Tuesday, February 24, 2015

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!


  1. Hi sissy,
    very informative blog!! I find the paradox very interesting of no small talk, but always must use a greeting. Efficiency is not a value, but connection is? It seems as though the Italians are blending qualities from both multi active and linear active cultures. Do you find this hard to adjust to? For example, how is it appropriate to act in different settings? When is it appropriate to use efficiency over connection or vice versa? Or should they always be used simultaneously?

  2. Sissy!
    I am sorry I have been so preoccupied with school and haven't gotten to my blogs:( It is so hard to adjust to! You literally have to learn by watching and trial and error in order to know what is expected. For example, in emailing my professors, there is no "How are you?" It is literally "Dear ___, Here is what I need." So email is definitely a medium where efficiency is valued. But, you always end an email with some pleasant farewell. The same thing happens with telephone calls. They answer with "Si" or "Pronto"--which is basically the English equivalent of answering a phone by saying "Go." However, when they go to hang up, they say "Ciao. Ciao. Cia-ciao-ciao-ciao-ciao." So like 20 goodbyes. It's very interesting, to say the least!