Two blog entries by Rose Marthis chronicle her Study Away experience in Italy (June – July 2014)
After being in Italy for almost two weeks, I have noticed obvious differences because that is what my mind was focused on doing. But I have also picked up on some similarities that make 5,000 miles away from Missouri not feel that far from home.
I think the fact that there aren’t as many differences as I expected is the biggest surprise of all.
I kept waiting for an epiphany-esque, “ah-ha!” moment where it was going to hit me that I was living in Italy and this is a big deal. But it never came.
Of course, I am aware that it is a big deal and am extremely grateful for the opportunity, but it somehow feels like more of a gradual adjustment. Most days I’ll be walking down the street and think, OK, this is me surviving in Italy.
I am conversing with shop owners and reading signs and living here and figuring it out, and it seems deceptively easy. I don’t know why I thought it was going to be radically difficult, but I did.
I was mentally prepared for a desolate war zone, and the biggest adjustment has been accepting that everything is pretty normal here.
The biggest differences I am realizing are coming from cultural behaviors of people. I am always scared that I am being too rude when I don’t make eye contact with and smile to people I pass on the street.
But I’m accepting that that is how everyone acts here, and that you have to be the American definitions of “rude” to survive an outing without being harassed by someone trying to sell you knock-offs.
Italian people are always on a mission. They walk determinedly down the street and don’t care at all about what others are doing.
I especially realized that Italians do not crave meaningless conversation like Americans do. This became more noticeable when other groups of American tourists would say hi to us because they heard us speaking English and became excited for something they recognized.
Every group we’ve encountered asks us where we are from and why we’re here and I keep asking myself, do you even really care? I don’t care one bit where you’re from because it doesn’t affect my life at all, so why are you pretending to care and asking me?
And as I look back on interactions in the States, I realize it’s the same thing. You can be standing in line at a grocery store and someone will make a comment and ask you how you are.
But they don’t care. Why should they? Your life doesn’t affect theirs one bit. But they pretend to care. We all do. I get paid to pretend to care at my customer service job.
We pretend to care because we desperately long to be accepted by our peers and have a pressing need to feel like we belong to a group.
Italians don’t pretend to care, and I absolutely love that.
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Our apartment is in the middle of the city of Florence, and I know in my head that I am living in and experiencing Italian life. But sometimes I feel like I am not experiencing the real Florence, and instead only experiencing the Florence that certain people want me to see.
I don’t have any standard of comparison for “real” Florence versus “staged” Florence, but sometimes I think the differences are obvious.
I feel like I am in the real Florence the most when I am passing by the little produce stands in the countryside or interacting with citizens here. The little gelato shop down the street from our apartment, Leonardo’s, feels real because the gelato is kept in metal tins and the shop owner is really nice to us and will help us with our pronunciation of Italian words.
When I go to the Mercato Centrale to buy produce, I can see that it is full of tourists. But every once in a while I will get a glimpse of a little old Italian woman buying her chicken from the little old Italian man who just radiates pride and joy in his work and has decades of experience lying in the wrinkles in face.
I love listening to conversations in rapid-fire Italian and hearing jokes I can’t understand but feel myself smiling at them anyway. Then when it is my turn to buy chicken from the little old man, I try my hardest to communicate effectively, and both of us usually resort to pointing anyway.
My only hope is that he can recognize that the effort is there, and I still walk away proud of myself for tallying another Italian interaction down on the list.
I feel like I am neglecting the real Florence when I visit tourist attractions or places that I can tell have been ruined by flocks of tourists for year after year. This is the majority of the places that I see, especially the different plazas that surround important landmarks such as the Duomo and the bus stop.
It is easy to tell that the restaurants, shops and people are only there to prey on the tourism industry. Plus there are devices put in place made to navigate the areas easier.
Every sign with important information has six different languages on it. I can understand English being on it because it is a common second language of Italians, but it is obvious when Asian languages are on a sign that it isn’t an area of Florence that is meant for real Florentines.
I experience this a lot with all the churches we visit as well. In my art history class, we learn about the architecture of a church in the city and then go visit that church to see it in real life.
Out of all the cathedrals and monasteries we visit here, I enjoy it the most when we see ones that are still functional and haven’t been completely transformed into a museum and tourist attraction. My favorite so far has been San Miniato al Monte, and I feel like we got a really special experience there when we went.
I remember covering our shoulders, walking in the front door, being amazed by the beauty inside, and then stopping in our tracks from a sound. We heard a chanting voice. A priest’s voice celebrating Mass.
And I remember being overcome with this sense that we were not supposed to be there – like we weren’t worthy of witnessing such a sacred moment. I knew we were extremely lucky to be able to witness a church being used for its intended purpose and experiencing something from the 11th century in the 21st century. Listening to the priest’s chants in another language and seeing the people being separated from him by a wall made it feel more historical than contemporary.
I find it interesting how it is pretty easy to tell when a worship service is taking place because of universal elements that are recognizable, such as a congregation facing a priest at the altar, but that each service can be different enough to make it feel foreign and possibly uncomfortable.
I was glad that we got to witness part of a Mass in San Miniato, but I would be extremely nervous to actually attend a service because I would feel disrespectful by not knowing the practices and what to say and how to act.
I know that people in the churches are probably used to tourists and know that they do not have a perfectly historical and untainted site (plus they would not make it open to the public if they really wanted to keep it that sacred), but I still never want to be that dumb American who stumbles into an area I don’t belong and completely disrespects everyone there because I was ignorant of the customs.
The most disappointing religious site for me was the Sistine Chapel in Rome, because it felt like we were only experiencing what they wanted us to see and not what it was really like during the thriving Renaissance period. I was completely grateful for the fact that I was seeing such a monumental and famous piece that most people only dream about. But the environment was so staged and touristy that the experience just got ruined for me. Everything was transformed to the point of being so museum-y that I couldn’t even try to separate myself and imagine it during the time it was built and used.
There was no evidence of contemporary or historical use, and it is supposed to be regarded as such a highly sacred place, but letting so many tourists in all the time have just ruined that. Honestly I would have respected it more if I couldn’t go in it. That would have told me that it truly meant something to the Vatican and would have made much more of an impact than some guard yelling “Silencio! No foto!” through a microphone every five minutes. I could respect the place for what it was and the significance it holds, but it very much paled in comparison to our experiences with the smaller churches in Florence, where I felt like we were getting more of an authentic experience.
— Rose Marthis
Senior, Print and Internet Journalism