For the Love of Time : Why Living in Florence Can Drive an American (A Little) Crazy by Bobbie Watson

In this globalizing and dynamic world, one thing is certain: you cannot move across the world without encountering a few cultural differences.

It makes sense then, that being an American living in Italy, I’ve seen several cultural differences and varying perceptions. One of the biggest: the way we view time. Why is it that Italians show up 10 minutes late to an appointment and feel like they are on time? Why do Americans frantically run to work and always feel so late even though we are normally on time? In college I learned that different cultures have different perceptions of time. A culture can have a monochronic or a polychronic orientation of time; neither is good or bad, right or wrong. They are just different.

America is a monochronic culture. We believe that time is a precious commodity; it is meant to be made, used, wasted, spent, given, allotted, and saved. Our lives are a series of rigid schedules and each day is chopped up into time blocks. 9 – 10:45 AM : eat breakfast. 11 AM – 7 PM : work. 7 – 8 PM : dinner. Repeat.

Italy, on the other hand, is a polychronic culture. People with this time orientation see time as a flowing river; it is smooth and one minute flows into the next. If something isn’t done this minute, it can be done the next. These people do not see time as tangible or controllable. There are things to be done, but they’ll get done.

Okay, so what the heck does that mean? How does it affect you as an American living in Italy? Here are some differences I have found:

1. Italian businesses open and close whenever. In America, businesses have set business hours. If you come between those hours, you expect the business to be open. But, here in Italy, that’s not always the case. I have gone to restaurants at 8 PM on a non-holiday Tuesday night to find them closed and locked up tight. There was no note explaining the reason for the closure, no anticipated time of reopening, and no sign stating what the normal business hours are.

eatingonthego2. Say goodbye to to-go food. Americans are constantly running around. We drink our coffee as we are sprinting to work and stuff our face with food as we walk or drive. Almost all businesses are equipped to handle to go orders; they hoard stockpiles of cardboard boxes, plastic silverware, and plastic cups. But, it’s not like that in Italy. Getting to-go food here is very hard, and the places that do offer it are extremely touristy (AKA not the authentic Italian food or experience you are probably looking for). Get this – Italians actually like to sit and enjoy their food. They don’t skip their lunch break to get more finished and they drink their coffee in a “bar” (coffee shop) and enjoy it. They don’t eat on the streets. I know, it sounds so….pleasant and relaxing. Try it!

late-for-work-300x2003. Italians walk, Americans run. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get to work when there are a bunch of people slowly meandering down the street in front of you. The streets here in Florence are tiny; you can barely fit two people side by side on the sidewalk. So when there are people leisurely walking in front of you and there is no room to get around them, it can be quite the difficult task to stop yourself from shouting “Move with a purpose!!” But, instead of being frustrated, just try looking up. I know that sounds ridiculous, but try it. When you hurry you get caught up in trying to get somewhere and you forget to stop and look around. If you’re studying abroad, you’re not going to be in Italy forever, so what will you remember when you get back to America? Running to class or that amazing old building that had really intricate design that was on your way to class?

couch4. Americans tend to burn themselves out. We, as Americans, think that every minute must be milked for all it’s worth. There is always somewhere to be, something to be done. This constant pressure we put on ourselves can only be maintained for so long before we break down and/or burn out. So what do we do when we can’t take it anymore? We spend two days on the couch in a trance watching really bad TV. We tell ourselves its our reward for being so productive and for getting so much done in the past week. So we give ourselves permission to completely veg out, eat junk food, forego cooking real food or leaving the house. But, after one of these weekends, we feel guilty because we did absolutely nothing except rot our minds with hours of Walking Dead or How I Met Your Mother. There is not one shred of evidence from the whole weekend that we were a living, breathing, intelligent person. The whole thing is a blur in our minds, leaving us unable to differentiate one hour (or episode) from the next. Sound familiar? Perhaps this isn’t the best method of being. Perhaps an afternoon nap everyday to rest our worried minds and achy bodies isn’t the worst idea…In Italy, dinner is closer to 8 PM and clubs don’t open until midnight or later. This can be frustrating for us when we are used to eating dinner around 6 or 7 and most clubs (at least in the rural areas) close by 1 or 2 AM. But instead of going nonstop from when you wake up until you fall asleep, try to use the break between classes and the Italian dinner time to relax and unwind. It might keep you from burning out as quickly.

On time5. Italians value relationships,  Americans value promptness. Just to be clear, I am not saying Americans don’t value relationships. Obviously we do. But, we show respect in our relationships by being on time. If we’re supposed to meet at 8, be there at 8. We have a mutual understanding that if  we’re hanging out and I’m late for work, I have to go. And if I’m the only one at the office, I can’t close it to have lunch with you. Italians, on the other hand, will put a note on the door saying “Out to Lunch” (maybe that’s what happened when I went to those restaurants??).  It is okay to be late as long as it was in the interest of maintaining a friendship with another person. Of course Americans understand if something came up, but for the most part we expect time commitments to be binding, whereas Italians do not.

Of course these are just generalizations. People are complex and every person forms different perceptions; to assume everyone fits neatly into one category is a grave mistake. One of the worst things you can do (especially as a traveler) is to form predispositions about people from other cultures and mistake those as facts.

As with all cultural differences, it is important to remember that different does not equal bad. Different is different; it requires an adjustment. There are pros and cons to both sides. Polychronic cultures may seem more chaotic and unpredictable, but there is less pressure and you have more time to stop and enjoy the little things.

While you’re studying abroad, do everything you can to embrace the culture. Stop trying to run the people in front of you over on your way to class. Learn to block off (oops – that was the monochronic orientation speaking) enough time so that you can go to a bar and enjoy a cup of coffee. Stop running yourself at the highest level of functioning you possibly can until you can’t do it anymore.

Did I miss something? Leave it in the comments! Check out some of our other blog posts: Packing for Study Abroad and Student Discounts in Florence. For more helpful information on studying abroad, visit When In Florence’s website.

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Apartments and Roomies: A Hunting Guide – By Zoe Eager

I haven’t spent more than a few months at home since I was thirteen years old. Having first gone to boarding school, and then straight to college in Boston before transferring to a university in Scotland, I have been living with at least one other person for the past nine years and believe me, I’ve had far more than my fair share of insane roommates and prison-like living conditions.

Going to boarding school and living communally in a dorm is excellent preparation for college and even better preparation for later life, because not only do you learn normal stuff like how to do your own laundry and how to make yourself study, you learn what you can live with and what you can’t deal with.

Knowing how to differentiate between what you think you want and what you actually want is important. For example, two girls came into the office the other day looking for an apartment, but they kept shooting down every apartment they were shown, no matter how centrally located or affordable, because they had grand visions of a flat where they could throw the kind of amazing parties that they had seen on reruns of The OC. Only one of the properties we had met this criteria, but of course, it wasn’t going for the kind of rate they could afford.

In my experience, you have to go by the 2/3 Rule when apartment hunting as a student like me, or are in a state of similar perma-brokeness. The three main qualities that people look for when hunting for a place to crash are:

Of course there are others, but for students and similar ilk, these come to the fore. You don’t want to be in a place so far from everything you want access to that it’s other benefits aren’t worth the commute; you don’t want a place so hideous that its a horrible place to be, or too broken down to be functional; you don’t want to be so high maintenance that the only places that satisfy you, bankrupt you. My 2/3 Rule is that it’s so rare to find an extremely cheap, extremely beautiful apartment in a great location, that it’s better to either pick the two qualities that you care about the most and focus on those, or go for a mediocre compromise between all three. For example, you can have a cheap apartment in a good location that wont be beautiful or have all the bells and whistles that you’re used to (air conditioning or fast, if any internet access, for example), or you can have a beautiful apartment overlooking the Arno that will cost a mint.

This probably explains why I was living in welfare housing throughout my second year of university in the UK.

But the fact that my flatmate and I were technically living in welfare housing didn’t matter to us; we made it our own in other ways. Sure, the place was so cheaply built that it was more like a large dollhouse than a real apartment and was out in the boondocks of St Andrews, and sure our landlord got unreasonably upset over some things (I can’t tell you the amount of drama that went down over getting her 10-dollar polyester Ikea couch covers cleaned when she realized I had spilled curry sauce on one of them wasn’t happy with their state at the end of the year). But it was ours.

Who you live with really does make all the difference, and the qualities that I thought mattered in a roommate when I first started boarding school at age thirteen (similar music tastes, hobbies, personalities) were not at all what actually mattered when living with someone.

I had thought I would switch to being a day student during my senior year of high school, but backed out and decided to keep living at school at the last minute, a choice that stuck me in the smallest room on the top floor of the dorm, and only one option for my roommate, a girl I had had a few classes with, but never really gotten to know. It could have been a disaster: we hadn’t even really ever spoken to one another besides confirming the problem sets we had to do for math class on occasion, and had next to nothing in common, or so I thought.

It was the roommate equivalent of buying a car, any car, just because you need one, without test driving it first. It was reckless; it was, in all likelihood, stupid.

It was the best year of my life in high school. We had a similar sense of humor, similar slight OCD tendencies, the same work ethic, and the same all-consuming obsession with getting into college. But our differences were what made us perfect for each other. She was a talker, I was a listener; she could pump me up, I could calm her down. And most of the time, we were one ‘thats-what-she-said’ joke away from cracking up laughing.

More importantly, we were both night owls, who studied the most productively between around eleven at night to around two in the morning. Neither of us were possessive people; we didn’t care if the other borrowed clothes without asking, or ate the other’s food, or used the other’s straightener or shampoo or whatever – things, I learned from unhappier roommate pairs in the dorm, that actually do bother a lot of other people.

So when you’re vetting a potential roommate, you have to bear these things in mind.
Do you mind sharing? Do you need your personal space clearly defined and respected? Do you usually stay up late, or wake up early? Do you smoke, or mind others smoking? On a scale from unaffected to forced into a blind rage, how angry would you be if someone ate food you had bought? How uncomfortable would you be if your roommate brought a guest to the house that you didn’t know? Can you work/study if the other person is being noisy? Is the other person noisy?

Et cetera.

All of these guidelines are, obviously, if you’re looking for an apartment together, and aren’t just going off on a some short term jaunt together, in which case you’re probably so excited that you’d be happy to live with Snookie or The Situation (no offense to any die-hard Jersey Shore fans, of course).

Actually, that’s how excited I still am about living in Florence, but you get my meaning; if you’re staying anywhere for an extended period of time, it’s definitely worth while to spend some time thinking about the things that actually matter to you and your quality of life. Think about what will impact it, and what you can live with; think about your ideal scenario, and then make sacrifices to accommodate as close a match to your ideal as you can find or afford.

Don’t sweat the small stuff; I mean, you’re in Italy, right?

Smashing the Language Barrier – By Zoe Eager

Trying and failing to blend in with the locals

It’s pretty ridiculous that, even though I study languages, I have a fear of addressing native speakers in their own language. This originated during my time in France, actually, when every attempt I made at speaking the native tongue got shot down before I could say so much as merci. By shot down I don’t actually mean berated for trying, I just mean rebuffed by being replied to in English; and, if you have ever experienced this phenomenon, you’ll know that, while it sounds innocuous enough, it is shockingly effective at undermining you confidence. What did I do? you’ll wonder. Was it my pronunciation? Did I conjugate something incorrectly? Was it my inflection?

And above all, the eternal student abroad question: Am I so bad at this that I was incomprehensible, or were they just pretending to not understand me because I’m foreign?

It has to be one of the two, and to this day I’m not sure which one is worse.

Now, I know that this isn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be, and that my motto, especially at the time should have just been try try again. But, at the time, I didn’t.

What started as a fear of trying morphed into a deep fear of failure that was absolutely imminent; after all, there was no way for me to speak perfect French out of the gate, and there was no way for me to even improve without trying. But of course, being something of an overanalyzer, whenever I spoke to someone in French and was replied to in English, all I heard was, “No matter how bad my English is, it is infinitely better than listening to you butcher my language for one more eardrum-splitting moment”.

So, for a while at least, I stopped trying. Which, of course, was the worst move I could have made, and even at the time, I knew it, but I couldn’t help it.

That all changed when I went to intern in Paris for a summer. Not because the Parisians are such warm, helpful, nonjudgemental people (they’re famous for being the exact opposite, in fact); it was because my boss didn’t speak a word of English.

Actually that’s not strictly true; he could quote a movie line or two. But conversation-wise, it was either speak French, or don’t speak.

So I did; I had no other choice. And believe me when I say it paid off.

At the end of the summer I had completely conquered my fear of speaking to French people; in the words of my former boss, Ze failure was not being ze options.

So I was rather surprised when these old feelings of fear and anxiety followed me to Florence, especially considering how much more receptive the Italians are in general of foreigners attempting to speak their language. Florence, like Paris, is an extremely international city, and most of the people you meet will have some level of English – at least, enough to ask, “For here or to go?” when you take a stab at ordering a panino in Italian.

Putting my degree to good use by reading Harry Potter in Italian. In public.

It can be disheartening, believe me, I know. And still to this day, I fall into the trap of thinking, Ok, I’m going to study all night, and tomorrow, I won’t be tricked into speaking any more English.

But of course, it doesn’t work like that. Making mistakes in a language is inherent in learning a language – there’s no way around it, it is completely and utterly unavoidable. But slowly, as you try and fail, and try again, even if you’re success rate at making yourself understood is only one in ten tries (or one in fifty, or one in a million, or whatever), even if you’re speaking Italianglish, or Fritalian, or Spanglish with some random Italian words chucked in for good measure, the best thing to do is just to speak – it doesn’t matter if you make sense, just get in the habit of speaking. I’m still working on not taking my mistakes seriously; I probably always will. But I know that no matter how anxious making mistakes makes me, my anxiety is ten times worse when I don’t try at all, and then run through the horrible fantasy scenario of arriving back home, still at learning Italian square one.

So, for everyone in the same position as me, just know that we’re all in the same boat. Say what you can in Italian, and then switch back to English for a few words, or ask how to say something and then repeat it back until you have one more sentence under your belt; they add up, slowly but surely, and even learning a language sentence by broken sentence is better than immediately reverting back to English with the mentality that it’s better to be comfortable speaking than to be uncomfortable trying.

So, You Want to Intern Abroad – By Zoe Eager

As any other university student will tell you, finding paid work right now is murderous, pretty much wherever you go; finding work remotely relating to your studies can seem downright impossible. Which is why, like thousands of students before me, I turned to an internship abroad, figuring that I could bolster my resume in the increasingly unlikely event that I find a job opening for humanities students like me after university, and could experience a new culture to boot.

I also figured that, as a student of modern languages, I should probably try to graduate actually speaking the languages I study (French and Italian, if you’re curious).

I know it sounds like I’m over simplifying, and I am; so, let me explain how getting an internship abroad went down.

While I was frantically studying for my final exams, the summer was looming closer and closer, and I had exactly 0 plans for how to accomplish my goal of actually obtaining this  fantastic internship abroad. Looking for placements provided me with an obsessive procrastination outlet as exams approached, but after scouring website after website, and considering au pair positions of increasing dodginess, I finally submitted an application to an internship agency, figuring that if nothing turned up, I could always take one of the au pair positions and trust that, should things go awry, Liam Neeson would come and rescue me, à la Taken.

Italy was the natural choice for me, as I had worked in France twice previously, and my Italian skills were nonexistent in dire need of polishing.

As a side note, let me just mention the most frustrating thing about being a language student, which isn’t just that it leaves you next to unemployable, but which is the fact that if you didn’t grow up speaking more than one language, your odds of learning it well enough to be paid to speak it are slim. Someone else will always speak it better than you. No matter how much you study, killing yourself over pronunciation and the finer points of grammar in a common language, someone else is perfecting his Urdu because he grew up in Portugal with a French-Romanian mother and a Spanish-Italian father, and thus has had the main Romance languages under his belt since age 7.

Not that I’m bitter.

What I’m the most interested in is translation. Translation is something of an equalizer as far as languages go, because it involves striking a balance between objective and personal interpretation. Give five translators the same text and you’ll get five different translations. Not radically different, you understand, but slight differences in word choice or subtextual implication are common, which is why understanding a word’s connotation is just as important as the word’s definition, and why to really understand a text or book, it’s useful to know something about the culture and mentality of the native speakers.

It’s a depressing yet fascinating statistic that 93% of all communication is non-verbal. As Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a professor at UCLA found in the 1960’s, your tone accounts for 38% of how one communicates, and 55% of all communication is based on body language, which means that only 7% of all communication are the words you actually say.

Thus, working abroad has its own set of benefits beyond just professional experience and the opportunity to gorge on gelato and visit famous cathedrals. It forces you to problem solve, to think on the spot, to learn to communicate in new ways when the language barrier leaves you crippled and hamstrung. It removes your ability to fake your way through things and explain your way out of things, and forces you to rely on the skills you already have, while learning new methods of working and connecting with people.

So, if if this skill set sounds like something you’re interested, all I can say is that it’s worth it, but that you won’t know for sure until you do it yourself.

Enter the internship abroad.