There is a stereotype about how Americans assume people from all around the world can and should speak English since it is the universal language. As an American myself studying abroad in Italy, I would have to say I fit that stereotype. I personally do not believe that people from other countries should automatically know how to speak English nor do I expect them to, but it is the fact that I did not try to learn any Italian prior to coming to Italy.
Before arriving in Italy, I was not concerned that language would be a great barrier to overcome, simply because I figured I could carry around an Italian phrase book and that all would be good. And yes, I am still alive and have been able to travel around with minimal problems, so language was not a large issue of survival, but in terms of being able to grasp the full experience, knowing the language is crucial.
Many times, I would be in a museum or at a famous landmark and not know the significance or the history behind the beautiful artifacts and sculptures. This is because many attractions are written out only in Italian, and I found this to be frustrating because buildings and sculptures all start to look the same if knowledge about that object is unknown. However, I had no one to blame but myself. Also, language is essential to any culture and because I did not know any Italian, I already missed out on great opportunities to explore new places, restaurants, and people.
Although not knowing a language is frustrating, I would have to say it was not all bad experiences. Learning a language along the way is much more fun than learning it through books and classrooms. Also, picking up the local language while abroad has helped me improve my problem-solving skills and non-verbal communication skills, and now I have more confidence in my ability to overcome barriers.
At least for next time, I know that before I travel somewhere for an extended period of time, I must learn the basics of the local language in order to maximize my experience abroad.
Recently, I made a trip to Lake Como in Italy. Lake Como is renowned for the beauty of their scenic landscape. It is a lake surrounded by large hills that are right on the water’s edge, and gorgeous mountains in the distance. Lake Como is about forty minutes by train from Milan, Italy so I, along with five other friends of mine, decided to travel there for a day trip and return by evening.
We all met up at the Milan Central Station, which is the main hub for trains coming to and from Milan. From there we bought the train tickets at a ticket machine, and we had two options, to either pick the train that would leave in fifteen minutes or the train that leaves in an hour and a half. We decided to pick the train that was going to leave in fifteen minutes, however, that ended up being a poor decision because we were incredibly rushed. It took a while for the tickets to print and by the time we all got our tickets, we only had five minutes to find our train. It was the first time any of us traveled by train so we did not know how to read the tickets or which train was ours. In a frantic rush we tried asking people passing by in our broken Italian, and everyone we asked would point to a different train. We heard the station bell ring for last minute passengers so in a panic we all decided to board the train nearest to us.
None of us knew if we were on the correct train or not until the ticket stamper came around asking for our tickets. He looked at our tickets and was about to give us a fine for taking the wrong train! In hopes to avoid a fine, we all blurted out the few words of Italian we knew, and him, realizing that we were all confused foreigners, told us that he wouldn’t fine us, but that we would have to get off at the next stop.
So when we got off, we realized we were in the middle of the countryside and all we could do was wait for the next train. The next train came about thirty minutes later and we were on the wrong train once again! In total, we rode on three wrong trains, and almost got fined three different times, but finally we hopped on the right train the fourth time around.
Getting lost usually frustrates people, but for me, it was a positive experience. I not only learned that I should always plan ahead for my travels and my studies, but it also gave me an opportunity to strengthen my relationship with my friends. There was something about struggling together that allowed us to trust each other and to know that we could depend on one another. Also, since we had a lot of time to waste while waiting for trains, it provided us the opportunity to have enriching conversations and grow in our understanding of each other.
We arrived at Lake Como about four hours later when it should have only taken forty minutes. Lake Como was beautiful, but surprisingly, I enjoyed the journey to Lake Como more than the destination itself. Trying to communicate with strangers about how to get to the proper train, solving problems together as a team, and trying our best to tear up when almost getting fined, were more memorable than picturesque mountains. This has taught me to be flexible with plans because they can, and did go wrong, and to adapt well in any situation I find myself in. I guess it is true what Ernst Hemingway once said. “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
Food is unique all over the world, and although Italian food has become such a large part of American cuisine, there are a few differences in dining culture between Italy and America.
First and foremost, Italians love espresso. I remember the first time I ordered coffee, I thought the cafe would have a regular Starbucks sized Americano or a regular black coffee, but they do not. Instead, what they have all over Milan is a tiny tiny cup of espresso, or a small cup of cappuccino. When I say tiny, I mean very tiny as shown in the picture below. There are no Starbucks in Milan, and no gas station sized coffee.
For lunch, sandwiches or pizza are popular options. The pizza in Milan is delicious, and so cheap. Pizza in Milan is quite different from pizza in America, because the toppings and texture is not the same. Some common pizza toppings in Milan are basil, seafood, sometimes no cheese, mozzarella cheese, and so on and so forth, but never have I seen a pepperoni pizza yet. The sandwiches in Milan are somewhat simple. It is usually some sliced deli-meat with tomato, and some sort of cheese such as brie or mozzarella. Sandwiches such as cheeseburgers or any Subway chains are not common, and actually, I have not seen a burger place or Subway shop yet.
For dinner, aperitivo is a popular choice. Aperitivo is the Italian version of Happy Hour, but instead of getting just half off drinks, you get a drink of your choice whether that be Long Island, a cocktail, beer, etc with unlimited appetizer like food that is set out in a buffet style. It is usually only 6 to 10 euros, and is delicious!
During my first week in Milan, I traveled out to the center of the city. When I say the center of the city, it is literally in the center of the city of Milan. In the center, there is a main cathedral called the Duomo, which is a term used for church, more specifically a catholic church. The Duomo is literally in the center of Milan. Then from the Duomo, the city is built as a circle that radiates outward. The structure of the city can be described as a small circle as its center point, and then a circle of buildings built around the center, and so on and so forth as it keeps radiating out.
Above is a picture of the Duomo that I took from behind. It is absolutely stunning. The building is so large, with hundreds of handcrafted sculptures of famous disciples, and people described in the Holy Bible. This church took about 600 years to build, and it is still under reconstruction (if you notice to roof of the building)! I know from pictures it just looks alright, but it is similar to looking at a picture of the ocean, and actually going to the ocean; two very different experiences.
I was not allowed to go into the Duomo the day I took the picture above, because I was wearing shorts. The entrance guards were really strict about what kind of clothing one could wear when entering the cathedral. It was understandable, because they viewed this as a place to meet God, and they wanted people to wear respectable, very conservative clothing, so I have yet to still go inside, which I am sure is just as beautiful. This small encounter with the entrance guards was a slight culture shock for me. At my home church, which is a protestant church, I am allowed to wear whatever I please as long as it was socially appropriate, so shorts and a T-shirt would have been no problem back in many churches in the States, but here at this specific cathedral, they wanted people to dress better when entering a building of God.
Moving on from the Duomo, I was walking around taking pictures of everything around the center plaza and my friend was taking some pictures of me too when a man came from nowhere, just grabbed my hand, and put bird food into my hand (see picture below).
He lifted up my hand and walked away, and right after that, pigeons flew towards me and ate everything in a matter of a few seconds. First, I hate pigeons…I sometimes see them as rats with wings. And secondly, once the pigeons (although the picture has just one pigeon, about ten came) landed on my hands, I immediately thought of bird flu. After that very unenjoyable experience, the man walked back towards me with another friend of his and he pointed to my hand and gestured for money. He spoke to me in Italian but I understood what he probably said, which was something along the lines of, “You used my bird food and now I want my money from you”. Him and his friend kept getting closer and kept asking for money so two thoughts flew into my head. First, for some odd reason, I was quite enjoying this experience. Maybe because it was the first time I got hustled and I was waiting to see how I would react. Secondly, I was thinking that they chose the wrong girl, because if they knew anything about my father, they would have known that he has done a good job teaching me not to waste money, and I was sure not going to spend money on these guys. So I told them I did not have money. They kept following me still so I said in a harsher voice, “I don’t have any money” and walked away (which was quite an obvious lie, since I had a very visible fanni-pack). They followed me and kept gesturing for a couple minutes but I walked quickly and made sure I was by other people so they eventually gave up. I know this situation could have been much worse if it was later in the night or if I was alone with not many people around but thankfully that was not the case. After this experience, I noticed that there were so many people trying to hustle money from tourists or people who looked foreign. I realized that just because I am Asian, I will probably be targeted more often than other people of Caucasian ethnicities because I will have a harder time “looking” like a typical European. Also, it won’t help my case that Asians often come with the stereotype that we are all rich, and innocent…especially since I am a short Asian girl. From this experience I learned to be more aware of my surroundings, to not let strange men give me bird food, and to not wear a fanni-pack around.
Near the central plaza of Duomo, there are hundreds of stores just around the corner selling beauty products, clothing, and accessories. Milan did live up to its title as the “Fashion Capital of the World”. There were several malls in which only designer products were sold. Just below is a picture of a shopping mall that only sold designer products. There were many expensive cafes next to the shops as well. Some stores even had their own cafe such as with Gucci, in which they had their own Gucci cafe right outside their store. The architecture of the mall was beautiful as you can see in the picture below.
Of course I could not afford to buy anything, but I was happy to just walk around and take everything in. It was a beautiful day, with blue skies, nice friends, and a lot of experiences, with many more to come!
Shortly after I got off my plane, I found myself in Milan, Italy! It was very exciting to realize that I was actually going to live in Milan for about four months. I never lived outside of Ohio for very long, especially out of the country, and being in Italy was a good reminder that the world is a very, very big place.
I got out of the airport and found many cabs waiting for me. I did watch the movie “Taken” right before I came, so I made sure that I did not share my cab with any attractive European men. Stranger danger I told myself. Once I hopped in a cab, I gave the driver directions to my dorm, and shortly after we began talking. He immediately knew I was from America because of my accent, and also because of how little Italian I knew. I have to admit, it was rather embarrassing not knowing much, if any Italian, because I felt like I supported the stereotype that “Americans don’t care to learn other languages because they think everyone speaks English”. Of course I don’t think that is true, but I am aware that it is a negative stereotype we bare. But the driver didn’t seem to care too much, and I had a nice discussion with the cab driver. He told me about the history of the Italian language, as well as the history of the city and how the city was built. I was amazed at how much history there was to the Italian culture, and Milan itself. Comparing the history of Italy which dates back from thousands of years, with America’s recorded history of only two-hundred years is quite a big difference. Until now, I never really thought about how young United States was.
Next thing I knew, I found myself at Arcobaleno Residence, my dorm. I was expecting there to be a very quick and organized sign-in system, however, I had to wait in line for about an hour while people ahead of me in line slowly filled out their paperwork. I compared this with my move in experience at OSU. At OSU, although there were thousands of new freshmen moving into the dorms, it was a very structured and organized process, that took very little time (in comparison with how many people were moving in). This is one of many future instances where I realized that in Italy, it sometimes takes a long time to process and file things. This is something I had to adjust to, because in America, everything seemed to get done much faster.