With fall in full swing and adjusting back to life after studying abroad, I have been doing a lot of reflecting.
Growing up in a small suburb in Denver, Colo., U.S.A., I experience every season, every year. I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a place like this; a place where you know when fall turns to winter, winter turns to spring, and spring turns to summer.
This gave me a strong sense of home, comfort, and routine. Every season, I played a different sport and attended different types of events. Though, as I grew, I knew there was more of the world to see.
When I came to this realization, I applied to study abroad in Florence, Italy during my junior year of college. Just a few months after I turned in my application, I found myself jet-setting off to Italy and not looking back. I had no idea what was going to come from this experience, but I knew it would be life-changing in more ways than one.
After I settled into my new Florentine apartment, made friends, and started classes, I began to immerse myself in the culture and explore my surroundings. I was traveling throughout Europe from January to May. Not only did the weather change during these months, but the clothing, food, activities and the overall attitudes of people did too.
Culture shock in Florence
I also experienced a bit of culture shock once I realized I would be staying for longer than just a few weeks.
An article titled “Cultural Adjustment: A Guide for International Students,” published by the Mental Health Center and Division of Student Affairs at the University of Texas says, “The values, social norms, and traditions in the U.S. may be very different from beliefs about ‘how things should be’ in the country where you grew up. When individuals move to another culture, they naturally carry their own background and life experiences with them, and these shape how they perceive and adjust to their new environment.”
This perfectly represents my time abroad and the cultural changes I had to face in order to learn and adapt. After talking with Elisa Fiorucci, a professor at the Florence University of the Arts, I learned about this as well. She said, “In order to appreciate and adapt to a place or culture, you need to open your mind and your heart. When you enter a culture other than your own, you become the minority. Arrogance will destruct you in a culture to which you do not belong. People will open their hearts and homes to you if you let them.”
When you enter a culture other than your own, you become the minority.
Feeling like a ‘local’ in Florence
After the first month or so, I passed the tourist phase and finally felt like a local. The day I deemed myself a local was the day a tourist came up to me while I was walking back to my apartment. She asked me where the Duomo was and I gave her exact directions.
I took pride in the fact that I directed her toward the Duomo and that I looked enough like I knew what I was doing and where I was going for her to ask me for help. I also interviewed a friend who studied abroad in Prague, Czech Republic. She said that the day she considered herself a local was when she stepped out of her comfort zone.
She was eating lunch at a café alone when she approached a group of young locals. She told me, “I introduced myself, told them why I was interested in talking with them, and then continued to ask them questions about their culture, traditions, favorite things to do, and so much more. I will never forget that day or those conversations.”
Talking with her about this provoked my thoughts on the other things that made me feel like a local in Florence.
One thing I started to notice as a self-proclaimed “local” was the change in seasons. When I first arrived in Italy, most of the days were cold and rainy. During the colder season, it was crazy to see the lack of tourists. During this dry season, many restaurants would close from 3:00 in the afternoon and not reopen until around 7:00 that evening.
This was a culture shock for me for two main reasons: 1) this would be very uncommon back home in the United States and 2) the city was much quieter during these hours and the number of tourists was even less than before.
The way I viewed this was that much of Florence and its culture is fueled by tourists, and in these cold, dry tourist seasons, they alter their cultural norms.
With Florence being such a tourist attraction, there are people that walk around the most crowded tourist areas trying to collect money, sell pictures, selfie sticks, and so on. The most common types of these people that I noticed are known as “gypsies.” They walk around with cups of change and often, will aggressively demand money from you.
To me, the most interesting part about this was their presence in the winter. I noticed a few of them here and there in the winter, but nowhere near the amounts of them that were out in the summer season. The funny part about them was that in the winter, they would dress in their normal gypsy attire: dresses, necklaces and headwraps.
In the summer, they came out of nowhere with white cloaks and their bodies painted white – full white faces, lips, and hands. They did this mainly so tourists would ask to take pictures with them. They would take the photo, but as soon as the person would try and walk away, the gypsies would not let them leave without paying. Some of the locals told us that these women make up to $60,000 a year by doing this.
My cultural mobility became apparent during times like these. While I was still a U.S. citizen and technically a guest in the Florentine culture, I learned and adapted to the different situations and people that I was faced with.
Studying abroad opened my eyes to the world, its cultures and the different ways people live and change, especially with seasons.