On Culture Shock by Jeff Tolman

You arrive in a foreign country as a sweaty tourist and walk out of the airport with your luggage not sure of what to expect. You hope for a cold shower and a long nap in your immediate future.  When, a few minutes later, you find yourself in the back of a taxi unsure of your destination and whether the Italian woman who is steering you even knows English, you think for a few moments.  What exactly is a comfort zone?  Your own personal space? A good song? A 10 o’clock movie? Ultimately, above all else, it is a mental process.

The taxi driver turns up a Neil Young song on the radio. She drives like all the other crazy taxi drivers in the world, and when she comes to a halt in the middle of the street in Florence, she speaks to you kindly in English and helps you with your bags in the back.  There I am met, full force, by a woman from (program partner) CEA who hands me a key, unlocks the door and tells me there’s a bag of pasta on the table.  And she’s gone.

The first few days were the only time that I could say I experienced some “culture shock.”  For me it wasn’t necessarily a shock because I was expecting things to be different, it was more of an adjustment.  For one, we have a bidet in our bathroom.  Two, the washer machine can hold about five shirts.  And three, the ambulances here are turned up to max volume.  Everyday is a whirlwind of class and activities.  We usually have about six hours of class and spend extra time doing homework or having small excursions.  This past weekend we had a well-deserved break and  took advantage of that time to treat ourselves nicely by visiting the resort city of Rimini (A city on the Adriatic coast, seen in the picture above).

Overall, I think culture shock is less of a shock and more of a culmination of frustrations.  Sure, it’s hard to go grocery shopping in a new country where bread is offered at the Forno, meat is sliced by the metric system, and fruits and vegetables are offered at open air markets in between shops selling plastic watches and hand bags.

On the three-hour train ride from Rimini to Florence this past weekend I saw a mother lift her young child up so he could see the train pass by and I realized that experiencing a new culture is like experiencing ordinary things again for the first time.  It’s like experiencing the first time you saw a train tearing off into the distance.  It shakes and awakes you.  Like it had just gone straight through your head.

-a picture from atop the Duomo.


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