I had given very little thought about what cultural differences I might come in contact with prior to departing for Italy. I, of course, had assumptions of what Italy would be like. Some of these assumptions were based upon stereotypes: olive-skinned people with dark hair and coffee shops and pasta on every corner. Some of these assumptions were based upon what I had heard: there would be a lot of English speakers and flirtatious, Italian men. After a week in Italy, very few of my assumptions proved to be accurate.
First off, not everyone looks stereotypically “Italian” here. There are people who have immigrated here from all over the world, and just like in the United States, people do not all look the same. It is true that pasta, pizza, coffee, and wine are sold on nearly every street in Rome. Although these items are also available in America, it is very different here. Coffee is not bought at Starbucks, and drunk on the way to work or class. Coffee (which is the American equivalent to an espresso shot) is drunk standing up at the counter of a local coffee shop, while chatting with those around you. Pizza is not delivered to your doorstep in a box. You go to a local pizzeria, where you are cut off a rectangular piece of pizza, which is folded in half and can be taken to go. Alcohol is not consumed in the “American college style.” Alcohol is consumed for the taste, not for the feeling, with wine and beer often accompanying lunch and dinner.
Contrary to what I was told, not everyone here speaks English. In fact, I’ve found that very few people speak English well. Not knowing the language has resulted in a number of issues. First, I get lost…alot. Not knowing where you are in a large, foreign city where you do not speak the language is extremely frustrating. Second, I never know what food I am ordering. Sandwiches and pizzas often do not have signs indicating their type. Is it turkey, is it prosciutto? I just point and pay, not really knowing what I’m going to get. Third, I cannot ask for help. My arm got stuck in a bus door once, and I didn’t know how to tell the driver to stop and open the door. It was painful, and awkward. Fourth, people will come up to me and begin speaking in Italian, and it makes me feel so stupid. I just shrug and say, “English.” Lastly, Italian men do not holler at women in the streets. I am no more acknowledged walking down the streets of Rome than I am walking down the streets of Indianapolis.
The beauty of living in a foreign country is that it not only allows you to learn about another culture, but it also allows you to learn more about your own culture. For example, I had never given much thought to the concept of time prior to coming to Italy. If I had to be somewhere at noon, I got there a few minutes before noon. I didn’t think anything about it. I pretty quickly discovered that in Italy, no one is in any real hurry. There is “Italian time” and “American time.” If an American says that they want to meet you for dinner at 7:30, they will be there at 7:25. If an Italian says that they want to meet you for dinner at 7:30, they will be there at 7:45. In the United States, being on time is extremely important, and as a result, everyone always seems to be in a rush. Italy, as a whole, is much more laid back. Waiters wait to bring the check until you ask for it. Businesses might open on time, they might open 20 minutes late. What’s the hurry?
The United States, in general, is a very ethnocentric nation. Living abroad has helped me to be more open in my views and my perception of what is “normal.” So instead of complaining about the changes in my life, I have learned to be open to the customs of the country and to both adapt and accept them for what they are. Do I miss taking a giant mug of Folger’s to class every morning? Yes. I have grown to love the strong flavor of espresso? Oh yes.