Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Switzerland is...DEFINITELY not Italy!

The title is obvious. Switzerland is not Italy...it'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:  http://www.flonthego.com/2015/lifestyle/02-10/switzerland/

*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): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzQuuoKXVq0

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!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Italian Culture: A First Glimpse

I thought now would be an appropriate time to write reflect on the cultural differences I have noticed now that I have had some experience under my belt. Allow me to preface this post with this: no matter how detailed or explicitly Lewis writes, there is nothing like living in a culture that really shows you what it's all about. 

I have just officially completed my first week of classes. Only one of my professors is American; the others are Italian. This means that you must pay close attention in class, because they often speak with thick accents and use unconventional word choices where mispronunciation is commonplace. Therefore, being able read lips and infer meanings is essential. 

In my Intercultural Communication class, and Professor Mazza mentioned several things that I remember from leadership regarding how various cultures communicate differently and bring different expectations to conversations. Several students complained that Italians were not kind to Americans, were impatient, and spoke too quickly. The instructor was surprised to hear this, and said, "I guess we Italians have a different perception of how we act towards Americans." 

This professor has an interesting, cross-cultural story himself. Born and raised in Italy, he married a Turkish Muslim woman and temporarily moved to the United States, where they had their child, before returning to Italy. He explained that it is quite discerning that their 2 year old daughter is fluent in Turkish and Italian and is also learning English, and he himself cannot understand Turkish. 

Similarly, my Communication/Body Language Techniques professor, born in the United States, traveled to Italy while pursuing her master's degree, married an Italian man, and remained in Italy to raise their son. Many people in addition to my professors are bilingual, and it is seen as a norm to be such.

Just on my way home to write this blog, I passed a group of Italian men shamelessly blaring a Korean version of "Let it Go" on their iPod as they walked the darkened streets of Florence.

What struck me most in my lessons today was my Communication/Body Language professor's response when a student asked her about differences between America and Italy. She discussed the fact that America is very "linear" (linear-active), and emphasizes rules, and consequences for disrupting order. She used the term "masculine" to define this culture, comparing it to Italy's "feminine" culture. In Italy, she said, one strives to break the rules and get away with it, and if you are caught, more often than not the punishment is not harsh. She shared stories of her neighbors breaking laws associated with adding housing to property and not being penalized. Instead, the Italian government, in a time of financial hardship, released a religious statement calling all tenants who had broken the law to come to confession, pay the penance (which would then go towards the government), and the government would in turn look the other way.

She also discussed how these practices transcend into familial life. In America, she said, there is constant pressure on children to mature and become independent. While living at home after the age of 21 in America is a sign of 'failure,' if an individual moves out by that age in Italy, it is a sign that the family is in distress. 

It is quite interesting to reflect on the Lewis Model, receive additional information in class, and experience it firsthand on the streets of Florence! I am excited to continue in this adventure!

Ciao ciao!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Communicating in Italy: A Game of Charades

I probably walked by the butcher's station 5 times until I got the courage to order my "polle." 5 times. 5. Whole. Times.

The Mercanto Centrale is right down my street, so it is an easy walk in the mornings to go pick up my groceries for the day. You MUST eat them that day. Everything is fresh and not processed, so it will only last you until the evening. I learned to either cook it all and put it in refrigerated containers for future meals, or do as the Italians do and mangia, mangia, mangia!

At the daily market, you walk by a plethora of fresh fruit and veggie stands, as well as butcher shops, cheese and wine counters, etc. The difficult part is that you absolutely cannot touch any of the items. If you want to purchase something, you tell the owner of the stand what you want and how much, and he/she will pick it up and bag it for you. 

So, to order 2 oranges, I hold up 2 fingers and point to the oranges. To order an onion, I hold up my index finger and gesture towards the onion. Simple.

But how do I just order a little bit of chicken? 

The butchers were covered in blood, and I watched as one took a butcher knife and lobbed the snout off a pig's face. Literally. Right there. And he hung the face above the counter on a hook to advertise the pig for the day. There were chicken carcasses sitting in the front shelf, and I finally approached, pointing towards the chicken, and said: "Polle, per favore." 

The butcher looked at me, and asked something in Italian. I responded with my go-to phrase: "Parle englese?" 

He shook his head, saying: "Despiace" (I'm sorry). 

I assured him it was fine, and proceeded to gesture that I just wanted a little chicken. He then ran his hand across his chest and said, "Breast?" 

I clapped my hands and nodded enthusiastically, repeating "Si! Si! Si!" (Yes, I probably looked ridiculous. But I wanted chicken. Really badly). 

And it was good chicken.

A few days ago, as I was consulting with a program leader about the gluten free restaurants in Florence, she enquired about the severity of my disease. I replied that I could have no contamination whatsoever, and she assured me that I didn't need to be concerned. 

"Just say 'MOLTO allergico a glutine. MOLTO!'" She waved her hands wildly as she repeated the phrase, and I tried to articulate the sentence as she did. She stopped, and smiled.
"Just use a lot of hand gestures. They'll get it. Italians love hand gestures."

Boy, was she right. 

I feel like I'm eavesdropping on everyone I see here. Because I can look at them and know what they're talking about. I walk down the street, and I know what people are talking about. The man across the street tells his friend about a purchase he made in the market. The child tells his mother about what he did in school. The girl tells her friends about the purse she bought. I can see all of these conversations and can discern what they're doing based on their gestures. And I've found that my gestures have already become more wild in the past week alone. 

Italians also love to be close to you when they speak. Something you read about in books that analyze different cultures and their communication techniques, but not something you fully realize until you are there. I am comfortable with low threshold barriers, so this practice isn't so hard for me--what does make it hard is the fact that most Italians only shower once every 3 days. And, when you add to that the fact that they're waving their arms around madly using gestures...it's quite a fragrant conversation.