Looking back on the first few weeks of my semester in Italy, I realize that I’ve already learned so much about my new home, my old home, and myself. The lessons that I’ve learned about these things are not only the three biggest takeaways of my time abroad so far, but also my three favorite.
Being fully emersed in Italian culture, from when I wake up in the morning, to my walk to school, and my shift at work, followed by my trip to the grocery store – and everything in-between – I’ve had no choice but to learn about their language, history, culture, cuisine and overall way of life. The most effective way in which I have learned is through the numerous, seemingly neverending trials that I am faced with each day. Tasks that are so natural at home become great difficulties while in a new country.
One example of an unsuspecting trial occured on only my second afternoon in Florence. I was in desperate need of shampoo, but all that my roommates and I could find were overpriced, travel sized bottles sold in every Farmacia. When we asked for alternatives, the employees would only show us more expensive options. And, when my roommate gave in and purchased a bottle, they had given her the wrong change in attempt to make even more money. I had decided to keep looking, and after at least an hour more, a friendly woman pointed me in the direction of a cheap store. I then spent the next 15 minutes trying to translate ‘shampoo,’ ‘conditioner,’ and ‘face moisturizer.’ Eventually, I got everything I needed, and took a well-deserved shower. But, this example of culture shock taught me initially the extent of learning that I would have to undergo, and in retrospect, it shows me more vividly how far I have come. I know now how to efficiently and effectively grocery shop, order food in a restaurant, walk about the city and live like an Italian.
From this perspective, I have learned so much more about my own American and Pittsburghese culture, too. First, (more often than not), Americans are incredibly friendly. If a stranger were to sneeze in Pittsburgh, it would seem odd for nobody to reply with a “bless you.” But, in Italy, it would seem incredibly odd for any stranger to offer a “salute.” Not that either one is better than the other – Italians just reserve such exchanges for those very close to them, while Americans offer them more freely. And in small differences such as this, I have found to what large extent I truly am a product of my hometown and country. Its even to some extent difficult for me to hold back in being overly friendly to strangers.
It is in this way that through learning about Italy, I have learned about my home, and in learning about both, I have come to better know myself. The greatest lesson in this regard has been my deeper understanding of my love of learning. I have always known this about myself – but, I thought that it primarily came through reading, studying, and observing different subjects. In other words, I thought that I would love learning Italian vocabulary, reading Italian history, and observing Florentine citizens. While this is all true, I have found that even more than this, I love communicating in Italian, actively viewing, touching, and seeing the effects of Italian history, and adapting to Florentine life. I love active learning.
Because of this, I don’t think I ever had just one distinguishable “aha” moment when I realized I was abroad. It was a slowly developed understanding, that I had realized overtime with each trial I overcame. And while each trial can be described as more or less difficult, they are all indescribably rewarding. Even more indescribable is how grateful I am to be able to encounter them, in the first place.