Studying abroad is so much more than just the pretty pictures you see on Instagram (although there are a ton of awesome places to capture them). Part of your heart is halfway across the world at home and the other half is seeing places that you only ever knew to exist in photos and stories. Climbing the stairs of a bell tower that was constructed in the 14th century, posing with the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or staying only miles away from the mountains where Michelangelo harvested the marble for his famous sculptures are things that students in the United States do not have the opportunity to do.
So far, I’ve walked around with my jaw on the ground trying to take in as many thoughts, sights, smells, tastes, and feelings as possible. I love being shoved outside my comfort zone to meet new friends and plan activities with people I’ve only known for a few days. Living in a culture only somewhat familiar to me, I am realizing how big the world is and how diverse its people are. It’s one thing to prepare for it and know it’s going to happen, but another thing to experience it.
Here are five small differences between Italy and the United States that I’ve noticed during my first week abroad:
1. Italians Don’t Seem to Drink as Much Water with Meals
At every meal, there are small glass cups at your table setting and two 1.5 liter bottles on the table. One bottle is regular water and the other is carbonated water — “frizzante” or “acqua con gas” is a big thing here. You share the bottle(s) with however many people are at your table, which means you all may get two small glasses and that is it. Public drinking fountains can be hard to come by and, often, water does not come free with your meal — and it is never served with ice. However, the food is enough to make up for the lack of hydration!
2. The Landscape is Different Here
There are palm trees, cacti, mountains, a sea, trees that look like they belong in an African safari, flowers I’ve never seen before and so much more. Everything is gorgeous, just different!
3. Public Transit is a Must
Everyone here travels by bike, bus, moped, train, or the good ol’ shoelace express. My friends and I found out the hard way that a “20-minute walk” for an Italian native translates to a 45-minute walk for Americans. They think nothing of walking two miles to go from home to work and then to lunch, and then home again. Americans will drive around the block if it is more convenient.
4. Italians Enjoy Their Time
Nothing here is rushed. Food cannot be taken to go. All meals are sit down and enjoyed with friends or family. Shops close from 1:30 – 3:30 every afternoon so owners can go home for lunch and a nap. Italians enjoy every moment and take time to do more than go to work or school; they seem to have a good balance figured out that we lack in the United States!
5. The Italian Language Can be Hard to Hear
I took two semesters of Italian last year and I always joke that I know enough after studying for 8 months to talk to a first grader — and, oh boy, have I realized that is true. Italians talk so fast and, since we have been visiting the small town of Pietrasanta, only a few of them know English. This semester is going to be tough with my host family who doesn’t speak English, but I’m excited to challenge myself and see how much Italian I can learn!
Spending time with Italian locals in a small beach-side town in Tuscany has taught me that language and cultural barriers cannot prevent people from coming together and having a good time. Playing volleyball with locals, mailing something to America through the local post office and ordering gelato daily, I’ve learned that a smile and a positive attitude go a long way.
I am definitely still in the “honeymoon stage” of culture shock and am ecstatic for the semester ahead of me! Although it’s not always easy to make new friends, fill awkward silences with small talk, and ask what someone’s name is for the 18th time because you just can’t seem to remember, this is how my semester of a lifetime has begun!
This post was contributed by Jenna Roesch, who is spending her fall semester studying abroad with AIFS in Florence, Italy.