Prompt: Write about a time you have were immersed in a group or book. Do you agree or disagree with the immersion method?
Response: At some point in every person’s life, they need to immerse themselves into something that is outside of their comfort zone. Whether it is a cultural engagement or just having a set of conversations with someone who thinks differently than you, immersion is important to help people understand that the world is much more complex than their own lives. When I was flying into Florence, Italy for my first ever study abroad experience last May, I experienced this complexity. The month-long, unforgettable, complete cultural immersion that followed forever changed the way I think about daily actions such as meals.
One of my favorite places to sit on a plane is in a window seat. Sitting by the window not only means that I can lean against the plane and sleep, it also means that I can look outside and see the overviews of cities and countries as I fly over them. In this case, flying to Florence, Italy meant that I got to go over the Swiss Alps, which was a breathtaking experience. Nonetheless, while I was looking out the window, I began to think about something that always hits me when I’m on a plane, my existence. When a plane first takes off, one of the best things to do is watch everything shrinking outside. What you first see as life-sized trucks or giant factories become nothing but blurs, outlines, specks and lines, which eventually, just disappear. This always astonishes me. To your mother or father, you might be one of the most significant parts of their life. At the same time, you are insignificant and nonexistent from an aerial view. This recurring realization reminds me that I need to keep an open mind and always be open to new experiences.
This wasn’t my first time on a plane or traveling overseas but this experience was filled with dozens of other firsts. For instance, this was not only my first study abroad experience, it was also the first time I had flown overseas without my family. This trip meant that I would not be able to regularly see my family for a little over a month and had to live with, who at the time were to me, strangers. At the time, I was excited yet overwhelmed and incredibly nervous.
Prior to this trip, the only knowledge of Italy I had was from snippets of things I read online or learned about in my Italian classes at the University of Alabama. To prepare for the trip, I had researched basic Italian culture and read several lists of dos and don’ts. I knew that I shouldn’t wear white tennis shoes and to be aware of the conversion rate when making purchases, for example. I also knew that my Italian wasn’t perfect and that this experience was about absorbing as much of the language and culture I could to make my language skills stronger. I’ll admit, the schedule created by the faculty member who accompanied us helped a lot with the immersion, but nonetheless, it was entirely up to me to choose what I did and didn’t do.
I often tell my friends and acquaintances that I will try nearly anything at least once. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? During this trip, I tasted a variety of foods that I did and didn’t like but also learned how to cook several dishes myself. While in Italy, I was required to eat dinner with my host family each night. This requirement was the program’s way of ensuring that a language strengthening experience through conversation occurred each day. From the dinner experiences alone, I learned meals for Italians are always a family affair. They are chances for members of the household to catch up on each other’s lives and relieve stress through the comforts of familiar foods and family. I also learned that there are several cultural differences between Americans and Italians.
Besides the obvious language barrier, there were several differences in meal habits. Italians almost always offer wine with meals. With the exception of breakfast, wine is common to drink after about noontime in Italy. Unlike Americans who tend to overindulge in wine or only serve it during a special occasion, Italians treat it as commonly as we do water. They also serve bread with every meal. After surveying Italian people eat over the course of my stay, I learned that it is normal for Italians to go through half a loaf of bread during lunch and nearly a full loaf during dinner. I learned the hard way that a traditional Italian dinner consists of several courses. Instead of a traditional salad to start things off, the dinners I experienced almost always started with some type of pasta. Occasionally the pasta was served with a side of caprese salad, but this is simply an appetizer course. On my first night in Italy, I was completely unprepared for the number of courses that I was about to be served. Being naïve and uneducated about how meals work, I ate three helpings of the pasta my house mother served, which I later learned was just an appetizer. Because my Italian house mother spoke no English and my Italian was not very strong in that stage, it was hard for me to communicate “What’s for dinner?” prior to this engagement. Feeling full, I was completely overwhelmed when my house mother brought in a second course from the kitchen and shortly after, a third. This meal was about first impressions, not just for me, but for my house family as well. Because I wanted to make a positive impression, I ate every bite of everything that was served to me that night and, consequently, slept like a rock after.
Through this part of my immersion, I not only learned that my stomach could hold a lot more food than I expected, but that a strong family atmosphere is an important part of an Italian household and this was just an immersion experience from my first day in Italy.
To be a well-rounded person, immersion is crucial. It does not have to be a lavish cultural experience. Anything that gets you out of your comfort zone and thinking about things in a different light is beneficial. Through immersion you develop your own morals, beliefs, and stronger sense of who you are as a person.