Since Italy is typically qualified as a “Western” and more modern country, I figured that the culture shock would not be so severe. I am 100% an Italian-American, so I felt that this was a great advantage over the others in my program. However, little did I know that it was hardly helpful!
The first thing that shocked me about Italian culture was its strictness. Being that I was living in an authentic and non-tourist Italian city, my experience was particularly more rigid. While each cultural adjustment seemed tiny and unimportant, all of them compiled together seemed greatly overwhelming. I was always painfully aware that I was American, no matter how hard I tried to hide it. Despite my southern Italian last name, complexion, and hair, I couldn’t hide the accent in my pronunciation or the American-bought clothing. I tried as hard as possible to assimilate and blend in, but it was not always easy.
The first difficult thing about living in Italy was the food. Sounds crazy, right? The land of pizza and pasta is everyone’s dream place. It was and still is my ideal palate! However, living with Italians and according to their exact lifestyle was challenging. For example, they do not eat breakfast and do not drink American coffee. When they wake up, they have one “cup” (aka a sip) of their Italian coffee. They will do this nearly every hour throughout the day. Cappuccinos are only to be taken prior to 10 AM in the morning. Lunch acceptably begins at 1 or 2 PM and dinner is earliest 8 PM. They do not carry water bottles and regularly refill throughout the day and do not snack. Fruit is limited to a post-dinner snack. They eat pasta every day and do not replace salads as meals. Eggs are not acceptable for breakfast. All of this can be incredibly shocking for a college student. Because I was living with a family in a small town, I could not access American coffee. I didn’t eat breakfast because they didn’t, and every day I starved until it was acceptable to purchase lunch. I would come home around 5, a normal hour for dining halls to open, only to wait an average of 4 more hours for dinner!
The second difficult thing about Italy was time and inefficiency. Americans are constantly complaining about errands. How long the line at the bank takes, the wait on the phone, that there are not enough cashiers at the grocery store. However, in Italy, everything closes between 12-3 (or maybe even 4) in the afternoon. Post offices are only open a few hours in the morning and the wait can be nearly 3 hours! Everything closes early at night and is not open on Sundays. 24-hour facilities are unheard of. Try being a college student and needing to run errands, nearly impossible!
Additionally, as Americans we take for granted our freedom of dress. Perhaps it is because we are a melting pot of so many cultures, but I do not find it strange if I saw someone on the street wearing even a chuba or a burqa. In Ferrara, it was unheard of to leave your house in sweats and a workout shirt, unless that was the activity you were performing. Generally at Michigan I go to class in leggings, Nikes, and a t-shirt, making it more comfortable to sit at the library and class throughout the day. For Italians, it is blasphemous to exit your house without wearing makeup or even with wet hair!
Finally, I was shocked by their school system. I learned from my host sister that their high schools are not zoned by districts, rather students choose based on the type of study that they are interested in. This could be classics, science, or technical, and they have the option to go to any that they please. Unless you are applying for a specific program at the university, like medicine, all students are accepted. You have to take a test, but you more or less determine the choice by the area. Many students prefer to remain close to their homes, while others would rather venture to larger cities. There is no specific time for exams. Students take it whenever they feel ready – up to 4 times! A professor told me that La Sapienza, La Università di Roma, has nearly 150,000 students.
I was completely overtaken by these different ways of life, and could hardly imagine what the Italians felt when they came to study in the United States. I made myself completely aware of the cultural differences, and fought with great difficulty to avoid my American tendencies. When my friends and I traveled to Italian cities, we always ordered food and cappuccinos at the appropriate times, said Salve instead of Ciao, and said café instead of espresso. When my parents came to visit, I emailed them a comprehensive list of norms to make them fully aware of the change.
It is obvious that no matter where you go in the world, there are going to be cultural differences. However, when you are living in Italian homes, eating the food they prepare you, and attending their universities it can be overwhelming. Yet, it is most definitely worth it, because now being back in America, I both appreciate and criticize our ways of life