Greener Grass: What I Learned About America By Living Somewhere Else
Written by Alicia February 26, 2016
Since arriving at CIMBA, I’ve been asked one question more than any other: “So, why did you choose to study abroad?”
Well, I could honestly give you about 50 different reasons beginning with “I wanted to learn about another culture” and ending with, “It sounded cool.” This is supposed to be one of the most important learning experiences a person can have and, true to its promise, I have learned more in this one month than I could have ever imagined. I have learned about Italy, Europe, language, culture, business, history, and- of course- myself. The one thing I did not expect to be learning about was the culture of the United States.
As it turns out, an entire class of American students being held up against the backdrop of rural Italy provided the perfect context for exploring what I never realized was around me. Being here has forced me to look around and finally notice the air I was breathing: the culture that had been nurturing me for 20 years. Here is what I have noticed so far:
1. We’re loud. Like, really loud! I knew we had a reputation for this but I thought- hey, so do the Italians- it won’t be that big of a deal. Wrong! Turns out that most Europeans are relatively quiet while in groups, especially compared to us. Whenever there are more than two of us talking excitedly, heads will turn in our direction as our chatting (what we often feel is just casual conversation) greatly disrupts the peace. The more of us that gather the louder we speak, presumably so we can be heard over the noise of the rest of the group.
2. We walk fast. We keep pace and move with purpose. We walk as if we have somewhere to go or are at least on a schedule. However, this is not how I feel when I walk. Maybe sprinting to class in below-zero weather has trained me to move quickly or maybe I’m trying to avoid a sense of laziness and apathy. I really could not explain the need to walk quickly that I share with my fellow CIMBIANS, and presumably most of the U.S., but few Italians feel the need to walk this aggressively. I often find myself with frustration similar to that of a traffic jam when I am stuck behind a slow-moving group.
3. We smile. At everyone, all the time. From the waiter who greets you to the stranger you hold the door open for at the train station. I am one of the guiltiest people in this category and you know the most common reaction I’ve received? Confusion. Some even looked shocked or near offended. There’s an expression that I now recognize as the “a perfect stranger smiled at me! What could they possibly want?!” look. While simple eye contact is enough for them, smiling is how I was raised to show awareness of another human’s presence. However, it’s kind of awkward to stop strangers just to inform them that I’m actually not trying to creep them out – smiling is just how I show recognition.
4. The “Melting Pot” is real. Alright, let’s talk about food for a minute. Back home you can eat Italian on Monday, German on Tuesday, Japanese on Wednesday, Mexican on Thursday, Indian on Friday, Chinese on Saturday, French on Sunday, and move on to the next week with no repeats! Not to mention all of the very hearty Midwestern American possibilities to add to that list! I am so accustomed to the immense variety of food available that I might have gone crazy had it not been for our trips out of the country. I suppose my beliefs were that because the world is so interconnected, there would be clear influences from all over the globe in Italy, permeating every aspect of life. But That has not really been the case too often. For the most part, this experience has been Italians, living in Italian homes, eating Italian food.
This, of course does, not just apply to food, but all other aspects of culture as well. Being that we come from a country of so much diversity, we often try very hard to accommodate a variety of differences (something I, again, had assumed was the norm.) For example, at one point early on the trip I asked a professor where all the handicap ramps were, as the streets are narrow and broken while the sidewalks are high and sharp. As it turns out, they don’t have many. In Italy, and many other historical places, the infrastructure is too old to provide even the simplest accommodations.
5. Convenience and efficiency . I know this one seems too obvious, being the American standard, but I had never truly appreciated how wonderful many of our systems are. In America stores open early and close late (and do not close from 12:30 – 2 for lunch!). Staff is expected to be helpful, patient, and polite. I took this very much for granted. Since being in Italy I’ve felt, on multiple occasions, as if my spending money in both shops and restaurants was somehow a luxury for me and an inconvenience for them. That is not to say that the American system of business is best- often friends, family, and time are the first luxuries to be conceded in such ventures. This is much less likely to happen in a place where time off to eat with family is expected.
Like most of my generation, I was fine to accept the presumed reality that the U.S. has no culture; compared to what I knew of the rest of the world, this appeared to be the overwhelming truth. However, standing in a country with a globally-recognized rich culture, I would finally argue that this is false. I am in no way trying to lessen the importance of the Italian way of life. For the most part, it is a strong balance between hard work, incredible food, strong family ties, and a long and dramatic history. I am just getting accustomed to the Italian culture and yearn to take so many aspects of it back home.
However, I have also never appreciated the American way more than I do now, from so incredibly far away. Though we may be relatively young, the United States has a culture all our own. We are loud, passionate, and enthusiastic in both our speech and movements (i.e. powerwalking). We value efficiency, individuality, and diversity and are willing to fight for these at the drop of a hat. Although these are far from what other countries may choose to boast about, they are vitally important to me. I’m not yet ready to go home but, when I am, I will stop to appreciate these unique components to the culture of my homeland.