Immersion in Italy
Study Abroad Outside a Program
When I traveled to Italy the summer after my junior year, I had the same goals as those who attend semester abroad programs: to find a door to another culture and language. But there the comparison ends.
Study abroad—increasingly de rigueur for today’s college student—appears to have become increasingly institutionally canned. My dropping unannounced into a little Italian village was an even wiser
choice than I realized at the time.
If not being part of a program sounds right for you, I have compiled a few pointers below to send you on your way.
Search Unconventional Sources
If you do it right, such a trip is by no means prohibitive financially. It can even be cheaper than a university-sponsored program. In your search for lodging stay away from the big travel books and glossy travel
magazines; look for apartments or rooms in foreign newspapers, on the Web, and in the magazine classifieds.
Talk to language professors at your university and write the universities in the country you wish to visit. In England, for example, contact college bursars and ask about temporary housing. A friend of mine did this
and found himself staying in the former flat of the British economist John Maynard Keynes.
Pride in a Small Town
If possible, pick a small town. When I arrived in the obscure Tuscan town of Bibbiena, I was dubbed "l’americana" right away. No one spoke English, so my limited Italian began to improve immediately.
To learn and make the most of your stay in another country, it’s obviously best to be immersed in the world you visit, not cordoned off in an American group. It’s easy to speak American English if you
have the opportunity. Better to make sure you don’t.
Ideally, a large city would be nearby so you can also enjoy what a cosmopolitan center offers: music, art, and important historical sites. My 45-minute drive from Florence was perfetto.
If you’ll need transportation while there, look into leasing a car—often cheaper than renting one. I leased one for my last month, which allowed me to return to some of the remote places I had discovered
with friends. But remember that in Europe public transportation is much better than in America. You could also get a bike or a motorbike.
Now read—about the region, its food, its language, its art, its cultural norms. Can you wear tank tops without offending people? Are there hand-signals you should avoid? Travel books will give you the most important
precautions. But don’t be afraid to ask when you are there. For example, few waiters would be offended if you ask whether you’re supposed to tip.
Sometimes, of course, no matter what the culture demands, you will have to look out for yourself—I had to explain to my new friends why I wore a seatbelt: I had been in a bad car accident, I said. I wasn’t
afraid of their driving; I thought they drove wonderfully, but I certainly wasn’t going to ride without a seatbelt. They indulged me this peculiarity.
Learn the Territory
Wherever you are, the cafés are usually the heart of the social world. Go to other places where the locals go—the grocery stores, magazine stands, public squares. In Italy you could join in "la passeggiata," the
evening stroll, to watch the sunset, to socialize, to see and be seen.
Meet the People
It was daunting to approach a group of my better-dressed Italian peers, most of whom I later found out had known one another for years, armed only with the most tenuous grasp of the language. Walking up to Alfonso
and Claudio at a concert in the main piazza was one of the hardest and best things I have ever done. At the very least I figured they could tell me the best places to eat. But within a couple of weeks I was jumping between their homes for meals.
Many people will be just as curious to know about you and your world as you are to know about them and theirs.
Return the Favor
So invite them to your place, too. Try to make them an “American meal” or a family specialty. If you have room in your luggage, bring a few unique gifts from your hometown. My home is near Jamestown, the
first permanent English settlement in America, so I brought glass paperweights hand blown there. My friends were delighted.
Accept All Invitations
Since your temporary residence will differ in various ways from your one at home, even the most ordinary activity might teach you something. For example, a carabiniere (policeman) invited me to eat with him in the
cafeteria for the carabinieri. I’m not fond of cafeterias, but that was an exception.
I was invited to a graduation party for a doctor, to a feast at an old villa in the nearby mountains, to a friend’s kitchen to learn how to make pizza, and to meals with farmers, featuring homemade
prosciutto and cheese. I was also invited to accompany my friends to a hidden swimming hole in the nearby mountains.
Find the Less-Traveled Road
By accepting such invitations, you will find yourself off the beaten path—exactly what you want. Any guidebook can tell you where to find the major cathedrals, but guides probably won’t lead you to the
monastery in Dante’s Camaldoli forest where the monks make candies and open their doors to the public only on Sundays. Going there truly felt like going back centuries to talk with Dante’s characters.
So, I saw the David and the Sistine chapel, but because I formed a number of relationships with Italians and displayed a genuine curiosity, I also enjoyed a private tour of a chapel in Bibbiena, closed even to
Italians. I also got to go on a holiday with two friends to Calabria and learn firsthand how Italian connections work: we paid $45 (in high season) for a week in an apartment overlooking the sea.
Back at college, my summer of immersion had prepared me for a year-long course in Dante’s La Divina Commedia—conducted entirely in Italian. I suffered withdrawal if a day passed without pasta.
I made espresso instead of the brown water we insist on calling coffee.
Still, it was nice to be home—I am, after all, an American from the marshes of Virginia. But now I’m a little bit Italian too; and when I return to Italy, it feels a little bit like home.