So this Tuesday the university organized a round table discussion for the students and some Italians. The room was packed, with many students from Temple as well as other American universities in the area coming in addition to the invited Italians. The tone of the whole discussion was very light and fun, with questions like ‘Why don’t Italians pick their dog poop up off the side walk?’ and ‘Do Americans really think all Italians are in the mafia?’ being asked.
One thing we talked about were the different stereotypes that we held of each other’s cultures. It was mostly superficial things, like how you can immediately tell an American tourist by the fact that they’re wearing flip flops and how they eat spaghetti. Authentic Italian tip: don’t use spoons. EVER. The discussion evolved into comparing how our two cultures looked at PDA, something the Italians don’t even have a word for! There’s no concept of ‘not appropriate for public’ here, just people displaying affection all over the place. The discussion was mostly light and fun, but occasionally serious topics were discussed like race and gender relations.
I did have a problem with the tone of the conversation when serious issues were brought up. No one was willing to say anything bad about Italy at all, even on issues that were clearly a problem. Even comments made in the round table by the Italians present were indicative of some serious problems, especially about race and gender. Comments about how men’s catcalling and behavior at clubs made women uncomfortable were brushed away with ‘well Italian men are just more forward!’ and ‘they’re really just being complimentary’ rather than acknowledging that these behaviors are a result of the sexism that pervades Italian society. Some of the personal stories shared by students, especially those about encounters with racism, were met with responses of ‘well they didn’t mean anything bad by it!’ and ‘it’s really not that big a deal, don’t let it bother you.’
I was also surprised by the lack of political topics that came up during the round table. With the American government in the middle of a total shut down and Italy still dealing with the giant mess that is Berlusconi, I thought that both sides would be a little more interested in what was going on politically.
At the end of the meeting, it was clear that Italians were not that different from Americans. They have some major political issues, but as America is currently in the middle of a government shut down, I think it’s safe to say that we do too. While the talk wasn’t exactly the discussion of actual issues that I thought it would be, it was still a fun night where we got a better view of the true Italian perspective.