I wanted to share what was my final draft of the immersion paper I wrote earlier this semester. I shared the idea behind this immersion in February, but I wanted to share the final product. Be warned, it’s a bit lengthy but I tried to make it interesting. Comments/criticisms are, as always, appreciated and encouraged.
From my observations, I have found that many people in our society lack the willingness to immerse themselves into something new. Whether it is a cultural engagement or having a set of conversations with someone who thinks differently, immersion is important to help people understand that the world is more complex than their own lives. A reminder of this complexity came when I was flying into Florence, Italy for my first study abroad experience last May. The month-long, unforgettable, complete cultural immersion that followed has influenced the way I think about simple daily occurrences. The first day of the trip was perhaps the most important part of this immersion because my initial experiences affected my mind set for the remainder of the trip.
When the plane first landed in Florence, Italy, I felt my stomach lurch forward as a result of my increased nervousness. This trip was my first experience being more than a few hours away from my family and friends with limited communication. Although it was not my first time flying overseas, it was the first without parental guidance and support. At the time, the group of students I was with was also very unfamiliar to me. Prior to this plane trip, I had only met with them once before and we had little communication on the plane. As we all stared awkwardly at each other, unsure of what to really say to get the conversations going, it was almost as if we realized at the same time that something big had happened. We had just landed in one of the most beautiful countries in the world and were going to be living and studying in it for the next month. We were our only support systems. Although we did not know each other on a personal level yet, we all shared the fact that we were students willing to take a month of our summer to study a different language and culture. Some of us were stronger than others in the country’s language, but we could always speak to each other in our native tongue. We were also all incredibly exhausted despite our excitement. However, the second we stepped off the plane, it was like we had awoken reenergized and were ready to fully embrace our surroundings.
Prior to this trip, my only knowledge of Italy was from snippets of information I had read online or learned about in Italian classes at the University of Alabama. To prepare for this trip, I had researched basic Italian culture and read several lists of dos and don’ts that various travel bloggers posted online. For example, I had learned that I should avoid wearing white tennis shoes because they are a tourist sign and to be aware of the conversion rate when making purchases. I also knew that my Italian wasn’t perfect and that this experience was about absorbing as much of the language and culture to make my language skills stronger. The faculty member who accompanied us on the trip aided a lot with the way we were immersed and had planned a few excursions, but, for the most part, it was entirely up to us to choose what we did and did not do.
I quickly learned that the people in my travel group shared many of the same expectations and goals for the trip. When we stepped off the plane and went to pick up our luggage, we finally began speaking to each other and sharing our goals for the trip in terms of what we wanted to see and do before the trip ended. We were all ready to rest, but were also ready to meet our host families. There were 18 of us and we were each paired with another member of our group and taken to our host families by taxi. At this instant, I had made my first friend in Italy simply because she and I were forced to live together for the next month regardless of how we felt. This was, of course, the first of a long list of firsts that were about to take place.
Before traveling to a new place, a person’s first view of the place is generally through pictures that offer views of what one hopes will become a reality. My initial view of the reality of the city was through the window of a fast-moving Italian taxicab. My roommate and I stared out the car windows silently trying to take in everything we saw because we knew that we could never relive that moment. Our first view of the city of Florence, Italy was blurry and the only time we were able to capture details was when the cab driver would stop at red lights. I remember that my stomach felt a different kind of lurch and I felt truly afraid. It was in that taxicab that I realized I was about to meet the family with whom I would stay for the next month. I began to worry that they would not like me and disapprove of my limited Italian language speaking skills. What would I do if they hated me? I was the odd one out in our group for I was not a white American girl. I had dark hair, tan skin, and almost looked Italian already, though a true Italian person would probably realize that I was actually Indian. What if I wasn’t what my host family was expecting? I remember studying my roommate at that point. She was a white American girl with curly blonde hair, though she also had tanned skin. Maybe I had nothing to worry about at all. Before I could further continue my internal panic, we had arrived at our new home.
In America, when a taxi driver drops you off somewhere, he takes his payment, takes out your luggage and bids you a somewhat pleasant farewell before driving away. This Italian taxi driver, who had been prepaid by the Italian school where we were going to study for the next month, took our luggage out of his cab, led us to the front door of a tall building with a big yellow door, and, in his very thick accent, told us to ring the bell and wait. Before we could ask any further questions, he got into his taxicab and drove off. My roommate and I stared at each other with a look of disbelief on our faces. Here we were in a foreign country and were literally left in front of an unfamiliar building with very little instruction and no idea of what to further expect. Thus far, the country of Italy, as beautiful as it appeared on the outside, felt scarier than we could have ever imagined. Before we had gotten into the taxicab, we had received slips of paper with our Italian home’s address as well as the phone number of the dean of our new school. We looked at the list of names accompanying a set of small buttons beside the door until we found the name accompanying the one on our slip of paper and pressed it. After a few minutes, the door clicked and we were able to first enter what would be our home for the next month.
I expected a man or woman, one of my new Italian parents, to open the door and let us enter what I thought would be a large and lavish home, judging by the height and design of the building. However, we were not instantly greeted in such a fashion. Eventually we pushed the door and let ourselves into the building and instead of a person awaiting us on the other side; we were met with a short set of steps. Following the first set of steps was a second that led to a large and beautiful staircase that looked as if it led to a never-ending set of floors. When I looked up, I realized that this home was not like the homes I was used to with their low ceilings and one to three floors. No, this building was set up like a massive apartment building with each “apartment room” being the size of an average American home. To me, this signaled city life. Being born in and having lived in New York City for half of my life, I recalled this apartment style as a normal city living style. With that prior knowledge, I expected the rooms behind each door to be simple and small. Once again, my initial expectation was proven wrong.
In a building as large as this one, my roommate and I anticipated finding an elevator we could use to take us to the floor of our new home. Before we looked around, it occurred to us that the names beside the doorbell, as well as the information on our slips of paper, did not tell us what floor we were headed for. Our only solution was to go the only way we could: up. We decided that we would take our large suitcases and backpacks into an elevator and go up one floor at a time until we found our new home. We quickly surveyed our surroundings and tried to locate an elevator to help us make the trip upstairs. After a few minutes of looking around, we determined that this Italian building lacked an elevator and we would have to do this the hard way. One step at a time, we lugged our suitcases up a total of five flights of stairs until we found the door with the name that matched our information sheet.
Because this was part of a study abroad experience, I assumed that whoever we were going to live with would be bilingual and able to communicate with us if we needed help. Our host mother quickly greeted us in Italian and we did our best to communicate in return. After a few minutes of attempting to speak in broken Italian, we understood that our host mother spoke no English. When we first entered the home, a strong scent that I, to this day, cannot describe hit my nose. It was a scent that my roommate and I always enjoyed and associated with the home. This was the first time I felt positively welcomed to Italy. After a brief tour of the home, we were taken to the large room that my roommate and I would share for the next month and told that dinner would not be until 8:30 that night. It was a little past noon. Exhausted and unsure of what to do next, my roommate and I unpacked our things and made our initial attempts to settle into our new home.
As a welcoming gesture, our host mother brought us some fruit and water. Or at least what I thought was plain water. This was my first Italian snack. I was incredibly grateful for the water because flying always results in dehydration because the air in an airline cabin is dryer than air on Earth. In this case, the plane trip, along with the lack of sleep and extra exhaustion from pulling a very heavy suitcase up five flights of stairs, had made me incredibly thirsty. I quickly poured some of the liquid into a glass and began to drink it. As fast as I had begun to drink the water, I almost spit it back out. I later learned that water in Italy is generally served in two different ways, what they call acqua minerale frizzante, or sparkling mineral water, or acqua minerale naturale non-frizzante, or natural (regular) mineral water. This water was, unfortunately for me, sparkling, or as we later dubbed it “frizzy water.” Throughout the course of our trip, every time we were served water, it was almost always in bottled form or in a pitcher shaped like a chemistry measuring flask. The fact that we were given the option of the sparkling water at every meal was a constant reminder that Italian people lived a little more extravagantly than we do in America.
At this point, I was not sure how much I was looking forward to dinner anymore since my first taste of Italy had been unpleasant and the negative moments were outweighing the positive. Fortunately, dealing with more unpleasant experiences had to wait because a desire for sleep had quickly overcome me. The next think I knew, I took my first nap in Italy. Four hours later, I slowly awoke unsure of my location. It immediately hit me that I was in Florence, Italy and the number of things that I had already experienced flashed through my mind. Again, I was slightly afraid of what to expect next. My roommate slowly awoke a few minutes later and asked if I wanted to take a walk around the neighborhood to see what was around. Eager to begin some sightseeing, I quickly agreed. We found our host mother and were introduced to her daughter who spoke English and reiterated some things to us that may have been confusing to us when we first arrived. She gave us a set of keys and we left the building and began our first excursion.
The weather outside was incredibly comfortable. It was about 5 p.m. and a light wind was blowing through the air. My roommate and I carefully walked down a few streets making mental note of which way we turned to ensure that we would make it back to our Italian home later. We found several farmacias (pharmacies) and gelaterias (gelato stores) as well as a movie theater that advertised Pirates of the Caribbean 4 and The Hangover 2 dubbed in Italian. Although I was in a different county on a different continent, it was always nice to see some familiarities from home during my stay. As the saying goes, you never realize what you have and what you love most until it is taken away from you. In this case, the familiar American movie titles we saw and the idea of possibly going to see a movie in the future made us feel more at home.
After about an hour of walking, my roommate and I ventured back in the direction of our home. We were just about to make it back to the yellow door without having gotten lost but were stopped by a stranger standing outside the building of our Italian home. An Italian man, who acted as if he knew us, spoke rapid Italian mixed with a little broken English to us and asked for our set of keys. My roommate and I looked at each other confused and wary about giving our keys to a strange man. After all, we were in a new country and we could not simply give away the keys that our host mother had entrusted to us to a complete stranger. We were also afraid of the man’s ulterior motives behind asking two teenage girls for the keys to someone’s home. Before we could try to escape from the man and hope he would leave us alone, our host mother’s daughter shouted at us from her window. She quickly told us to give the keys to the man and let him inside the building. My roommate and I were incredibly baffled. Was our host family insane? Why would we give the keys to their home to this strange Italian man? “He’s my boyfriend! You locked us inside!” she shouted from above. Our eyes widened at our host mother’s words. We had not even been in Italy for 24 hours and we had apparently locked our host family into their home when we had locked the door prior to leaving for our walk. Not only were we embarrassed, we were worried that our Italian family was going to scold us for what we had done. Fortunately, our Italian mother’s daughter apologized for failing to explain to us how the keys worked and understood why we had made the mistake. The door had four key holes and although we had only locked one, we had locked the one lock that could not be unlocked from the inside without a key. Because it was only our first day in Italy, my host family had not had the chance to make a spare set of keys and therefore could not unlock the door. Thankfully, we had not lost the keys.
At this point, my roommate and I had not had a solid meal since our flight into Italy and were definitely looking forward to our first real Italian dinner with our new family. While in Italy, we were always required to eat dinner with our host families each night. This requirement was the program’s way of ensuring that a language strengthening experience through conversation occurred daily. From this first meal experience and the ones that followed, I learned that several cultural differences exist between Americans and Italians. Besides the obvious language barrier, several of these differences are in our 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 wine as commonly as we do water. They also serve bread with every meal. During my first meal in Italy, I remember watching my host mother’s daughter casually eat about half a loaf of bread by herself. Although their bread is different than the dinner rolls that Americans traditionally serve, it is still very, if not more, filling. From these dinner experiences alone, I also learned that 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. In my American home, I rarely eat dinner with my entire family. In fact, I often eat alone in front of the television and share no conversation. My Italian host mother would often have the television on but it served more as background noise and the occasional topic starter rather than a main focus. For instance, I remember watching a rerun of America’s Funniest Home Videos and being asked whether everyday American moments were truly as funny as the show depicted. I was often surprised by the small amount of knowledge my host family had of America. At the same time, I expected that this learning experience was meant to go both ways. My host mother had a large collection of books. She owned Italian versions of every classic novel I could think of from Jane Eyre to The Lord of the Rings. I remember she had a stack of books about major American cities such as New York and Chicago but it was always difficult for my roommate and me to convey Alabama because none of her books had mentioned our home state. This study abroad trip occurred about a month after the April 27 tornado that had devastated parts of Alabama including my college city of Tuscaloosa. I remember trying to explain the tornado to my host family and trying to make them understand something they had only seen footage of on the news and had never experienced. This constant attempt to share our culture was our way of bringing parts of America to our new home.
My first Italian dinner consisted of four courses, which is something almost unheard of in a normal American dinner. Because my Italian house mother spoke no English and my Italian was not very strong in this stage, it was difficult for me to communicate “What’s for dinner?” prior to this engagement. After all, I had a certain expectation of what dinner was and assumed that this dinner would not be much different. Regardless, I was ready to get some type of food into my empty system. Instead of a traditional salad to start things off, this dinner, and most of the ones I experienced during my stay, began with pasta. Over time I would learn that pasta is a common appetizer served at dinnertime. Being naïve and uneducated about how Italian meals worked, I ate three helpings of the pasta my host mother served. Feeling full, I was completely overwhelmed when my Italian mother brought in a second course from the kitchen and shortly after, a third. That evening, my host family was celebrating the birthday of my host mother’s granddaughter. To celebrate her first birthday, my host family had bought a very fancy cheesecake. This meal was about first impressions, not just for me, but for my host 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 the first day 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. Elevators and the luxury of truly knowing the language of a country were things I often took for granted prior to this trip and I learned that it is easy to get along with new people if they share a common goal. My roommate and I had a very good relationship throughout the trip and were thankful to have each other’s company because an experience is always stronger when you have someone to share it with, even if that someone is a stranger at first.
Through immersion you develop your own morals, beliefs and a stronger sense of who you are as a person. An immersion does not have to be a lavish cultural experience. It just needs to get you out of your comfort zone and give you the opportunity to think about things in a different light.