For someone who has never been abroad (okay, I've visited Canada but we can all agree that hardly counts), studying in Italy this semester is a big change. And being transplanted from cow-town Ohio, maybe even more so.
Orientation week started yesterday. This is meant to help us in our transition to Italian life, and also to complete necessary tasks and documents associated with our extended stay. We heard from the Florence program director, Marcello Fantoni, first. Even though his welcome was far from brief, he said some very important things that shed light on some the troubles I have been experiencing since my arrival here in Florence. Amongst them, and the most notable to me, is that Fantoni made a remark comparing Florence to an American mall or amusement park. He claimed the two to be very similar, especially considering themes, but where the theme in a mall tends toward a “tropical” environment with palm trees and foliage, here, the theme is the Renaissance. He warned us to not be deceived by the appearance of it all. And taking a second look around with his words in mind I now see clearly why I had the uncomfortable feeling that the city was a fabricated movie set from the very beginning. Because that's exactly what it is. Of course, Florence has its moments of truth I am sure (and am even more motivated to discover them), the real intent behind the city isn't so obvious. I am still feeling it out, but the city will have to prove itself to me as I get to know it better.
Fantoni urged us to seek out the real Italy and the real Europe, which he believes exists outside of the main tourist cities. This has had me thinking a lot over the past day. It appeared that Fantoni essentially dismissed the substantially of entire cities based on their touristy status. He offered another example when explaining his experiences traveling to the States. Specifically, he believes New York City is not an accurate depiction of the United States as a whole. While I agree with him, I also disagree because I do believe there is truth there. But being a citizen of the country familiar with its customs, habits, political landscape, and history, I can decipher somewhat easily what is reality and what is fake or for show in a comparatively familiar place. This however is not true for me in Italy. Since I know almost nothing about the country, I cannot fully understand one thing from another. It's people, it's buildings, the customs, the language, and other elements of the whole I come into contact with on a daily basis must be taken as they are, yet there exists a reason and a history for all of these things. For example, I must take everyone I see on the streets as they appear to me, but to me almost everyone looks Italian. Except for a few obvious exceptions, I cannot decipher who is a native, a businessman, a tourist, an illegal immigrant, likely poor, likely wealthy, or from other parts of Europe. To Italians, understanding the typology of the local population seems very important when considering day to day life and current issues, for reasons I don't yet understand. What troubles me, and causes me slight paranoia, is that I am told everyone in this country can likely determine just by sight my status as an American student (a label, I learned, that holds certain connotations).
This was pointed out by an Italian police officer that spoke to us yesterday in addition to Fantoni, and was also successful in shedding some light on the conditions we now find ourselves in. When coming here I didn't expect quite what I have experienced so far. I of course expected differences from my life in the U.S., but being here puts a new spin and perspective on so many elements of my existence in this world that goes beyond what I could have imagined. My hope is to discover the true Italy and maybe even the truer me. Time will tell, but one thing is definitely unquestionable: this experience is changing me.
And it has only been four days.