My stay in Italy and Switzerland was one of the best, eye-opening, culture-enriching, confusing, and fun months of my entire life. Not only did I never get severely lost or separated from my group (huge personal victory), I was able to soak up a lot of Italian culture even though I was only there for one month. I encountered several cross-cultural experiences while abroad that changed my worldview and broadened my perspective. I came back from studying abroad with a deeper respect for cultures other than my own, as well as an appreciation for the juxtapositions Italian culture presents. The three experiences having the largest influence included my observations of graffiti, the piazza we saw in Perugia, and an encounter I had with an Italian family in Positano.
One cross-cultural encounter I had was only through observation of the scenery. The juxtaposition of the vast amount of graffiti compared to the famous works of art from centuries past in Italy stood out to me. Graffiti has always bothered me, or at least piqued my interest in a less-than-flattering way. I will admit that I usually view graffiti through the lens of the American stereotype: as an illegal work of art because it vandalizes a building. I also do not find graffiti aesthetically pleasing, nor do I see its cultural value. I am not trying to imply that it has no cultural value, just the fact that it is present says a lot about the Italian culture. I usually stereotype it to mean something “thug” related, when really who is to say it is? Unless I knew the graffiti artist personally, how would I really know the meaning behind his/her piece? What if someone misjudged Michelangelo’s masterpiece David and thought he was scandalous for creating a sculpture of a naked man? I wonder if the prominent graffiti artists in today’s Italy had lived during Michelangelo’s day and age if they would have been regarded as geniuses in their art form. I saw graffiti in every area of Italy I visited, especially around the train stations. Since I do not live in a big city, I am not at all used to seeing graffiti on a daily basis, and definitely not in such public areas, besides maybe once in a while under a bridge. I have an appreciation for the juxtaposition of various art forms in Italy, whether they be spraypainted on a wall or hanging in a museum.
The piazza we saw in Perugia set up quite the contradiction for me. There was construction taking place on the surface, but down below the piazza was a city frozen in time, left behind when someone built new infrastructure on top. Although the piazza has been around for centuries in Italy, some of them are constantly being upgraded to fit the needs of the changing society. A large controversy surrounding the ancient buried city was whether or not to let the metro run through it. This set up the conflict of whether preserving Perugia’s past, the underground city, or the functionality of the future, the metro running through the center of town, was more important. The city did end up allowing the metro to run through the city frozen in time, which may mean they are more focused on progressing towards the future than preserving the past. When we went underground to visit the ancient city, I witnessed two young men sitting on a step and playing a video game. I found this extremely ironic because where else could someone see two time periods clash in such a major way? An icon of the twenty-first century, the video game, being played in an un-tampered ancient city. This contradiction completely represents today’s Italy. Progress in society juxtaposed against the rich history and culture of the region.
The passeajate in Italy is similar to the tailgate of a college football game in the south—people go to see other people and to be seen. The image one portrays in a piazza is just as important as going at all. Italians do not participate in the passeajate to complete a set task or purpose; they are not walking to get somewhere, they are walking to socialize. Contrary to what I would have expected, kids are a large part of this activity. Parents pushing strollers or chasing after toddlers is a common site to see. The Italian passeajate is truly an activity for the entire family. This makes sense because of how large a part family life plays into the Italian culture. The passeajate is a time for parents to show off their children as well as give the children a chance to play together. If something like this occurred in America, I wonder if parents would feel more in-tune with their children’s social lives and help them keep up with their children’s friends. You can tell a lot about a kid from looking their friends. Families in Italy seem to be more involved in their children’s social lives as well as their marriages than do families in America, and this could be in part due to the passeajate culture.
I witnessed the “family” culture of Italian dating first-hand in a piazza in Positano during the first half of our second travel break to the Amalfi Coast. I had been wanting to find a cliff to (safely) jump off the entire break, so I decided to go up to two young men (probably young twenties) and ask them if they knew where the cliff was located. I chose these particular two young men because young Italians are more likely to speak English, and young people are more likely to be interested in jumping off cliffs. As I approached these young men, I prepared what I was planning to ask. First, I was going to say something along the lines of “Do you speak English?” and go on from there inquiring about the cliff. However, before I could get out my first question, a middle-aged woman came running out of nowhere and grabbed what I assume would be her son by the shoulders and started leading him away from me. As she was doing this, she was saying something in Italian and shaking her head; the only word I could definitely make out was “mama.” Yes, you read that correctly. An Italian boy’s mother rejected me. As humorous as this situation was, I believe it truly reveals something about the Italian culture, especially in a social area like a piazza. The Italian culture is rooted in family values, and parents are extremely concerned with their children’s love lives (at least from what I observed). After this experience, I finally understood the whole “going home to mama’s” culture on the weekends.
This free-range stroll seemed foreign to me as an American. I love to go to NC State tailgates and socialize, but I go primarily to attend the main event after the tailgate, the game. The Italian’s passeajate has no scheduled activity or game to watch; the only rule is to socialize. This ties in majorly with the mindset of an Italian because unlike an American, an Italian does not always have to be going somewhere or doing something to be content, they can leave their house not knowing what they will be doing or who they will be seeing—and they do it regularly. This brings me to my biggest takeaway from my study abroad experience in Italy—sometimes the best memories are made when you do not have a plan.