I’m going back in time for my first real post. A little over a year ago, from January – May 2013, I studied abroad in Verona, Italy during my final semester of college. I learned a thing or two about what it feels like to be a foreigner, and in turn, the realization that sometimes we may not be as tolerant of the actions of those in our own hometown that may not be from the area. We can be quick to attribute their actions to their personalities rather than cultural differences. Here I present to you some memories that I’d almost rather forget about if it weren’t for their valuable lessons.
1. Let me guess: about once a week, you go to the grocery store, and as part of your routine you buy some fruits and vegetables. You bag them, the cashier at the counter scans them along with everything else, you pay and you’re on your way. Me too, until I went grocery shopping in Verona for the first time. My three roommates and I needed to fill our pantry with something when we arrived, so we took a little walk over to Billa, one of the Italian supermarkets. It turns out that there are scales in the produce section. You have to weigh your fruits and vegetables, punch in a code, and print out a sticker that the cashier just scans. To our dismay, we found this out in the checkout line, as the cashier tried to explain this to us in fast Italian that we didn’t understand, as a long line of people behind us became increasingly more irritated. She finally grabbed all of our produce and ran over to the produce section to price them herself when she realized that communication wasn’t getting anywhere. Have you ever encountered someone taking forever in the check-out line, and you shake your head as you just don’t understand how they could be confused? It may not just be because they are clueless. Things as simple as the way the grocery store works are not the same everywhere, and there would be no reason you would know the difference until you’ve had to shop in a new place for the first time.
2. I was walking with a few friends in Piazza Erbe, the historic center of Verona, when I decided I was going to stop at the bank and see if I could exchange some of my U.S. dollars for euros. I don’t know about your bank, but at the bank I go to at home, there is a front door. I open the door, walk inside, and take care of whatever I need to take care of. So there I was at the bank in Piazza Erbe, when I tried to open the door and realized that there was no regular door. Instead, there was a rounded capsule looking thing. After my friend and I figured out that you needed to press a button to open it, I stepped in and the door closed behind me. I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen next. For all I knew, the thing was about to launch like a rocket from the looks of it. This entire time, there was a security guard standing at his post inside the door, just watching us with a blank face. It’s funny how the mind can react when you know you’re being watched. It switches from thinking mode to zero common sense mode. I blame that on the reason that I couldn’t figure out how to get the door in front of me to open into the bank. Maybe it was supposed to open on it’s own. I’ll never know, because after we made quite a spectacle, we got the door behind me to open again and we left with that whole “we’re trying to act totally calm and cool but really we’re obviously getting as far away from this place as quickly as possible” walk. I never showed my face there again, and will never know what was going through that security guard’s mind as he watched the whole ordeal. The moral of this story is the same as the grocery store lesson, with one more hidden theme here: if I were to go back and do it all over, I’d go back to that bank and figure out how to smoothly stroll into the bank like a cool Italian and ask to exchange my money. Learning that differences exist is one thing, and taking the time to learn how they work is another. Don’t pass up an opportunity to learn how they work.
3. Three of us went to the library to “study” for our Italian test. It was the beginning of the semester and we were feeling pretty motivated. After scoping the place out for a good spot to sit, we couldn’t really find one and settled on this little couch in what I would consider the younger kids section of the library. It was sort of off in the corner, away from the other tables that were all taken by the high school kids who were also there supposedly studying. We were a few flashcards in when we got chewed out by a librarian in Italian. I don’t know where she came from or what she was saying. All I know is that she wanted us to get off of that couch. It turns out there was a sign on it that we later interpreted to mean that the couch was for breastfeeding mothers. The sign had been knocked over, but any one else who lived there probably knew that the couch was there for that purpose anyways. The feeling of all eyes on us was becoming too familiar, as we gathered our things and left. Maybe that person you see getting yelled at in the library isn’t really trying to cause a disturbance. Maybe things are just different where they come from.
4. I never thought I would say I’ve been locked on a train, but here I am saying it. Four of us were taking a train back to Verona from one of our travel adventures, and got on the wrong one. It turns out that the train we were supposed to take was actually on the same track, parked directly behind the one we were currently lounging on, wondering why our seat numbers were in the first class section on this train and figuring that we just got a good deal. I attribute this mistake to the fact that in other countries, things work differently. Signs are in a different language, tickets look different and are also in a different language, and things that the locals might just naturally know are not always obvious. I don’t know how we figured out that we were on the wrong train. I believe someone outside knocked on the window. We then tried to get off, and realized we couldn’t open the door. We began to panic as we moved car to car, along with a few other confused travelers who had made the same mistake, trying to open doors unsuccessfully and starting to worry that we were going to miss our actual train that was about to leave. After trying to yell out the window and communicating in broken Italian but mainly shouts of panic with each passerby that was wearing something resembling a uniform, someone unlocked one of the car doors and we took off in a sprint to the correct train. The person who let us out was probably wondering how it was even possible that we made a mistake like this. I’ve encountered many situations back home where I’ve wondered how someone could possibly do something that they’ve done. Now I know that when you’re in what is uncharted territory for you, it’s easy. Maybe we should’t always be quick to judge.
5. Let’s talk about water – that thing that’s free in the U.S. that you’re supposed to drink 8 glasses of each day or whatever it is they’re saying lately. If you’ve been to Europe, you know it isn’t so free, along with other things we consider essential like, say, bathrooms. It took me a while to accept this one, and the defining moment was an awkward experience at a restaurant. Many of us throughout the trip simply wouldn’t order water at restaurants. It wasn’t until I was in Sorrento with three other girls over Easter break when our waitress knew exactly what we were doing and was visibly annoyed. I don’t think she came back to serve our table again, and one of her coworkers took over. It is their culture that you pay for water, and it is awkward when you don’t get anything to drink with an entire dinner just because you don’t think you should have to pay for it and sneak sips from water bottles that you filled up for free somewhere. From our point of view, we didn’t think that not accepting the water at the restaurant was rude, because we’ve grown up in a culture where it would be ridiculous if a restaurant gave us water and then charged. From the waitress’s point of view, we were being cheap and quite frankly, rude. This situation was an example of a cultural misunderstanding from both sides, yet it only makes sense that we were in the wrong, as we were the outsiders. When you’re visiting a culture that isn’t your own, you may not always agree with their ways, but you have to accept them, learn from them and not fight them. You are a guest. At the same time, back at home, it is important to remember that perceived rudeness sometimes may not actually be rude at all. You have to take into account how and where someone was raised.
6. My wonderful boyfriend at the time sent me flowers on valentines day. At this point I had been in Italy for almost a month and a half, yet when I answered the phone to the florist, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. When I somehow figured out that he was standing in the entryway to our apartment building with a flower delivery for me, I still barely had any idea what was going on when I let him in and he was speaking so fast. All I really managed to mutter was that I did not speak Italian, even after a month and a half of Italian class. I caused a confusing ordeal for that poor florist. Thank god he was so nice about it.
So here’s the lowdown on language – it’s hard. That’s all there is to it. Even if you consider yourself good at learning new languages, there’s no denying that it takes time to become proficient. I personally think that one of the biggest things I found drastically different from living in Europe versus the U.S. was the general attitude about language. There is bound to be someone reading this that may not like my opinion, but back home, it can be astonishingly easy to forget that there are other languages besides english and I don’t always feel that we are the most patient or tolerant with people who don’t speak it. The majority of people I encountered in Europe were incredibly tolerant of people who didn’t speak their language, and that makes sense as they are surrounded by speakers of many more languages than we are. After being in Italy for four months, I still struggled with communication in Italian, and it dawned on me that it is often impossible to tell the difference between someone who doesn’t speak the language of the country they are in because they don’t care to really learn it, and someone who wants to learn but is still in the beginning phase. I’ve blatantly heard a number of people over the years voice their opinions about how if someone moves to the U.S., they should learn our language and not expect us to cater to them. Fair enough. But what I took away most from the study abroad experience is that we really need to give people a chance before we instantly harp on them for not speaking our language. There is often more to their story than meets the eye.
All that being said, here are a few of my favorite pictures from beautiful Italia to close it out. 🙂