Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Invasion of the Americans

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After our first 2 weeks in Rome, I would say many students are really beginning to get more comfortable and acclimated to our very new city. As someone who had never been out of America before this trip, this adjustment was not coming quite as easy to me as I would have liked, or as I had anticipated. There were many surprises with cultural differences, some of which I have already mentioned in the last blog post. Just walking around the streets and hearing no familiar language or words was difficult to get used to in and of itself. But, each day seems to be another stepping stone toward integrating myself in the Roman community. Right now I want to take it back to last Sunday when I had the opportunity to visit the hill town of Todi in the region of Umbria.

Todi is one of the most beautiful and picturesque places I have ever been. When I got off the bus, I really had no idea what to expect. We had heard that we were going to a so-called “hill town,” but what did that really mean? Nothing to me, since I’d never been to one. We maneuvered our behinds up the numerous flights of grassy stairs, attempting to avoid stepping on the enormous worms as we did this, and finally reached the top. The first thing I saw was this extremely old man standing in his window, which looked out onto the hills, staring at us. He looked…concerned. I could only imagine that his thoughts were, “Look out, it’s the invasion of the Americans.” He seemed displeased and frightened.

As we walked forward and entered the town, I spotted Gianni. I am always curious as to what people who are familiar with areas would suggest as “must sees,” so I inquired with Gianni on his thoughts about this. He suggested I see the church and all the little streets. So, that is exactly what I did. We entered the main square and saw the church ahead of us. But, before seeing that, I was lured down a quaintly breathtaking side street. I was almost speechless. As I walked along with a friend, I couldn’t believe the simple beauty of the buildings and the streets. Even just seeing the laundry hanging high about the cobblestones was beautiful in a way. As we progressed through the town, we got lost in the tangle of the small streets of Todi.

We finally stumbled toward the buses, but before which we landed at the bottom of an extremely steep flight of stairs. We climbed them, and at the top we turned around only to look out onto the most beautiful view. The fact that we were late to the buses and still weren’t quite sure where we were or where we needed to go disappeared. We were immediately enamored by the view. It felt like we were standing on the edge of the world with fog and clouds surrounding us. The view of the steep cliff on which we stood with a church sitting in the middle was all we could see. It was UNFORGETTABLE. I will always remember that moment in Todi, after wandering for a couple hours with friends on the small streets, finally finding the steepest set of stairs that we climbed (no easy task) and when reaching the top, the most epic view on which to look out.  Above all else, this trip itself helped show me that the small towns and more “hidden” places in Italy are really what I should focus my next three months on, more so than just seeing big cities. Every experience like this helps to figure out our real interests here, and this was a very moving experience for me!

La lingua

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Let’s talk about the language. It’s been a little less than three weeks now here in Roma (scary). I was never nervous about speaking the language itself, just a little nervous to understand. First of all, let it be known that I think English is an ugly langauge. Ok, that’s harsh. German is ugly. Just kidding, that’s harsh too. One thing I just mean to say is that the Romantic languages just sound better. English and German etc. are cool in their own way, but nothing can beat the sound of Spanish or Italian. Fortunately I’ve had five years of Spanish going into my Italian classes. This was a double-edged sword, as I’m sure it is for many. On the one hand, it made me speak Spanish in Italian class because they’re so similar. On the other, learning a bit of Italian helped my Spanish;; helped my Italian; and actually for some reason made me understand French text messages.

The problem now that I’ve had two semesters of Italian classes, and now that I live in Italy for a while, I get them mixed up. When we all went out to Big Bang (Reggae Bar) the first weekend, I had a conversation in Spitalinglish. It was fine because the girl I was speaking to had been in the program the semester before and also knew all three. Another night we got on the bus on the way to Trestavere, and we saw some Italian students wearing Roma scarves and shirts. The calcio (soccer) game between Lazio (the region) and Roma (the city) had just finished. After speaking to them in broken Italian, I found out they were actually Spanish and had been studying here for a year. That was also relatively easy because we switched back and forth. Many many people know Spanish here.

Here’s the thing about the language, if you’re ever going to study here. Thusfar, people have been very nice if you attempt to speak Italian. Oftentimes, they’ll hear your foreign accent, then switch to English. This way, at least you tried. At this point you can choose to speak in English, as they’ve obliged, or you can say “no grazie, voglio praticare Italiano–No thanks, I want to practice Italian.” They’re also very good at answering questions, and it’s ok to ask them here. If I don’t know what “questo” (this) is, I simply ask how to say it in Italian.

The best thing to do, honestly, is to smile and use the hands. The absolute basics of “grazie, buongiorno, ciao” etc. will get you much farther than you think. I’ve asked some Italians how they know English so well, and they said they just know it from school and watching movies in English.

So now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch Hercules in Italian on Youtube. Ciao!

Excuse me……

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It took some time for me see some of the authentic cultural differences between life in Italy and life in America. I would guess that as time continues to go by, even more dissimilarities will become apparent. For now, one of the strangest adjustments for me has been the absence of the phrases “Excuse me” and “Please,” or as the Italians would have it, “Scusi/Scusa” and “Per favore.” However, if I didn’t have friends who knew the language, the Internet, and an Italian 1001 class, I would never have known these words, because they really aren’t used by Italians!

I can honestly say that in the 10 days that I have been in Rome, I have not heard one Italian say “Per favore.” This is a colossally difficult adjustment for me to make because at home, I would simply never ask someone for something, especially someone I do not know, without ending the sentence with “Please.” It’s simply a matter of being mannerly. I often have an internal conflict when I am out ordering a sandwich or buying produce at the market because I want to say “Per favore,” but I know that is simply not what they do here, so I also feel like I shouldn’t say it. It’s very confusing!!

What then surprises me even more is that the Italians are constantly saying “Thank you” and “You’re welcome,” or “Grazie” and “Prego.” I would think that if they aren’t keen on saying “Please,” that perhaps their culture just doesn’t use these kind of mannerly phrases to which we are so acclimated in America, but that isn’t the case, as “Grazie” and “Prego” are being thrown around everywhere you go! I’m definitely thankful for this because I feel like I can finally show my appreciation in a culturally acceptable way at some point during my interaction with whomever I am dealing.

Despite the fact that I find Italians not saying “Please,” this doesn’t bother me per say, it just will take some getting used to. One part of the culture here that I do find rather odd and, at times, bothersome even, is people not attempting to get out of your way when you walk by a small area. I’m not sure if this is part of their not having much personal space, as Gianni has repeatedly told us about, or if they just don’t care to move for each other, or maybe they just don’t care to move for Americans, but they almost never will try to get out of your way when trying to get through a small area. Along with this, the Italians don’t seem to say “Excuse me” when they walk through tight areas. Instead, they tend to push right on through, which, in America, people generally find rather rude. One of the only Italians that I’ve heard say “Scusa” while here has been the maid that cleans our room each day. I guess she’s extra polite?

Along these same lines, I’ve noticed that not one merchant or sales person with whom I’ve dealt while in Rome has actually handed me back my change. EVERY SINGLE person puts the change down on the counter and lets me then pick it up instead of putting it right in my hand. This is another action which in America, people would often find rude. Maybe the Italians do this because they’re angry that they have to give the change in the first place….since Italians LOVE exact change. What are we supposed to do with the $50 euro bills the ATMs give us!? Finding these slight cultural differences definitely takes you spending time here and having all different types in interactions with the natives. I’m sure there will be more to come!

La mente

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Long story short from the last post, pain is fortunately and thankfully gone and I’m having a great time.

Entrance to La Sapienza

Today was awesome. Period. I woke up at 11:45 AM (that’s right, no classes for me on Friday. Suckers!) just in time to get a quick shower and walk to campus. Gianni led us on a tour of La Sapienza, the University of Rome. If you thought Temple (37,000) and Penn State (50,000 students) were big in terms of student population, think again. La Sapienza has 150,000. According to Gianni, it’s the largest public university and Europe, and second only to Cairo for largest in the world.

La Sapienza is located in Citta Universitaria, just outside the ancient wall surrounding Roma. When we got off the bus, there was a huge gateway that led to the front courtyard. In the center of this is a reflection pool with a huge statue of Minerva (Athena), goddess of Power, War, and Wisdom. Apparently on the day that students have tests, they’re not supposed to look into her eyes. She’ll take it as a challenge, and you’re going to lose the battle and fail your test. So if you ever come to Rome, and are taking a test for some reason at La Sapienza, walk in from the sides not the main entrance. Or walk with your head down when you pass.

Statue of Minerva, goddess of Wisdom, Warfare and Victory

Here’s some of the major differences between an urban public university in Italy and one like Temple in the states.

Tuition for Temple: roughly $12,000 per year. Tuition for La Sapienza: about 1,500 Euro (if my memory serves me correctly). That’s $2,100. Che pazzo!

You may think this is a ripoff, but when you get to the University of Rome, you see why. First of all, in Europe in general, I’m pretty sure taxes are higher and the government pays more for students to go to school. God forbid taxes be raised for education in America, right? The second biggest reason is that our tuition pays for ALOT. We go to classes, yes, but we pay for a state-of-the art computer lab, student center,  a fantastic library, 2-3 gyms, free sporting events, security booths…that’s only to name a few. La Sapienza also has no extracurricular activities or dorms. Correction: there is one dorm, but it only houses a couple hundred students. Out of 150,000. It’s for very special students on scholarships. They go to class, and they go home. That’s it. Anything else is paid for outside, be that gym membership, food, computers, what have you. The facilities, while good, are definitely not like Temple’s either. We pay for upkeep of good facililites. So those are reasons why tuition is so low here. Makes me feel kinda fortunate actually. Oh yeah, and private schools are only 7,000 euri here… $9,800.

Classes at Temple: capped and still empty seats. Classes at La Sapienza: not capped and overflowed.

This fact was perhaps the most shocking. Classes are not capped here. That means, even though a lecture hall may have 100-150 seats, the class can have more students than that. You know how we mosey on out of bed, stop at Starbucks for coffee, then walk into class late? Yeah, students in Rome line up at 7 AM for an 8:30 class to get a seat towards the front. Once the seats fill up, students sit on the floor, stand in the back, or sit in windowsills. Nuts. Before email (and still some now, depending on how old fashioned the professor is), students would have to wait for a long time to talk with a professor during his or her office hours. Despite its monstruous size, it’s still a very difficult school to get into, so students are scrambling to get to class and have a seat often.

Student hub at Temple: The SAC (Officially Howard Gittis Student Center). Student hub at La Sapienza: Ciao.

At Temple, if undergrad students need help getting oriented, there are university programs to help out. Orientation, Free Food Fun Fridays, Owl Team, Counseling Offices, Front Desk at the Student Center, Advising sessions, the list goes on and on. Here at La Sapienza, where it’s more than triple the size, there’s only Ciao. Ciao is the place where older students help out the younger students and get them acquainted to campus. It was proposed by students to the Dean or President of the school. Some get paid, but most are volunteers.

Passing at Temple: written exams, papers, and scantrons. Passing at La Sapienza: oral exams.

Let me first state as caution that this may not be 100% accurate, it’s only what I gather from memory. At Temple, you pay per semester. Here, you pay per class to take a final exam. Exams and classes here MOSTLY work like this. Some, you have to go to class in order to take the test at the end of the semester. Others, you can sign up for the class, get the books yourself, then take the exam at the end to see if you pass the course. No class attendance necessary. You have three chances to take the exam. For example, one in January, one in February, one in March. You sign up on the professors door to take the exam. Most of these professors write the textbooks themselves, so they know them in and out. While some exams are written, most are oral. Meaning, only one person can take a test at a time on those three days. That means you have to know the textbook in and out. And you never never never are supposed to stop talking when asked a question, even if you don’t know the answer to the question. Talk about something else you know, then fumble around until you get to the answer.

Typically, you sign up on the list to take the exam that day, starting at 8:30 AM. If you are third on the list, you go third. The exams last about 15-20 minutes a person. Some people sign up but then have to stay the entire day. Imagine standing in line the entire day to take the exam. Gianni told us about a scenario that happened to him. He was the last person to go. He walked in the room at 7:30, and he could tell the professor was tired. The professor asked him a question, and he pretty much told them about his day. The professor dozed off, and Gianni just kept talking (the number one rule). He then answered the question at the end, the professor woke up, and gave him a 30 out of 30. You need 18 to pass.

Learning at Temple: Textbooks and pictures. Learning at La Sapienza: textbooks and sculptures.

My absolute favorite part of the tour (and what I like better about La Sapienza), was going down to the Museum in the basement of the main building. To learn about art history and classics in the states, you look at a textbook. Sometimes you do on-site visits. At the University of Rome, they have full-size copies made out of plaster of ancient sculptures. It’s incredible. The best part is that these are not protected by any glass (they really don’t have that much value, they’re copies), so you can go wright up to them and look at all the details. THIS is how they learn and gain their knowledge from Antiquity.

Plaster-cast copy of Athena (?) at La Sapienza

There are definitely pros and cons to both schools. It was absolutely fascinating to see the differences. Some of it makes me realize how blessed I am to be in my own system of eduction. Some of it makes me wonder if it would be better if I went to school here instead.

Either way, I’m heading to San Lorenzo tonight. That’s where all the Italian students hang out. Can’t wait!

First Days in Roma

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WOW. After all the preparation and anticipation, we are finally here….in Roma! As my first time being out of the country, I don’t know that there was really any way for me to fully prepare myself for this experience. So, I’ve kind of been wingin’ it up until this point. Now that I’m here, I realize that in some ways, that was a bit of a mistake. At the moment, I’m feeling like I can already tell what my two greatest challenges will be on this journey in Italia. The most overwhelming will be the language barrier. Everyone I spoke to before getting on the plane and jumping the pond assured me that with my zero Italian language skills, I would able OK here. And I will be, but it is certainly going to be a challenge each day not knowing even the simplest of sayings, or how to pronounce their beautiful language.

The first language issue I ran into was getting on my connecting flight to Roma from Frankfurt. I had my backpack and a 22” suitcase as my carrier-ons, which was not an issue on the US Airways flight, but on this smaller plane, my suitcase wasn’t going to fly. I lug the 3o-pounder up the stairs from the tarmac and when I reach the top, I am greeted by an energetic, and to me, seemingly stressed flight attendant. She begins to, what I consider yell, but what Italians consider talk to me about my luggage. I could tell there was an issue, but literally hadn’t a clue as to what she was saying. I blankly stared at her. At this point she could tell I had no idea what was going on, so she took my luggage, handed me an Air Alitalia ticket with numbers on it, and scooted me past her and onto the plane. I guessed my luggage was headed down below.

Admittedly, many Italians, especially in the bars, cafes, gelaterias (yum!), and other shops, speak English, or can at least communicate to a point. But, walking into an Italian shop with a bunch of natives eloquently and passionately speaking to one another, it is so difficult for me to feel comfortable meandering in and attempting to speak the LITTLE Italian, I know, or worse, to speak English. I really look forward to becoming more comfortable with the people, language, and city, so that these situations aren’t as intimidating or uncomfortable. But, the upside, I haven’t had any experiences (yet) where Italians have been completely disparaging or unkind to me, which brings some relief.

The other test I have been facing this week is the lack of technology in my life (big surprise!) You know, I’m not someone who is constantly glued to their cellphone or Facebook at home, but being over here and having neither for a few days, was freaking me out. It really surprised me that I felt that way, but being thrown into another country and culture and then having no way to communicate with people did not sit well with me. It’s shocking the way we get used to these things and how we feel when they’re suddenly taken away. But, things are slowly getting sorted out. The internet seems to be working at the Residence fairly well, and we have it on campus. More to come on the Roman adventures soon!

Gli occhi

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There were many things I expected to experience while studying abroad in Rome. Walking to the Fontana di Trevi, taking pictures of the Anfiteatro Colosseo (Colosseum), buying cheap wine, meeting Italians, speaking in Italian…etc. Some touristy, some not. One thing I did not expect, especially within the first day, was to hold back tears. Yes tears. Let it be known that I teared up within the first 48 ore (hours) of my 4 mesi (month) experience. I did not tear up once, I did not tear up twice. I teared up three times. Now before we judge and go on a tangent about how m

There were many things I expected to experience while studying abroad in Rome. Walking to the Fontana di Trevi, taking pictures of the Anfiteatro Colosseo (Colosseum), buying cheap wine, meeting Italians, speaking in Italian…etc. Some touristy some not. One thing I did not expect, especially within the first day, was to hold back tears. Yes tears. Let it be known that within the first 48 ore (hours) of my 4 mesi (month) experience. I did not tear up once, I did not tear up twice. I teared up three times. Now before you judge and cause me to go on a counter-judgmental tangent about gender expectations, let me explain why how and when.

The first time was after the flight from Philadelphia to Roma. I tried sleeping on the flight, but the fact that I tried falling asleep at what was technically 8:30 PM on the East Coast (when I normally doze off at 2:00 in the morning), was not working for me. I eventually got an hour or two in, interrupted of course by a crying baby and the bathroom behind my head that “dinged” everytime the door opened. We arrived 8:30 in the morning in Italia (2:30 AM Philly), and then took a long drive with huge amounts of bags from the airport to the Residence. Then I saw my room…which did not make me cry but came very close. Three of us in a tiny room. Luckily I know both my roommates (though we didn’t plan that), so at least that’s good. And the shower is amazing. I also came very close to tearing up when I saw how much bigger the other rooms were. But the time I actually did tear up was sometime in the afternoon, when I was jet-lagged and disoriented. I was unpacking and my eyes just starting watering like no other. I was just unbelievably tired.

The second time I teared up was last night before I went to bed. Long story short, I’ve had minor surgery on my lower back numerous times, and sometimes after I walk for a while it becomes extremely uncomfortable. I told my doctor and myself that I didn’t want that to inhibit my trip. Well, I felt like it did last night. The Residence Medaglie d’Oro (where I live) is located about 40 minutes away from the Villa Caproni (Temple Rome’s campus). We walked the entire way. With every step I took last night, I got more and more discomfort. I grew more and more frustrated because I was focusing on the pain I was having rather than the citta bella (beautiful city) around me. I was focusing more on trying to distract myself from the pain rather than enjoying my time with the friends I had just met. By the time we got to the campus for the pizza party, I was so upset and angry at the whole thing. Thank God they gave us a free bus pass back to the residence. I got more upset there because the internet wasn’t working and I really wanted to contact my family. I also just really wanted to get on Facebook to make me feel better, even if it was just for a few minutes. Not so much to talk to friends but to have something a little more familiar in an unfamiliar place. I held back tears here because I didn’t want my pain to keep me from walking around. I got more upset when I thought about the money I was spending because I thought I’d be walking around and exploring the city without worrying about the pain and discomfort from the surgery, let alone the lifetime experience I was supposed to be having. Then I took a hot shower (sometimes that helps the pain), and then got into bed. Woke up this morning fully rested, stopped to get a cornetto and mele (a kind of pastry and an apple), and went to orientation.

That’s where I teared up for the third time. Once again, though usually an optimistic person, I was not in the best of moods because I was still in pain. After Dean Strohmen gave words of welcome and went over Academics, Gianni (one of our program directors) took the mic and told us about our experiences. He talked about what it was going to be like here for us. He talked about how some of us might feel homesick already. He talked about how strange it can all be. Then he said an extremely simple phrase…

“It’s going to be ok.”

I got teary eyed through the rest of it I teared up when he talked about the places we would see, the things we would do. I teared up when he told us that when we go to the piazza, we’d meet Italian students that wanted to meet with us. This had always been one of my chief concerns, that I’d want to meet Italians and talk to them but they wouldn’t want to do the same. I teared up because despite pain and discomfort, the jet lag, missing everyone at home, being in a new country, I knew this was going to be amazing, and that everything was going to be ok.