Hey, guys, I’m studying in Italy! It’s absolutely beautiful here, and I’m exploring and learning so much! I’m staying here for an extended period of time, the entire month of June actually. It’s really cool that I can kind of put my roots down for a few weeks in one spot, because the last time I was in Europe, the group I was with was nomadic, bouncing from town to town, country to country.
This is *obviously* not my first time out of the country, nor is it my first time traveling (relatively) by myself. However, it is my first time living in another country. I’ve gotten the chance to see some really cool things, and meet some really cool people. I’m discovering that I am totally capable of living, and perhaps even thriving, in a foreign country. I’m finding myself reflecting a lot on the things I’ve learned while traveling (and some of the things I wish other people knew about going abroad).
- Have an opened mind. Hopefully, if you’re traveling, you want to experience another culture. (Which, by the way, is why I think you should travel – apart from seeing really cool things.). But being in different cultures means a lot of different, everything from different manners, customs, food, habits, expectations, etc. For example, when Italians are walking down the street, if you don’t get out of their way, they won’t move either, and in some cases, they will brush against you. This feels rude to us (Americans), because we are used to getting out of the way for other people. However, in Italy, this is the norm; people just do their thing. Also, many Europeans eat meat, cheese, veggies, and drink black coffee for breakfast. This is weird to many Americans, because they/ we are used to sweets, eggs, oatmeal, or cereal for breakfast. When you can recognize these differences and can be open to engaging in, and adapting your behavior to them, your experience and the enjoyment of a culture, increases tenfold.
- Be grateful and thankful. (I think this applies the most on guided tours.) This is one of the things I always feel the most deeply when I travel; I’m always so thankful for the financial ability I have to travel, and for a family that supports me in my desire to see the world, sometimes even without them. I’m always grateful for the little adventures I get to have in other countries. The school I’m studying with led a weekend trip this last weekend which took those of us on the trip to Pompeii, amount other places. In order for us to be able to see the ruins in the time we had, we had to be on a guided tour. I’m not a big fan of guided tours, for many reasons; however, I am very thankful for the time we had at Pompei because our tour guide was very knowledgeable, and I’m not sure I would have gotten to the city otherwise. In that same vein, I think it’s so important be courteous and thankful to the people leading the tours, especially if traveling with a tour for an extended period of time. They have worked hard to provide the best experience they can, within the funds and the time they have. Tours can’t be perfect for everyone, but making the best of an experience that may not be one hundred percent to your liking will help you to enjoy it even more (especially if you paid a lot of money for it).
- Always assume the host culture can understand your language. I have found that a good portion of Italians can understand basic English. This makes things super helpful when going to the grocery store (which is really high stress, by the way). I know enough Italian to fumble my way through most conversations most days, but I try really hard to only speak English with my classmates and the other students from my home college who are also studying here. By understanding that there is a strong possibility that Italians may know what I am saying in my native tongue, I purposefully do not say anything negative, derogatory, or hateful about their culture when I’m out in public. This is so not in my nature to begin with, but it’s still something I make a point to not do. If I feel the need to complain, I do so behind closed doors. Two Sundays ago, my roommate and I took a day trip to a neighboring city. On the way back, we got clown-car stuck on a bus, most notably beside three other American women who were visiting the city. One of the women loudly deemed the Italian youth as incredibly rude, and was totally oblivious to the Italian people around her who gave her the stink eye, and complained to the people around them. (As I have said, I know a little Italian, but I understand far more than I can speak.) Even if it a culture and a language so removed from your own, I have found that it is always best to assume the local people can understand your language.
- Understand how people from other countries view tourists from your country. The first time I went abroad, I went with an organization centered around high school musicians. Before we got on the plane for Europe, we were told that most people in Europe thought of Americans as Snooki and co. from Jersey Shore. (Mind you, I went on this trip when that show was really popular.). Now, with social media pushing celebrities into the everyday, global stage, I would not be surprised to learn that people in other countries think that Americans are all like the Kardashian (who are a mess in and of themselves), or other social media, or reality TV stars. (Also, this article outlines several stereotypes I’ve encountered with several other Americans who are also studying at my school here in Italy …) But by being conscientious of how other cultures expect people from your country to behave and act as tourists, you can better behave in a way that doesn’t alienate you from the host culture and the locals. Allow the opportunity of being in a brand new place to push you to evaluate your behavior and aim to interact with everyday people as if you were a local (or rather, not a stereotypical tourist). Also, side note, it’s annoying, and a little embarrassing, for other American tourists to see fellow Americans causing scenes and being stereotypical.
- Understand that when you travel, you act as an ambassador for your home country, school, family, etc. This easily ties into the last one, but when you’re in another country, your first and foremost identity is your nationality. For example, I’m an American living and studying in Italy. Whether or not I like it, when I’m on foreign soil, I present, and speak for, America to the people I interact with. My roommate and I met a student from Germany a few days ago, and he asked us about why Americans feel the need to carry big guns, and why the police kill people. In that conversation, I knew that it was so important that I not push my political view points, but try to illustrate America as a whole. But also, in his response, my roommate and I were given a glimpse into how Germans live and view the subject of carrying guns. Apart from being an ambassador to my country, I am also an ambassador to my home college. Whatever I do while over here is directly reflective of my college, and the study abroad program. My behavior paints my college as either a respectable or ill-reputed institution. And of course, I reflect my family, and the values and morals they have instilled in me, and how they have taught me to interact with other people.
- Try to learn the basics of the host language , and engage with it as much as possible. This is so important, my goodness. Knowing even just the basics will get you miles in another country. As mentioned earlier, I know enough Italian to function. I can order things, I can translate for my roommate, and every day my skills get better. But I know for a fact that if I didn’t know even the basics, I would feel ten times more isolated, out of place, and alienated than I already do. I think its so important to know how to ask where the bathroom is, and to be able to ask for help, at the absolute minimum. Being able to say “yes”, “no”, “please”, “thank you”, and “I speak a little” are also really beneficial. I have found that when you work to engage in another language, the locals are much more open to helping and interacting with you. Trust me, its worth the difficulty of learning the other language.
- If you don’t know where you’re going, walk as confidently as possible. This is super important, and more so for your safety than for anything else. The city where I’m living isn’t too difficult to get lost in, as it’s mostly hills, and the city center is located at the highest point in the city. The institute I’m studying at is located in the center, and I can get home very easily from there. So, if I’m lost, I just go up hill. I already stand out as a foreigner, for many reasons, but I purposefully work to minimize that as much as possible by not looking lost. If for some reason I do get lost, I just keep walking until I figure it out. I don’t feel afraid in this city, and I do walk by myself a lot. However, this is so much more important to keep in mind when in places where pickpockets and other unfortunate things are commonplace. My roommate and I are taking a weekend to Rome next weekend, and amount other precautions, her and I are going to do our best to not look lost. Walking confidently even if you’re lost, presents the image that you know where you’re going. This minimizes your vulnerability and target risk significantly.
- Be understanding and patient with the people around you. (This also applies to tours.) Being patient with the people you interact with, especially if there is a language barrier. Getting frustrated at the drop of the hat is going to make any situation ten times worse and even less enjoyable. Also, I found that some restaurants may try to cater to American palates, and make meals outside of their comfort zones in order to please American tourists. I’m not a fan of when this happens, but by being patient and open to the meals they are providing, I can experience their take on American meals. By being understanding and patient, and being willing to go with the flow, you open yourself up to experiencing the culture in the most in depth way as possible. Also, in tours, if you get impatient or upset at things not going your way and refuse to interact, you then jip yourself of the entirety of an experience. I have found that, though I’m naturally a patient and easy going person, these qualities are enhanced when I’m traveling.
- Be a traveler, not a tourist. This is actually a phrase I read in Mike Rowe’s piece for Anthony Bourdain, and it really resonated with me. I seek to explore cultures, understand different people, expose myself to different ways of living, and feel the tension of being out of place. I want to live in other countries, not just visit. Don’t get me wrong, I do the tourist thing sometimes, and wander around with a camera. But I’d rather be enveloped into a culture, actively experiencing the day to day challenges of living in a place, instead of just observing from the outside. I’ll visit museums and tourist spots, but I’ll also support small local businesses and try to cook authentic meals in the apartment. I’ll try the local foods, and eat the regional cuisines. I’ll go to weekly markets and sit in the park in the evening while everyone is out before dinner. I really stress that when you travel, don’t look at a new place from the outside; get a little messy and uncomfortable and experience it up close and personal. You will be all the better for it, I promise.
Ciao for now,