During the summer of 2015, I had the opportunity to travel to Italy for ten days with the photography department at Pacific University, where we split our time between Florence and Rome. I had never traveled abroad before, and the only foreign language I knew was what I had picked up in my one year of Spanish. Stepping off the bus in Florence, I was immediately overwhelmed. It was in the largest city that I had ever been in. Buildings were everywhere I looked. Cars and people whizzed past in a blur. I was pushed and jostled about as I took a moment to take in my surroundings – surroundings that were always in motion, with not a moment of calm. I couldn’t understand a word anyone said. The blank look on my face was a dead giveaway that I was American and after rolling their eyes people would start speaking English with a hint of agitation added to their voices. Standing on the sidewalk next to the bus with my suitcase in one hand I felt small and insignificant amongst the identical tall buildings with their uniform chipped, pale yellow paint.
I don’t know why, but I expected everything about Italy to be completely different from the United States, from the culture to the food to the people. I was prepared for the eye rolling at the stupid Americans that I was told everyone hated. And, while I hoped to have the opportunity to talk to locals, I knew that it was unlikely because of the language barrier and due to the high number of tourists like me visiting the busy cities. By chance, on the last night we were in Florence, I got that opportunity.
A small group of us went to a pizzeria just down the street from our hotel. From the outside it appeared to be a small hole-in-the-wall establishment that one could easily walk by and not even notice it was there. Inside there were two large rooms connected by a large archway, crammed with tables. Nearly every chair was occupied. We were led through the maze to the back of the second room where we were seated in one of the few remaining tables.
By the time we finished our meal, the restaurant was mostly empty. As we were paying, we started talking with the waitress, a waiter, and the proprietors. During our conversation we learned that it was a family business: the proprietors were the waitress’s parents and the other waiter was her younger brother. Her parents spoke very little English and her brother’s English was broken, inserting Italian words for the ones he didn’t know in English. Through his broken English he told us that he was seventeen. We asked him if was already in college or if he was still in secondary education. He told us that he didn’t like school so he dropped out of to work in the restaurant. He was not forced to drop out of school, nor was he discouraged from continuing his education to work in the restaurant like many stereotypes portray; he made those choices because that is what he wanted to do with his life. His sister, however, was very good at school, he informed us. She then told us that she was studying at University, like we were, and hoped to study abroad in the United States the following year. Then it was our turn to tell our story. They loved hearing about our adventures as much as we enjoyed theirs. By the time we finally left the restaurant it was dark and they had sent us on our way with a small goody-bag of leftover pastries from the day.
Although our conversation was brief, I learned I was wrong about a lot of things. I was wrong when I expected that everything would be different than from home. I learned that not everyone hated Americans. In fact, some aspired to study in the United States, just as we dream of studying in the many wonderful countries throughout the world. They taught me that working hard and getting an education is just as important in their culture as it is here. I learned that their dreams and aspirations aren’t all that different than mine. I learned that the people there are a lot more like us than I originally thought. Or, maybe we are more like them.
By: Cailyn Andreasen