In my Italian class, one of the focuses that my professor has is showing her students the richest parts of Italian culture. Those of you who read my article last week read about a couple of adventures that I’ve gone on with my class to see artisans at work throughout Florence. This is but one of the vast differences in culture between Italy and the United States. There are certainly a great many more though!
As one might expect, there is absolutely a difference in fashion, which is not simply on the designer scale. Everyday people, including university students like us, dress to the trends and styles that come and go. Jeans are not as popular as they are in the States and it is unheard of here to walk around in sweatpants or sneakers, but leather jackets and boots are seen everywhere. People here also just make up their own trends. My theory is that this is what attributes to so many designers being from Europe: there is much more originality in everyday fashion here.
The Palazzo Pitti Museum here in Florence has what they call a “costume display”, which showcases fashion from the time of the Medici family strength in the fourteenth century to the present day. It was surprising to me that items created only a few years ago are considered history and are displayed here. This goes to show how important fashion is in society here.
Clothing is one way that Italians express themselves. Another, which my Italian professor pointed out, is how they maintain their apartments. This might seem trivial, because most people keep their houses clean, tidy, and overall presentable. There is a whole other level of pristineness in the households here that is actually difficult to explain through writing. It is almost as if living spaces here are not for living in, but for showing off. The traditional living and dining room will only be used when guests are over. Within it, there is furniture that looks like it has not been touched, including a display case for crystal and favors from family gatherings.
Another noticeable difference here is the lack of houses, but many more apartments. It is rare for someone here to own their own house, let alone have any form of a yard or large space like many of us in the States do. It is much more common to have an apartment here, even in small towns, which costs the same as a full two story house in the States. Often, the only reason that one might have a villa or a large plot of land here is if they have a need for the land, such as for farming.
The language in Italy is also another peculiarity and can be fun to observe in different cities. Each city and region here has its own form of dialect. The closest comparison in the States would be the difference in regional accents, such as the noticeable ones from the south or from the northeast. In Italy however, it’s not simply a matter of accents; dialects are almost entirely new languages. Someone who grew up with a Florentine dialect probably wouldn’t even be able to understand someone speaking with a Neapolitan accent!
The homework assignments that I’ve been given in my Italian class here have been quite different from any that I’ve ever had in the States. The simpler ones have been to watch three movies in Italian with Italian subtitles and to read a book in Italian. The more challenging, but also more fun one, has been to meet with an Italian student who is trying to learn English once a week in order for us to learn each other’s languages more fluently. This cultural immersion is definitely one of the best ways to learn another language and culture. For anyone who is trying to learn another language, I would recommend the same “homework assignments” that I’ve been given. There are a couple of key lessons from my Italian professor that have helped all of her students in immersing themselves in the Italian language. The first is to stop trying to understand every single little word and accent, but to continue on as long as you understand the general meanings of things. This concept works similarly in reverse: as long as others understand what you are trying to say, continue on speaking the language, because the only way to improve is to use it every day.
Now that I’ve gotten that piece of life-advice out of the way, I have one last observation about the cultural differences here in Italy. However, this one is definitely specific to Florence. People here just seem more global. It’s such a simple statement, but it has made a very large impact during my studies here. It is common to find people who can speak two or more languages in Florence. Outlooks in everyday conversation often include conversation about countries around the world. Many of my professors and classmates are either from another country, or have studied or worked in multiple countries. The general outlook of people here is that we are all in a global world, where our choices and interactions have effects on people everywhere.