Monday, April 20, 2015

A Tour Guide: Intercultural Immersion

I have, for this semester, been harvesting volunteer hours for my Leadership Studies minor by working as a volunteer tour guide with Ars et Fides Firenze. Each week, I give guided tours of the Duomo, Florence's treasure.
During those times, I am forced to speak Italian and French, despite the fact that I barely speak either languages. However, when a tourist approaches me with a question, I am obligated with my badge to at least attempt to answer. I constantly surprise myself with how capable I really am. I can stumble through responses, and the conversations always end in one of three ways: 1) They smile and nod, meaning that what I said actually made sense 2) They do not understand, and I have to find someone who speaks their native language and try to explain the predicament to them 3) They finally decide to tell me they speak English, too
On several occasions, I have been complimented by tourists on my "impressive English-speaking skills." I also often have the tourists wanting to take pictures with me (don't mind if I do!). I have also received several tips, since our tours are free--these tips get donated back to Ars et Fides.
I interact with a diverse group of people. I have given tours to people from France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Cuba, US, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Jordan, England, New Zealand, Canada, and Israel. Each person has been amazingly pleasant (with the exception of the mother who could not control her ill-tempered boy, who blew out the memorial candles and cried when he couldn't play a game on her cellphone because she wanted to take pictures).
I was told last week by a tourist who had visited the church periodically throughout his life that this was the most information he had ever received.
It is a drag to have to get out of bed every Monday morning, especially when I do not have class until 3:15. However, it has been a rewarding and eye-opening experience, to say the least!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Spring Break: Culture. Everywhere. Oh Goodness. So Much Culture.

It may be Spring Break...but that doesn't mean I get a break from learning about different cultures.

Which, I don't mind. My outlook has been expanded an incomparable and priceless amount, for which I am grateful. So, where did I go?

First, I backpacked through the Amalfi Coast, located in the south of Italy, and then took an overnight train to Nice, where I toured some cities along the French Riviera (note: just because it is a night train does not mean you will sleep. In fact, you won't. Just don't even try).

First stop: Naples via bus.

I've heard stories about Naples. My goal was to get in and out of there as fast as we could. The only reason we were going was because it was the location of the train station and served as the central transportation hub of southern Italy. But I was planning on getting off one train and straight on another and avoid contact with anyone, at all costs. My travel buddy wanted to stay and eat pizza (despite the fact that we would be arriving at 6 am). I said no.

My sister, an avid traveler herself, warned me that it was a dangerous place, especially for females (a common theme out here, I'm learning). The men who had sold me the tickets to Naples gave me a quizzical look as they handed me the tickets, and one asked, "Are you going with a man?" When I said no, he said, "You watch yourself and get out of there fast." I nodded and said I understood. No 6 am pizza for me.

So, what was the culture like in Naples? Can't tell you. I wouldn't know. I literally spoke to NO ONE. I'm okay not having anything to share in this department.

But, we did speak to one person: our taxi driver. One of my traveling companion's concerned father paid for us to take a taxi out of Naples so we would not have to wait for a train or bus connecting to our next stop, Sorrento. So, we hopped in the first cab we saw, driven by an elderly Italian gentleman, who immediately captured our hearts. He was born and raised in Napoli, never left, and never saw reason to. He spoke of his town with great pride. As we rounded the first bend revealing a panoramic view of the Amalfi Coast, he pulled the car over, got out at the picture point, and ushered us out. He then took several pictures of us (and selfies with us) overlooking the deep blue water. As we approached our destination, he offered to buy us coffee, as was "the Italian way." We looked at each other, confused, and politely declined. He shrugged, smiled, and said, "Beautiful girls should drink coffee. But if you're sure."

So he made Naples look a little less scary. But I'm still never going back.

Next stop: Sorrento.

We arrived when the city was still deserted. It was a quiet town at this time of year (packed in tourist season), and was brimming with limoncello shops and pizzerias boasting the best 4 formaggio pizzas on the coast. We found an old olive tree, where the three of us perched ourselves for several hours, basking in the sun as it rose over our heads. Locals who walked by looked at us with confused expressions...apparently it isn't natural to just sit in a tree. Weird, huh?

When it came time for lunch, I wasn't too concerned. The northern region of Italy, especially Florence, had plenty of options for people severely allergic to gluten. However, as we walked through restaurant after restaurant and were denied service time and time again, I grew weary. Some of the shop owners didn't even recognize what Celiac was, which was abnormal for me. Florence had spoiled me; they all know what it is and whether or not their food is safe. I ate an orange while my friends enjoyed some pizza, and we were on our way.

Next: Positano

The next day, we arrived in Positano, where scenes from "Under the Tuscan Sun" and several other movies have been shot. On the bus ride there, I met two Canadians traveling to celebrate their retirement. As we were talking, I said, "So, you live in Canada; does that mean you speak French?" To which the woman snapped proudly, "Of course we speak French. We are French." Whoops. I guess I forgot about that whole Canadian-French-pride-thing.

As we explored the shops lining the cobblestoned, winding streets of Positano, we came across a charming dress shop, where a loud (and obviously American) elderly woman was laughing and talking jovially with the shop owner, a quiet but smiley Italian woman. We browsed the racks, and the American woman approached us, exclaiming that this was her favorite shop and if she had figures like us girls she would buy the whole store. We fell in love with "Grandma" instantly (that's what we call her. She's our grandmother now). We ended up having lunch with her, at a place she claimed sold the best stuffed vegetables. A former US Diplomat, she spent her life traveling from place to place due to her late husband's position in the military. She spent time living in Germany, among other places, and now spends half of each year traveling wherever she pleases. She gave us advice on living life to its fullest and soaking up all that this diverse world has to offer, and became more and more hyper with each espresso she ordered. We liked Grandma.

Once again, the south proved to be less aware of food allergies, and I ate gummy bears for lunch. But I now had grasped that this was an element of the culture in this region, and I would have to indulge in the fresh produce that thrived in the region if I wanted to eat.

Next up: Amalfi (or so we thought)

I had booked our hostel in Amalfi/Atrani, and upon arriving and spending an hour winding our way through an endless maze of stairs etched into the edge of the cliffs, we conceded that we were lost. We continued walking, carrying our bulging backpacks and trying to continue climbing as our knees began to wobble from exhaustion. Finally (and, might I add, miraculously), a set of stairs spit us out in the smallest city center I have ever seen; approximately the size of the first floor of my house in the States. Little did we know that we were in Atrani, the smallest city in southern Italy. We found the door to the hostel, which was locked, and wandered around aimlessly in circles until a restaurant owner, obviously used to seeing lost tourists, motioned for us to go around the corner. We wandered up yet another staircase, until we found a door that had a piece of paper taped to an old telephone stuck to the wall, with a sign that said "Press button and talk for hostel." We did for about 10 minutes. Finally, when we were just about to give up, a man came around the corner. In the most cheerful voice ever, he threw his hands up and said, "Eh! Welcome to Atrani! We are glad you are here! Follow me!" He then turned and walked away.

What else were we going to do? We followed the happy guy.

He brought us back to the locked door, and as he unlocked it and ushered us in to a reception room he explained that his name was Filippo and he was the hostel owner. He then showed us to our room (up another winding set of stairs etched into the cliff). It was composed of two beds and a bathroom (a shower head, a drain in the floor, and toilet. He explained that to shower we close the toilet lid so it doesn't flood). We had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into. He checked to see that the little wall radiator was on, as the room was freezing. He gave us old towels and blankets, and bid us farewell, promising to see us at breakfast tomorrow. I asked him if there would be any fruit at breakfast. Smiling ear to ear, he said, "No! Only bread!"

The next morning, we were greeted by the ever-cheerful Filippo and his brother, who was the "chef" for the hostel breakfasts. He brought my friends freshly baked cornetti (croissants), and I broke into a gluten free granola bar I had packed. He came back with a heaping bowl of fresh cut fruit for me, saying, "We decided you should eat too!" (They were the only people in the south of Italy who believed so, and I was so grateful for them!)

We loved our breakfasts with Filippo and his brother. Every morning, we got our croissants, fruit, and tea, and talked to them about what we would be doing that day. On Sunday, Filippo offered to take us to his church, and we went to mass with him. Afterwards, he introduced us to the priest.

Next: Ravello and Pontone

We thought it would be fun to hike from Atrani to Ravello and Pontone, neighboring villages that rested atop the rocky mountains surrounding us. It was an exhausting day, to say the least. What we remember most about this day, however, is how people in this region of Italy let their dogs and cats run loose, letting the whole town become a petting zoo of sorts! Very different from Florence, where you shouldn't even look at a Florentine's dog, let alone ask to pet it!


We said a tearful farewell to Filippo (who, yes, was still smiling), walked five steps to the store to buy our bus tickets, and walked ten steps across the city to get to the bus stop, and boarded the bus to Salerno. We had no plans for Salerno, except to catch our train to Genova, Italy, which would then connect to a train to Nice, France.

Boy, was Salerno a scary town. It was everything I had hoped to avoid in Naples. After receiving that bad-feeling-in-your-gut response to some guys who were clearly up to no good looking at us sitting on the rocks by the waterside, we retreated to a gelataria, where we stayed for the remainder of the day.


We arrived in a rainy Genova while it was still dark--6:00 am. In Italy, rarely opens before 8 or 9, and the city is still asleep. That didn't keep us from being on our guard as we tried to find shelter from the rain. I saw a sign advertising the beloved golden arches, and we made our way through the city to find the safe haven that is McDonald's.

Apparently, McDonald's is not always open 24 hours. So, after walking for approximately 30 minutes to find it, we sat on some benches to keep warm as the sun began to rise over the port, sporting Europe's largest aquarium. Finally, we went into the McDonald's--here, their McCafe's are high-tech, flashy, fancy cafes with fresh croissants, cheesecakes, and pastries of every shape and size. We ordered cappuccinos and camped in the McDonald's like true wearied travelers. We bathed using baby wipes in the bathrooms, washed our face and brushed our teeth in the sink, charged our phones and took complete advantage of the wifi to tell everyone we were safe.

After five hours, we wandered to a gluten free superstore I had found online, where a stern-faced woman was working the counter. I had never seen so many gluten free products in my life, and had never heard of a store entirely dedicated to it. I was, needless to say, like a child in a candy shop. The woman observed my glee quizzically, before breaking into a smile despite her best efforts. When I finally made my selection and brought my items to the register, she disappeared, returning with handfuls of gluten free granola bars. She did not speak English, but merely pushed it across the counter towards me. I looked up at her in surprise. "Per me?" I asked, failing to find correct words. "Si," she responded, once again smiling sightly.

I broke into tears, taken aback by her kindness. Another worker rushed out, looked at the woman with a panic-stricken face, asking in rapid Italian what she did to put me in this state. The woman shrugged, rambling back that she gave me a gift and this was my response. We just all looked at each other with appreciation in our eyes--appreciation for their kindness, and appreciation for my gracious response. We parted ways, and I knew that I had just experienced a truly wonderful interaction.

Afterwards, we went to a grocery store to purchase produce for lunch. A stern-faced man (it is typical of Italians in Genova, who have experienced hardship and are thus more likely to be standoffish, to rarely, if ever, smile or show emotion. The man working our register was no exception, and had a permanent frown etched into his face. As my friend was paying for her products, I thought about the wonderful day I was having, and decided to "just go for it" and try to get this man to smile. He continued to look down, frowning, as my friend fished the coins out of her wallet. My stare must have been burning his balding head enough, because he finally looked up at me. I flashed the cheesiest grin known to man, and...he smiled. It was quick, and he recovered before anyone else saw...but I did.

I had never felt so triumphant.

We then found our way to an interesting-looking Thai-Indian-Japanese fusion restaurant that was set up like a cozy living room, where we met Lorenzo, the Italian owner, and Peter, the Irish man who will soon be taking over. We spent the entire day there, eating plate after plate of free food (pumpkin frittata with ginger, basmati with fresh tomato sauce, rice noodles, and gluten free ginger, apple, and pear muffins with ginger tea) and talking with Lorenzo and Peter. Peter, born and raised in Ireland, now lives in Italy and works at the restaurant part-time, and also as an English language professor for Italians. Lorenzo was born and raised in Italy, used to work in the entertainment industry as a scriptwriter, and decided to abandon the life of fame to open his own vegan/gluten free restaurant. For a time, he had a cooking segment on a television show titled "Mamma Mia," but decided to return to cooking full-time after once again being deterred by the toxic environment of the entertainment industry. Lorenzo, who overheard that we were catching an evening train, declared that he, too, was leaving on a train, and would walk us to the station. He claimed that he liked us; we smiled, which was rare here. He was more accustomed to smiling, and enjoyed seeing people who were openly pleasant.

On the way to the train station, Lorenzo gave us a historic tour of Genova. As we walked, I noticed we weren't going in the direction of the station. Just as I began becoming concerned, Lorenzo ushered us into a charming coffee shop, where he insisted on treating us to espresso. We sat under the outdoor tent, watching the rain fall, as he told us of his life, his love for Italy, and his dreams to travel to San Francisco, as he heard it was a place abundant in peace and harmony.

After coffee, he treated my friend to traditional foccaccia bread, which I could not eat. He then bought me socca, a traditional pancake made of chickpea flour. We thanked him for his unbelievable generosity, he tipped his hat, and we parted ways. We could hardly believe the experiences we had that day.

Next Up: The French Riviera

We arrived on Nice a few hours later, and immediately my mind began running through the limited French vocabulary I had acquired during my three years of high school French. However, navigating the town was rather easy. In the southern part of France, there is a more "Italian" mindset rather than a "French" one, although there are clear elements of the stereotypical American-hating French race (not all of them do, of course, but the French are known in Europe for their lack of hospitality--something the Italians openly gawk at).

Several people luckily spoke English, and I made friends with the macaroon baker at the central market, who sold macaroons "sans gluten." However, other than that, no one understood what gluten intolerance was, and several waiters and chefs were short with me when I attempted to ask them about the ingredients and preparation of the food (you can never be too careful, though--it turns out their omelets even can have gluten in them).

We stayed in a run-down, inexpensive hostel. At this point in the trip, we had been living out of our backpacks for close to 10 days, and had no clean clothes to our name. The condition of our hostel didn't bother us, as we were not in the best shape ourselves! However, it was rough, to say the least. One could only hope the rented towels and sheets were clean, and the rooms were simply bunk beds stacked in a row to fit as many wearied travels in as possible. Low on funds, we stayed in a mixed dorm, which was cheaper. This was one of our best decisions yet. We shared a room with a young man from Texas, a young man from South Africa, and a man from New Zealand. Each was simply floating along, living out of a backpack, eating Ramen each meal, going day by day with no idea of what would come next. Jacques, our friend from South Africa, and Dave, the man from New Zealand, were there looking for work, as were several others within the hostel (one from Amsterdam, and another from New Zealand, and one from Italy). Each day, they set out to the ports to find jobs on ships. Dave spent time in Siena as a chef, and was looking for a job on a yacht. As Jacques explained, he simply wanted to fix the boats and get to ride the jet skies.

We spent each night talking to them, swapping stories and asking questions about each others' culture. Jacques bragged about South African food, while we reprimanded him for never having a Taco Bell. We talked about the American way of life, and our friend from Amsterdam claimed that he enjoyed visiting New York but could never live in America, as it was too uncomfortable. I asked him what he meant, and he explained that everything was expensive and fast-paced. It was interesting to hear from someone that they were uncomfortable in American culture--I was used to being the one uncomfortable, and am used to regarding America as the norm with which I am familiar.

I traveled to Eze Village and Monaco, but spent a majority of my time in Nice. I met up with a friend from my high school in California, and saw him for the first time in 4 years. He is spending a year abroad in France, and was able to tell us more about the culture. Don't go into a store unless you are definitely going to buy something. If a waiter comes to your table, be ready to order--we learned this the hard way, as a waiter was angered by our lack of preparedness at lunch one day and refused to see our table for another half an hour, making us wait until other people had been served until he brought out our food, and giving us only half-full glasses of wine.

For our second night in Nice, I had made reservations for 7:30 at a restaurant down the street. We arrived, and a member of the staff was blocking the doorway, sitting in the stoop and smoking. He looked directly at us, and looked away.

"Um...Bonjour?" I asked, wondering why he did not address us.

"Yes?" he said impatiently.

"We have reservations for 7:30," I said, trying to smile.

He looked me up and down. "And what time is it?"

I glanced at my watch. "7:28," I said.

He was silent and gave me a stare that could burn your soul. "Well, then," he said, returning to his smoking and waving us away with his hand.

We went to another restaurant.

One morning, we were picnicking on the beach, a frenchman approached us, asking in a very thick accent for a lighter. We didn't know he was addressing us, and thought he was talking to someone else. As he grew more persistent, we turned to look, and he repeated his demand impatiently. Like a true Italian (who is taught that men talking to you in public are often up to no good), I responded with a simple "No," and resumed to my picnic. He walked away, motioning towards our picnic and saying, "Bon apetite, ******."

So, there's a culture clash for you.

We were thrilled to return to Florence at the end of our trip. It was an exhausting week and half, and walking the streets the next day ignoring the men in the leather stores felt like coming home. We relaxed back into our daily routines, and I discovered that Florentine culture was finally becoming more like second nature to me.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Intercultural Intimate Relationships and Life in Italy

   Did I catch your attention with the title?

   Sorry, this post is not about some Italian man I've met and fallen in love with. It's just the title of the reading I had to do for my Intercultural Communication class yesterday, and was the title of the subsequent lecture we received.

   But it really was enlightening, and I hope to share some things with you that I learned in the lecture!

   For yesterday's class, our professor brought in a guest speaker: his wife. Born and raised in Instanbul, this Turkish woman (also a Muslim) left all she knew and all she was familiar with (her family, her home, her language, the patterns and expectations of living in Europe's most populated city) and moved to a small town on the outskirts of Florence, Italy. She married this man, whom she could not even communicate with in his native language (they both spoke English as a secondary language), and moved in with him and began searching for a job and slowly learning Italian.

   Obviously, there are a lot of intercultural communication-related obstacles to overcome. First, living in a new culture. Then, interacting with someone, on a highly intimate level (marriage is rather intimate, after all), and learning how communication and behavior differs between cultures. And the list goes on and on.

   They have been married since 2008, and have a daughter who speaks Turkish, Italian, and is learning English.

   They laughed as they described several instances in which their cultural differences led to misunderstandings and humorous scenarios. For instance, when their relationship was still transnational and required "Skype dates," she would never be the one to say "Okay, it's 2 in the morning so I am going to go to bed." He wondered for months why he was always the one to initiate the "goodbye" routine, and he felt bad each time, thinking she would be perfectly content talking the whole night through. Maybe he wasn't as committed as she was? He finally approached her about it, and she laughed, saying, "Of course I want to go to bed and end the conversation. But it would be rude for me to be the one to end the conversation. You are the one who called me." Apparently, whoever initiated the phone call and pressed the little green button on Skype was responsible for ending the call as well--otherwise, it was rude!

   In another scenario, after they had been married for about a year, my professor went out with some friends for a late night, only to come home at around 1 in the morning to find his wife waiting outside in the garden. He asked her why she was outside, and she said she had forgotten her key in the house and was locked out. Shocked, he demanded how long she had been outside and why he didn't call her. She responded that it had been around 4 hours, and it would have been rude to disturb him.

   She also shared that Italians are much more open and disclose much more than Turks. At an Easter celebration with her husband's family within the first year of their marriage, a family member leaned over to them at the dinner table and inquired about their sex life. She was horrified that this would even be a topic for discussion (the professor admitted that he was taken aback as well, stating that his uncle was simply crazy).

   She then opened up to us about the struggles of being a Turk in Italy. She claimed, "The Italians see a Turk or hear 'Turkish' or 'Muslim' and get this idea of a brutal extremist. I'm not that." She said that she has gradually been accepted into the culture, but will still run into issues with people stereotyping against her for "something that my people did many many years ago."

   Following the lecture, the floor opened for discussion, and I asked her how she dealt with being ousted by the Italians, as us Americans are as well. I asked why the Italians were so against us being in their country. She looked at me with compassion and understanding, and said, "Yes, I know exactly what you are talking about. Let me tell you what it is..."
   She then launched into the biggest rant I have ever heard, and my professor just sat there with this hilarious look of horror on his face as his wife described the Italians' sense of superiority and their relentless belief that everything in Italy is the best. The food is the best, the views are the best, the art is the best, the history is the best, the cars are the best, the clothes are the best, the wine is the best. "You know," she said mid-rant, "I think Italian people travel just so they can say, 'Oh, well, it's not as beautiful as Italy!'" We laughed as she continued on, ranting about how Italians are so convinced they are amazing at everything and that no one knows any better.

   And I have truly observed this. Italians are very proud of their culture. And that's not necessarily a bad thing! They have a lot to be proud of. They have a rich heritage, have amazing food (seriously, it's incredible), and have produced many of the greatest thinkers, artists, architects, musicians, etc. the world has ever seen. But this pride transcends national identity. They are proud of their favorite restaurants, their favorite stores, etc. "Oh, I know the best gelato place." "My mother's tomato sauce is the best." "No one does (fill in the blank with literally anything) better."

   They have convinced themselves that they are superior in every way, and that all the rest of the world can do is sit back and observe in awe. But, when the rest of the world comes to observe, they don't want us here! It is like a grandmother who wants the grandchildren to appreciate her fine china set on display, but you can't touch it, breathe on the glass, or even imagine one day owning that china set!

   Why is this? The professor's wife explained: "Immigration and tourism--but especially immigration--is a very new concept for the Italians. And they have a hard time accepting that. Coming here and being different is not acceptable for them."

   My professor chimed in, stating, "The world is globalizing, and there is exposure to new things and the spread of other ideas, and that scares the Italians. They want to hold on to their culture and their heritage and not let anything in."

   What was their advice? His wife, who has personally faced these struggles to a degree I cannot even begin to comprehend, said, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Try your best to live like them."

   My professor added, "The Italians will not make friends with an American or Turk; they will make friends with you. They don't want you to wear your culture like a stereotypical sleeve, but be respectful of the culture, remain true to yourself, and show them that you are a genuine person interested in their culture and you have something to offer as well."

   On a personal note, I have noticed some changes gradually in my daily life here. The butcher at the market smiles when he sees me, as he recognizes me now and knows that I want 1/2 kilo of sliced chicken breast. He knows that I'm here for a while, and that I'm serious about being here and want to experience the fresh meat and produce that they have to offer.

   Italy is undergoing changes with immigration and tourism. The globalizing world is coming in on Italy, and while they may not know what to do with that now, they are certainly adjusting. It is interesting to witness and experience firsthand, and every time I face a challenge because of where I come from and the fact that I am something new for them, I want to feel proud rather than ashamed. I respect their culture and heritage, and want to immerse myself in it and appreciate it, not destroy or tarnish it.

   And slowly, but surely, they are realizing that.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Vienna, Austria: Living With a Stranger

"So...what's this girl's name again?"

As the train rattled under our seats, I looked across the row to my friend, who was fixing her makeup after the 13 hour train ride.

"Elisabeth. And she is SUCH a sweetheart! You will love her!"

"So you met her..."

"Last week in Barcelona. We hung out for the whole day!"

I couldn't believe that I had hopped on a train and was traveling to Austria--with no itinerary, no plans, and only a backpack full of rolled up clothes and the knowledge that I was going to be living with some person I had never met and my friend barely knew.

"Well, she said if we were ever in Austria to come see her," my friend said, smiling. She wasn't nervous. So should I be?

We met Elisabeth as we got off the train. I had expected to meet a fellow student, who was studying abroad in Austria and had met my friend on a weekend trip to Barcelona. But, no. Elisabeth was an Austrian--born and raised in Salzburg, working in Vienna.

She opened her doors to us, letting us stay in her small Viennese apartment. She had gone grocery shopping and stocked her fridge for us, laid out fresh towels, and gave us her bed (she slept on an air mattress on the floor). I wasn't used to this kindness from strangers--especially in Italy, where it is against the law to have someone stay the night!

We spent the entire weekend in Vienna, touring the palaces, museums, churches, and opera houses. I had traditional boiled beef and potatoes, Viennese cakes, and a "hot pot"--a make-your-own Chinese food concept!

You can read about my trip in detail here, at this article I published for

The Austrians were VERY friendly; much friendlier than the Italians. You could easily see that the Austrians cared more about establishing friendly relationships with tourists, and didn't mind that people wanted to see their beautiful country. They were proud of their heritage, as are the Italians, but didn't boast their superiority.

Elisabeth was very curious about American culture. She would serve us cream cheese, bread, and tea, and while we ate she would ask us question after question, all the while shoveling more food onto our plates. Did we watch "Good Morning, America"? Did we like shows with Charlie Sheen? How did the Americans view immigration? How did America's welfare policy work?

As we answered her questions, we asked her the same. Apparently, Austrians enjoy American shows such as "The Big Bang Theory", "Gilmore Girls", "Grey's Anatomy", and so on. Guns are illegal in Austria. All dogs in public have to be muzzled. They don't dislike immigrants, but are experiencing higher crime rates and are trying to find peaceable ways to address it. The Roman Catholic Church puts a tax on Austrians who identify with the Catholic religion.

She was very interested in our political views. She asked several times about the Republican/Democrat divide, and my friend and I carefully answered her questions, trying not to reveal which end of the spectrum we placed ourselves. We didn't know each others' political views, as we didn't want to risk causing detriment to our friendship. However, one day, on the metro, Elisabeth began talking politics again. She looked at us and said, "So are you two on the same team?" (I loved how she worded things--several times we had to fish out a thesaurus so we could communicate!)

My friend's eyes grew about twice in size. We froze in silence. Finally, we both started laughing.

"What's so funny?" Elisabeth asked.

"I guess, in America, you don't really talk about it unless...there are situations where you would have to..." I said, laughing.

Elisabeth looked confused. "Well, why not?"

"We don't know!" my friend said, still laughing.

We discussed America's views on politics, how media presents biased viewpoints, how stereotypes arise based on what party you affiliate with. Elisabeth was fascinated with our way of life--from our language, to our food, to our politics. And, in living with a stranger (who very quickly became a friend) and being able to tour a foreign city with a local, we learned a great deal about the Austrian way of life, too!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Switzerland is...DEFINITELY not Italy!

The title is obvious. Switzerland is not's Switzerland. But culturally, there are a lot of differences I observed in my recent weekend trip to Interlaken and Zurich.

While the Italians believe in showing their superiority over tourists, the Swiss genuinely enjoy the fact that their beautiful alpine regions are such an inspiration to travelers, and wish to welcome them with open arms. Therefore, our reception in Switzerland was much warmer than in Italy (not temperature-wise, though! It's cold in Switzerland!)

A few examples:

When crossing the street in Italy, you MUST ensure before stepping onto the pavement that there is not a single car, bicycle, scooter, or any other automotive within a 1,000 foot vicinity, or you will be hit. The way Italians see it, when it comes to a car vs. a person, the car will always win. They will have no problem running over you.

However, in Switzerland, if you are exiting the corner grocery store and a car is approximately 3 blocks away, they will assume you are planning on crossing eventually, will stop around 700 feet back, and wait patiently for you to make sure you didn't leave any bags in the grocery store, close the door of the store, approach the curb, and cross. And, while you cross, they will smile and wave at you.

In Italy, if you have just purchased a gelato or finished browsing the shelves of a store, when it is time for you to take your leave, you walk out of the store without a word. In Switzerland, when you turn to leave, you will hear "Goodbye! Have a wonderful day!"

In Italy, they speak Italian. And they will begrudgingly speak English for your benefit if you desire to communicate with them. In Switzerland, they will greet you in German, have a conversation with you in English, interject with Italian phrases such as "si, grazie" and "allora," and will end the conversation with "au revoir!"

In Italy, Celiacs Disease is increasingly common, and the term "glutine" (gluten) is not taken lightly. Every one you talk to is a food expert and knows exactly what is in their food and what possible allergens are present. In Switzerland, they are likely to confuse Celiac with lactose intolerance and tell you that you can't eat something because it is milk-based, despite your insistence that you are in fact not lactose intolerance. And, they are likely to say something is gluten free and sell it to you, only for you to find that at the center of your mousse is a pastry (that was a rough night).

In Italy, everything is relatively inexpensive. You can go to the fresh food market and, if you budget and plan appropriately, can buy a week's worth of groceries for around 6 euros. In Switzerland, a fondue dinner is anywhere from 25 to 50 francs per person, and a simple bar of chocolate will cost you around 10 francs. A hot apple cider can cost you 6.50, and a bratwurst will be anywhere around 9 francs. It is an expensive country!

Aside from the expenses and lack of gluten free food, Switzerland was quite enjoyable. I went paragliding over the alps, ice skating in an outdoor rink (formatted like a corn maze, with different ice pathways connecting larger rinks), and went through various churches and museums in Zurich.

I had two specific interactions during this trip, however, that were quite interesting (and, for your entertainment, I will be vulnerable and include the second one).

First, when I went to a chocolate store to inquire with the chef regarding which ingredients were used in the chocolate making workshop because I was interested in signing up but had severe gluten allergies, I was treated extremely rudely. She refused to tell me what ingredients were in the chocolate until I agreed to sign up for a one hour-session (costing 55 franc). She took out her book and, pen in hand, demanded, "When would you like to sign up?"
I stuttered, explaining I had to check with my roommate, whom I was traveling with, and see when she was available to sign up.
"Then why are you here?" she asked, frustrated.
I started over. "I want to talk with my roommate about possibly signing up, but I need to know what is in the food and if I can even participate," I explained.
"Well, if you don't sign up right now, I'm not going to go back in the kitchen and get the ingredient list. I don't want to waste my time on you," she said.
I thanked her, and walked out. My friend, who is originally from Japan, looked at me after a few moments of silence and said, "No one in a store would ever treat you that way in Japan."

The second:
My friend and I decided that on our last day in Switzerland, in order to escape the cold, we would treat ourselves to a relaxing afternoon in a spa tucked away in the corner of Interlaken. For only 28 francs, you could rent a swimsuit (gross, I know) and have full access to the indoor whirlpool, swimming pool, and sauna.
The jacuzzi took up almost an entire room, and was encased in glass so as to provide a panoramic view of the Swiss mountains. It was breathtaking, and upon walking into the room, I could see myself turning into a prune sitting there all day long just gazing up at the unbelievable surroundings.
After becoming quite prune-y, my friend and I decided to take a bit of time in the sauna. As we approached, we saw a sign on the door in German, with an English translation underneath: "Nakedness Zone."
We looked at each other, not sure what to do.
"Do we really have to be naked?" I asked her.
"Well, I don't know," she said. "I mean, in America, clothes would be mandated, but even in a nude sauna they are optional. Otherwise you'll have law suits for perverse behavior and such."
"Yeah," I agreed. "In America you would at least have an option. Anyways, who are we hurting by keeping our swimsuits on?
"Maybe it's a warning," she said. "Like, if you go in there, be prepared to see naked people?"
I thought about it. "Well, there's no one in there, so let's just go in."
We stepped inside, and our lungs were instantly hit with the overwhelming menthol steam. We took our seats along the side wall, and allowed ourselves to sit back and relax.
A few moments later, the door opened. In walked a rather overweight nude German man, who nodded to us and waddled over beside us to plop down in a seat.
And then, another German man.
And then, another.
And then, another.
And then, a German man and his girlfriend.
And then, another German man.
And then, another.
I sat there, surrounded by nakedness.
"Do you ever feel," I whispered to my friend, "that you go to a party and are extremely overdressed?"
She clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh. We looked at each other, not needing to say how insanely awkward this was. We decided to enjoy ourselves, however, and continued to relax in the awkward silence that surrounded us.
Then, the silence was broken by the sound of the door opening once again. A spa employee poked his head in and, motioning to my friend and I, said, "You two. Out. Now."
We looked at each other, shrugged, and got up. Upon exiting the sauna, the employee closed the door, crossed his arms, and turned to look at us disapprovingly.
"Do you see the sign?" he said, pointing to the "Nakedness Zone" sign.
We nodded, looking at him. It was silent. He looked us up and down, waiting for us to say something--to explain ourselves.
Finally, he broke the silence again.
"It means you naked!" he yelled, in broken English. "You no naked, you no in! You no naked!"
"Oh, uh, okay, sorry," I stuttered.
So, we were kicked out of the sauna for breaking a cultural norm. Perhaps we were perceived as disrespectful by not complying with the norms. Nevertheless, as embarrassing and uncomfortable as it was, it is one of those stories that will remain engrained in my memory for quite some time (whether I would like it to or not).

So much culture in such a short amount of time. I walked away from that weekend with more insight on intercultural communication than I had gained in all my studies and readings. And, at least I walked away from that sauna with my pride! Because I'm an American, and I keep my clothes on!

*If you are interested in reading an article I published on my trip to Switzerland on a Florentine website, you can access it here:

*Also, if you would like to see a HILARIOUS video depicting the differences between Italy and the rest of Europe in their cultural behavior, click here (you'll be glad you did--we watched it at our orientation and it is amazingly entertaining and accurate):

European Perspectives: What Do You Think of Americans?

She sat across from me, her eyes towards the ceiling as she collected her thoughts before answering my question.

"What do we think of Americans?" she asked through her thick accent. She laughed, reaching for another piece of pizza. "Wow, where do I start?"

Giorgette, who I had met through a Lorenzo de'Medici function a few weeks earlier, was from Holland. She spoke fluent English and Dutch, and had traveled all over the globe. She, too, was a study abroad student in Florence--one of the only ones who was not from America.

I had asked her this question after hearing her complain all through dinner about her American roommates. She was an honest person, and I knew I would get a good answer from her.

"You're all loud. And obnoxious. And, let's face it, all you guys want to do is get drunk off cheap liquor before you're 21, which we think is absolutely ridiculous. Like, if you're going to drink, pay for the good stuff and enjoy it in a social situation, don't just knock it back like it's nothing!"

I laughed as she continued describing European perspectives on Americans.

"You all think you are so safe and protected, and that your country is the best thing since white bread. You tend to live in a bubble, and expect that everyone else will bow down and worship your music, your democracy, your fashion, everything. When really, we're all laughing at your arrogance."

I nodded, and commented that I noticed a lot of the American students walked around with a sense of invincibility, not thinking of any consequences for irresponsible behavior because we felt we were protected.

"And entitled!" she chimed in. You all think you are entitled. And I hate your accents!"

"Oh, American accents?" I asked, subconsciously listening to how I formed the words and trying to monitor so as to not sound too American.

"No, not yours," she laughed, noticing my adjustment. "Not that American accent. I'm talking about the whiny complaining one a lot of American girls have."

"Oh, like valley girl?" I asked, doing the accent for her.

She laughed, sitting back in her chair. "YES! That's the one! It's like, are they all just so unhappy about everything that they have to complain? And why do they talk through their nose like that and draw out the syllables and end every sentence as if it were a question? It seriously makes you all sound so stupid!"

The conversation went on for around 2 hours. We sat and laughed, commenting on each other's languages, sayings, and cultural behaviors.

While not all Europeans feel this way towards Americans, it is certainly true that a majority here do believe we are entitled, arrogant, loud, and irresponsible and closed-minded. An interesting perspective to hear directly from a European!

Cultural Workshop: Blending In

   Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a cultural workshop, hosted by the Lorenzo de'Medici for concerned international students who wished to gain more perspective on the Italian culture and how to better thrive as a temporary citizen of Italy.

   Of course, I was immediately interested in going--not only to gain valuable insight to share on this blog for you all, but also for my own safety and livelihood.

   I say "safety" and "livelihood" for two reasons: 1.) Italian men can be quite affectionate, and can spot an American woman from a mile away. They do not hesitate in expressing their interest, either verbally or physically, and it can be quite uncomfortable. There are certain 'precautions' a student or tourist can take to ensure they better blend in and are not pestered as often by these men. 2.) I have observed since arriving a rather discriminatory stance that a majority of Italians take towards Americans, and I have to say, I understand their displeasure with our presence here. While in America it is quite common to have immigrants or citizens originating from other countries make the States their permanent residence, Italians are used to only seeing American tourists. Therefore, when they see a group of Americans walking down the street, they assume we are loud, obnoxious, boisterous tourists tromping through their town, getting drunk at the 'American' bars, making noise after legal hours, and disrupting the morality of their youth. They do not see us as temporary residents of Florence, living and studying and working here alongside them. It is only in the past 20 years or so that people from all different nations have been moving permanently to Italy, and the newness of this immigration trend makes it difficult for Italians to grasp that we may not merely be 'outsiders.' And, in their defense, I have observed an obscene amount of American students who give the rest of us a bad name by dismissing any cultural differences and simply living their loud, carefree American lives with no regard to how their behavior is affecting the people who are so generously sharing their country with us. So many times walking home from the opera do I see scantily clad American girls stumbling down the street, and I watch the Italians look at them and shake their heads in frustration.

   Sunday morning, I had an enlightening conversation with a church leader who is originally from the UK. As I have increasingly become interested in potentially studying abroad in England next semester, I asked her how the English regarded American students and tourists, as I was hesitant to sign on for another abroad experience if I would receive the same discrimination I have received here in Italy. She explained that, since the UK is more used to immigrants than is Italy, I would not experience nearly as much discrimination.

   And, to be completely honest, this discrimination is difficult to deal with. The Italians don't want us to act as a large group of American tourists, and say that they would rather us try to blend in and make an effort. However, whenever one of us orders our meal in Italian, says "Buongiorno," or asks how much something costs in well-rehearsed Italian, they answer us in English! So many students have told me of their frustrations due to the fact that the Italians "won't let them even try."
I emphasize with them. The other evening was perhaps one of my most frustrating moments. Some friends and I decided that, instead of acting like American students and going to Hard Rock Cafe Firenze or the touristy snack bars, we would cross the Ponte Vecchio and have gelato in an authentic Italian lounge that was playing live music. We arrived an hour early, squeezed onto a couch, and quietly settled in with our gelato. As the lounge started becoming crowded with Italians, we received countless sideways glances of displeasure for being in "their" spot. We looked at each other, confused. They didn't want us to be Americans, but they don't want us to try to be Italians?
(I receive the same treatment each time I attend a concert at the opera house).

   So, I wanted to attend this workshop and learn how to blend in and act as a respectful American that the Italians could gladly welcome into their country.

   I was shocked at how few students were in attendance, but it allowed for a more intimate workshop that was geared towards our specific concerns. It was led by Mac Huskra, a psychiatrist originally from Texas but has in the past decade relocated permanently to Italy, where he assists students with cultural adjustment in the LdM Counseling Department.

   He began by discussing the Italian concept of "Bella Figura," which directly translates into "beautiful figure." However, this term does not refer to having attractive curves, but rather is the way one presents oneself. To have bella figura, one must carry themselves with confidence. He described how to walk like a Florentine in order to decrease the potential of being approached by street vendors or amorous Italian men. Face forward, chin up, sunglasses on (even at night), and eyes fixed on your destination (no looking around at the beautiful and historic architecture that surrounds you!). I practiced this walk for several days, and received significantly less attention in the streets. Additionally, an Italian couple even approached me and asked for directions!

As a recap of the workshop, here are the cultural insights and tidbits I learned:

1. Don't ever order cappuccino (or any coffee containing milk) after 11:00 am. EVER.
2. Italians don't eat eggs for breakfast. And garlic bread is not an Italian food. Nor is alfredo pasta.
3. While in America it is courteous to begin an email to a professor with "Dear _____, I hope you are doing well. I just wanted to inquire about...", in Italy, it is expected that you will not waste their time with meaningless well wishes and get straight to business. The same goes for face-to-face interactions, such as when ordering a coffee. One does not walk into the coffee shop and ask the bartender how he likes the weather. You simply walk in, nod in acknowledgement and say a quick "Buongiorno," and say "un caffe."
4. Despite the message in #3, you ALWAYS greet when you begin an interaction. Because efficiency is not a part of the Italian mindset...connection is. These two are rather paradoxical concepts that are only mastered by the Italians, I suppose.
5. When walking on the narrow sidewalks and trying not to get pick pocketed or hit by vespas and ATAF buses, just remember: if you start walking towards someone and it looks like you are going to collide, just keep walking. The Italians have a magical way of slightly moving their shoulder at the VERY LAST SECOND and you walk past them without a bruise. But they will often wait until the VERY LAST SECOND. Sometimes I think it is their way of trying to judge whether or not you are the alpha. Or if you are going to chicken out. And if you wait until the very last second too, you will look more like an Italian!
6. Italians like to hog the entire sidewalk and walk very slowly...especially if they know an American is behind them.
7. When it comes to fashion and how your status is interpreted, it is all about your shoes. (One girl I know went to a club, and when she asked what the entrance fee was, the man looked down at her shoes for a few seconds, looked up, and said: "For you...10 euro")
8. Italians don't mind PDA as much as Americans. I have seen some...graphic...displays of affection in the historic district piazzas.

It was a very insightful and enlightening workshop--one that I wish more of my colleagues had taken advantage of!