Challenges, cherished memories, and communication


Photo Courtesy of Bethany Mok

Photo Courtesy of Bethany Mok

Two suitcases pulled by one hand, and my passport ready in the other, I was off to Italy for a semester in Rome. Arrivederci, America.

After two plane changes and over 15 hours in the air, I had finally arrived. As I exited the plane and found all of my luggage, I got lost in a crowd of people. I realized that I had no idea how to leave the airport or find my way to my new apartment in the city. Everything was in Italian, a language that I do not know, and I started to panic. What had I gotten myself into?

Many University of San Diego students traveling abroad anticipate culture shock. Culture shock is very real and quite normal for students to experience while studying abroad. With respect to how you live in and interact with the new culture, culture shock doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Traveling to a new country with a new language and different culture can seem intimidating. It takes time to assimilate into. Don’t worry; you’ll get there.

There is a definite language barrier as I speak English and French, but not Italian. I have learned simple phrases to order my food, ask directions, and introduce myself to others. Locals appreciate when I attempt to speak to them in broken Italian, but they kindly respond to me in English. It takes some getting used to, but learning the new language and culture is worthwhile for the months you will spend abroad.

I chose to study in Rome, Italy, because of the vast amount of history located within walking distance of my university. The Colosseum, Pantheon, Roman Forum, Spanish Steps, and Vatican City are all only a quick bus ride and decent walking distance away. During my first week here, I played tourist and visited every site that I possibly could in one day. I took photos and admired the architecture, while at the same time learning about what happened in the exact place that I was standing.

There are places I walk past that I don’t even recognize as historical sites. However, other people are lined up on the sidewalk taking photos of these buildings and signs. On the tram, I pass the location where Julius Caesar was killed, which has since become a cat sanctuary. I am not even phased by the amount of ruins that surround me. I often walk right past them on a daily basis. I am learning to take time in walking around the city, exploring what Rome has to offer, and admiring the beauty that lies around each curve of the cobblestone.

From public transportation to eating at a restaurant to grocery shopping, many aspects of life are different in Rome. Going to school in San Diego, I rarely have to take public transportation because I have my own car to drive around the city. In Rome, public transportation is a must.

The trams and buses crowd all of the roads. Though they are always heard, they are not always seen. The buses are never on time and are often as packed as a can of sardines. Baby carriages are opened, dogs are sitting on owners’ laps, and grocery bags fill the empty spaces. You must buy a 1.50 Euro ticket every time that you take the bus or tram, but many people merely hop on and hop off without validating a ticket. If this happens and you are caught by the carabinieri, members of the Italian national police force, you must pay a 150.00 Euro fine.

Be mindful of those surrounding you on the bus, and always offer up your seat to the elderly women nearby. If you are stuck on the back of the bus, but you have arrived at your stop, the only way you’ll make it off is by shouting “Permesso! Scusate!” The riders will part like the Red Sea to allow you to exit the bus. If you think the Torero Tram gets crowded, you won’t believe how many people try to squeeze onto these trams.

On the way home from school, it is common to stop by a bar for aperitivo. This is a time for socializing with friends where you are able to have a drink and consume endless appetizers. Many Romans and students alike enjoy stopping for l’aperitif on their way home.

When going to dinner in Italy, be aware that meals are much later than when we eat in the States, with Italian dinners usually starting around 9:30 p.m. When arriving at the restaurant, be aware that, once you are seated, the table is yours for the night. The waiters will not stop by to bother you and take your order unless you flag them down. If you’re hungry, make sure to order as you are seated. Typically, you will order a drink, an appetizer, a first and second course, a dessert, and a coffee afterwards. Italian dinners typically do not finish quickly. The meal is a time to unwind at the end of the day. Sharing a meal with friends is a wonderful way to catch up with the weekly events and the weekend’s travels.

Almost everywhere you go, people will be smoking cigarettes. Tabacchiere, tobacco stores, cover the streets and butts litter the grounds. You will see everyone from middle schoolers to moms taking a smoke break outside of a building or with an espresso at a nearby cafe. Be grateful that USD has become a smoke-free campus. I miss the clean air.

Though you may not know Italian, any effort to communicate with Romans is a step in the right direction. Many people speak English in Italy, but hand gestures and acting things out can create another easy way to communicate. You’re usually able to understand what someone is saying to you through their tone of voice. If someone is shouting at you with their hands thrown up in the air, it’s a red flag. If someone winks at you and says, “Ciao, bella,” you definitely know that they’re flirting with you.

Traveling to a new country takes some getting used to. It is perfectly okay to feel like an outsider while you start feeling the ins and outs of the new culture you are immersed in. Soon enough, you’ll be back at USD with a multitude of invaluable experiences. Know that it is absolutely worth your while to challenge yourself to learn and become a part of a new culture.