Ventitre Settembre, Due Mille e Dieci: Reflections on my arrival in Italy on September 1st, 2010 by Matthew Bishop

Only 8,000 people live here in Tuscania, a town which was built first by the Etruscans more than 2,700 years ago, and which predates the legendary founding of the city of Rome. Very, very few people here speak any English. When I arrived I met my landlord’s daughter, who runs a shop beneath my apartment– she was watering her flowers and she greeted me with “ciaoo!” She didn’t speak a word of English, so from what I remembered of my Italian, we spoke in very plain and basic sentences, on and off, for the next two hours. She would point at things and tell me what they were called and even though I already knew, I would pretend that I did not, because I didn’t know how to behave politely here in the genuine part of Italy and I had to be careful not to offend.

I could hardly be further from the United States or “Western” life, even though I am only an hour north of Rome. I go to school in a medieval tower. I live in a medieval wall. There are scorpions in my bedroom and stray cats on my terrace, over which hangs grapevines, which I guess just grow here wild. I see people going into the town from their farms on their horses. It takes me a long time to do the laundry and prepare all the food by hand. I walk everywhere and don’t have a car. For four hours of every day, the town shuts down and from 12 to 4 p.m. everyone sleeps. I cannot speak a word of English in public, because people will have no idea what I’m saying and don’t know how to respond. Tourists don’t know the place– I am one of the few Americans these people have met or will meet and my behavior here is truly a reflection of my country. There is no one my age, only the very young, the middle-aged and the very old. Everyone my age who once lived here has moved to Rome or nearby Viterbo or Tarquinia. The park sits on the old wall and looks out at the old town center, which dates to the 8th century BCE. The “new town center” was built roughly 1,100 years ago. It’s normal for these people and it’s all become normal for me.

The language element has been the most shocking adaptation. I miss the States, if only to hear my own language. It’s tiresome to have to really, really think before you talk– to not know instinctively what to say. But it’s part of the immersion and the best way to learn the language. I bought myself some children’s books in Italian and rented some classic Italian movies to help me. I figure that the sooner I learn their language fully enough to be fluent, the better off I’ll be.

I’ve learned that it is absolutely necessary to distance yourself from people who hang out exclusively with other Americans. It’s hard to socialize here in Tuscania, where there is no one local my age– but for places like Rome, Florence or Venice, I would advise sticking with people who know the language or have Italian friends, or just going out by yourself and meeting people. It’s important, and fun, to bond with the other Americans, of course– but to get the full experience, you also have to bond with the Italians as something more than just a tourist.

The food here is fresher and cheaper. The wine and liquor costs next to nothing when compared to American prices, which are propped up both by international tariffs and by sin taxes. Fresh fruit and vegetables here must be half as costly as they are in the States, and this is all taking into account the Euro-Dollar conversion. When I walk under the arch of the old town walls, I can smell the bread, which is baked fresh every day, in one of two local bakeries. They say that in Rome the bakeries open at 2 AM to start preparing for the day’s demands, and that if you want something really fresh, they’re perfect for a midnight snack.

I would say I’ve experienced culture shock, for sure– but I think it will hit me harder when I come back to the States. Not hearing Italian and not even being able to speak it will hit me the hardest. Having to buy a cappuccino for 3 dollars instead of 80 Euro cents (a little less than $1.30 converted), a bottle of whiskey cream for $25 instead of 4 Euro, a bottle of wine for $35 instead of 2 Euro, or 9 litres of bottled water for I don’t even know how much, instead of the 40 Euro Cents it is here (they actually sell it for how much it costs them to make it– imagine that!) will be annoying. And of course, not going to school in a medieval tower or having classes on top of Roman ruins will be sort of boring. As for the culture shock I’ve experienced here in Italy, I have to say I’ve become quite fond of it, and this place is gradually becoming a home to me.

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