My Biggest Challenge In Italy

Peter Piccirilli

Although my time abroad in Florence was cut short, I am forever grateful for having had the opportunity to confront life in a new country because I had the opportunity to learn how to adapt to a new environment and put myself in a situation of discomfort that taught me many important life lessons.

The Duomo of Florence

The biggest difficulty I faced in Florence was actually regarding the Florentines themselves, and their culture. Despite being of 100% Italian descent and having immigrant grandparents, Florence simply didn’t feel like the Italy I knew. Florence is located in Central-North Italy while my family hails from the South, the ‘Alabama’ of Italy. With the exception of the CAPA staff, who were tremendously kind and caring, and who I wish I would have had the opportunity to say goodbye to, many of the locals were not the friendly, warm Italians that I had grown up around.

If I would go to a store and speak Italian to the owner, it seemed as if they simply wanted nothing to do with me, and never engaged in full conversation. One particular instance was how I went into a panini shop and mentioned how my grandparents were from Italy. When the owner asked me where in Italy, and I said the Southern Italian region, the owner scoffed and looked away in disgust. Another time, a Florentine made the rather condescending comment to me that “Firenze è piena di Americani,” or “Florence is filled with Americans.” Ironically, about a week later all Americans were forced to leave and the streets of Florence were completely vacant.  I wish I could say these were isolated incidents, but there were many more encounters as such, and trying to make an effort and receiving nothing in return was often disheartening.

This can’t be said for all Florentines, and there were many who were very kind. However, I would say that the majority in fact weren’t very open. “I Fiorentini sono chiusi” became my rallying cry as I struggled because even though I was in Italy, it didn’t feel like my Italy because “The Florentines are closed-off.” This was undoubtedly the greatest challenge I faced. Americans tend to have the stereotype that Italians are very welcoming and happy-go-lucky, which is not always true. While this mostly holds true for Southern Italy, Central Italians don’t fit the stereotype to the same extent. Many seemed to have possessed a ‘don’t bother me’ attitude. This led to difficulties for me. I, through way of my heritage, fall into the more open, want to engage in conversation, group of Italians, and unlike many other abroad students who maybe really didn’t know any better, the reality that these were different Italians really began to sink into me.

The way I dealt with the closed-off attitude of the Florentines was by trying to meet Italians who were not native Florentines. Many of the Southern expats in Florence I found and talked to were very open due to the difference of the southern culture they were raised in that more closely resembled my experience of being an Italian. By veering out to find Italians that were more open, I was able to realize that what I previously thought of as me not enjoying Italy as a whole, was simply my discontent with the unfriendliness of Florentines. A store-worker from Naples, my manager from Rome, and a barber from Calabria, were all some of the Italians I was able to meet to reinforce my idea that Italians, or at least some, still are indeed a very open and welcoming people, and had I not ventured out I would have remained in the closed-off world of the Florentines.

Pizza in Rome

I would encourage study abroad students to visit other parts of Italy, because the cultures are very different throughout the country. Instead of staying in Florence, take a trip to Rome, which has all of the same things Florence has to offer and is undoubtedly the best city in Italy. Roman people are very friendly, and more likely to engage in conversation with you and take in interest in you. Naples and the Italians from around that area are also some of the most welcoming, and more in line with what we imagine Italians to be. Even in Venice and Genoa, northern cities, the people are much more welcoming than Florentines. Florentines are more of the ‘aristocratic’ Italians, disengaged from the world around them, and more likely to claim that their city is the most beautiful in the world. While the city itself is incredible, for more of the true Italian experience, it would behoove oneself to visit Rome and south. 

A view of Rome

I am glad I got to live in Florence. It showed me how parts of Italy can be so different from one another. It taught me how not to have the expectation that all people of the same foreign country are indeed the same. Above all, it reinforced my love for the Italy that I know and love because it made me appreciate those differences more. Because Florentines were somewhat closed-off, it made me love the open, warm Italians from other regions even more. There will be a next time I go to Italy, and I am looking forward to that day very much.