A Journey of Self Discovery
How to Understand Cultural Differences Through Study Abroad
Article and photo by Kristen Clark
The author in front of the Roman Forum (taken from the Capitoline Museum).
“No, non fare così!” (No, don’t do it like that!). The driver held a cigarette in his fingers, and gestured endlessly with his hands. The older man responded, his hands cupped in front of his chest, shaking them up and down, while his shoulders tensed up–a classic Italian gesture. “Aspetta, aspetta” (Wait, wait). Five American girls stood watching the Italians gesticulating wildly and exchanging suggestions while attempting to fit the luggage in a small white van. The men handled the bags rather awkwardly–they took them out, pushed them in, turned them around, and then slammed the door so they stayed in the car. Finally! We were ready to leave Fiumincino, the main airport of Rome, Italy. The driver weaved through traffic while sending text messages and looking in the mirror, eyes rarely on the road. There were five of us American girls in the back, strangers to each other at that moment, but already bonded by this scary, yet funny incident. We clutched the sides of the van, hoping to make it safely to the apartment. This was our first experience in Rome. It involved confusion, doubts, comedy, and for me, an itching desire to become completely immersed–to live lik
e a Roman, to be surrounded by Italians, to learn about il bel paese, Italia.
Study in Rome
I studied abroad in Rome. When I first arrived, I had no idea how much my time in Italy would affect me. As a history major, I always kept the following cliché quote in my mind: "the past is like a foreign country." So if I can study and understand history, then adjusting to a new culture would be a piece of cake. Although it was not always easy to live in a different country, I learned, I adjusted, and I left completely changed by my experiences. I was uncertain of myself in the first two years of college, asking questions such as: "Where do I fit in?" "What kind of person am I becoming?" "What will I do after college?" I found myself in Rome–with all my passions, needs, and future goals. I experienced an enthusiasm for travel, cultural immersion, and above all else, the close relationships I had formed with my Italian friends. In becoming immersed in a foreign county, you are able to look in on yourself, and discover what truly matters in your life, away from the biases pressed upon you by America, family, or friends. To go abroad means to get away from those outside influences.
Choosing to study in Western Europe does make it easy to remain surrounded by America. Not only can you find a McDonald’s or Burger King in every major city, but even the tourist attractions and well-known nightspots are generally geared towards American visitors. I know of students who have gone to Italy and decided not to leave the comforts of American culture–they hang out in large groups, go to the same American nightspots, and refuse to rid themselves of their preconceived impressions of Italians. Yet, even with a limited knowledge of another language, it is possible to break through the barrier and truly become immersed. For me, this is the most important aspect of studying abroad.
The first weekend in Rome, my roommates and I noticed a group of young Italians who hung out at the piazza between our apartment and the bus stop. Instead of walking by everyday, hurrying up the hill to avoid being stared at, two of my roommates and I decided to introduce ourselves. We learned quickly that they did not speak much English, but we were curious about our new Roman neighbors, and they were curious about us as well. Having completed two years of college-level Italian, I was ready to put my skills to use. Through broken English and Italian, we were able to communicate, and form strong friendships.
Almost every night my roommates and I walked down to the piazza. “Fabio!” “Amore!” “Occhi Verdi!” (Green eyes)–I shouted as we entered the piazza each night. Fabio responded, a smile ear-to-ear, “Amore!” Stefano, in a strong Italian accent yelled, “Eh, American girls!” My roommate would answer, “Eh, Ragazzi Italiani!” (Italian boys). For hours we stood around several Vespas, listening to the gossip of our Roman friends. Claudia would usually critique our outfits, as Fabio recited lines from popular Italian-American movies such as “Scarface” and “The Godfather.” My roommates and I spoke Italian as much as possible, and in time we improved. As the semester progressed we began to talk about universally common subjects–relationships, family, music, sports–and we had become part of the crew that hung out at Piazza di Donna Olimpia.
Adapting through Immersion
Constantly surrounded by my new Italian friends, I learned how not to stick out as an American. I lived by the motto, “When in Rome.” One night, I was a little disappointed to overhear Alessandro’s cousin talking about my choice in shoes. We were standing in a little café when she began talking about how Americans never seem to dress properly for the weather. I eventually let her know I could understand Italian, and explained that by my standards, the temperature of Rome in late October is still warm enough for sandals. Nonetheless, I retired my sandals until the spring. To further blend in, I decided to never order a cappuccino after the morning hours. Italians enjoy caffé (espresso) throughout the day, but cappuccino is only for breakfast. Another colpa mia came about when two of our Italian friends took my roommate and I out to dinner. We both ordered pasta meals, and promptly received strange looks from across the table. According to Stefano and Simone, girls usually eat pasta for lunch, and meat for dinner.
The hardest Italian custom to adjust to was the mid-afternoon break, or siesta. Since I lived outside the city center, in an area called Monteverde, most stores, pharmacies, and even restaurants, close from anywhere between 2:00 p.m.- 5:00 p.m. This time is reserved for a large afternoon meal, so within those hours, streets were almost completely deserted. Another inconvenient practice in Rome is the sciopero, or strike. Every few weeks, public transportation declares a scheduled time to stop services, making it virtually impossible to get around the city. As frustrating as the siesta and sciopero are to us Americans, it reflects a popular Italian expression: il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing). What a great motto! For me, it gives a romantic feeling to Italy. It is a welcome escape from the fast-paced and demanding life too many Americans lead.
In adjusting to a new culture you are forced to think about your own customs. Trivial matters like not finding milk sold by the gallon, having to hang-dry laundry, or eating dinner as late as 10:00 p.m.–even these become huge transformations. Self-reflection becomes natural when removed from what is normal. Ordering a large soda in Italy would be equivalent to a small size in the United States; why do serving sizes need to be so big? Italians taking their coffee on the go is unheard of; why do most Americans need to drink their coffee from a Styrofoam cup while rushing to work? Through these questions I discovered why cultural immersion is so important: You gain a respect for the differences of other customs, and an awareness of the familiarity of your own. Experiencing differences in other cultures allows us to reflect on our own customs. I think that Americans should be more curious about the outside world. Life goes on outside the confines of the United States. There is so much to discover about our world, beyond the topics related to capital gain and politics. It is important to find out what others enjoy doing in their free time, what foods they enjoy eating, what future goals keep them going, and what values are closest to their hearts. Becoming curious about others in basic matters will bring about a richer understanding of the world. What makes this world interesting and worth exploring is the universal nature of human beings. Adjusting to and accepting differences is where we eventually find commonality.
I had hoped that my experience abroad would give me a chance to escape from my American life, and discover things about Italians, even Romans, that cannot be found in a book. At first, my desire to meet Italian friends was about delving into the realities of their lives; finding out what they enjoy doing, their political beliefs, and their life goals. However, I realized that my experience abroad was about finding myself. I entered Rome with a desire to connect with Italian life, and having done that, I left with a stronger self-awareness.
I want to continue discovering the world through travel, and educate others about the importance of cross-cultural studies. After college, I plan to return to Italy, or anywhere in Europe, to teach English as a foreign language. Europe is my first step, maybe Asia next. Overall, while studying abroad I found that what drives me is the need to better understand the world, and the billions of people who share it.
As a history major, I have come to understand the cliché quote: "the past is like a foreign country." Knowledge of different customs, beliefs, and lifestyles is the key to understanding history, and other nations. I came to fully grasp the saying while I was standing in the Ancient Roman Forum, looking around the ruins, towards to Colosseum, and up to street level at the frenzied traffic of the modern city. It is a city with over two thousand years of history meeting the demands of the twenty-first century–yesterday and today collide gracefully in Rome. If Rome can find a balance between the past and present, can there be the same coexistence of cultural differences? I hope so.
Kristen Clark was born and raised in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Kristen decided to minor in Italian after studying abroad in Rome with ISA at the American University of Rome. While abroad, she also traveled to Munich, Dublin, London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and several places within Italy. Immediately after college Kristen would love the opportunity to teach English in Italy. If and when the desire to live in Europe dies down, she would like to go to graduate school for journalism.