitive-phrase has removed 'that'.
Edit: have to add that the italian "arrivava" of course implies 'used to arrive', or a statement of background for something else to happen; but italian does not have this verb-conctruction 'used to' that in English is constructed with an infinitive
Very helpful information. I especially appreciated your pointing out that 'che' initiates the subordinate clause. But my grammar (in all languages) is weak, so could you please explain why one needs a conjugated verb, and not an infinitive, after 'che'? Would an infinitive make the clause independent rather than subordinate? (See what I mean about my grammar ignorance?)
But I have to ad that Italian can also omit 'che' if the subject is the same person in both clauses, and use an infinitive-phrase: Ero il primo di arrivare lì. But for Italian infinitive-phrases we have to learn what verbs take what preposition: a, di, da, senza etc (where English have only 'to'), or when to just leave it out.
Regrettably, I have no smarter answer than "that's the way it is". Sorry. Italians use this construction, and it could have been used in English as well: *I was the first one that arrived there". Since both 'being the first' and 'arriving' are actions in the past, the verbs are conjugated in past tense in both clauses. English has this tendency to skip it, substitute it with shortened constructions, like infinitives or -ing-forms (gerund) - which is possible if it is the same subject in both clauses. English is kind of 'cheating' out of the problem with verb-conjugations, and at the same time creates something wonderfully 'elegant', making the phrase less clumsy. Italian on the other hand is elegant in the way the verb conjugation often makes the subject superfluous, omitting it makes the phrase shorter.