When coming to Italy I had no idea what to expect of the experience. I didn’t even know my schedule when I arrived. Starting out in a new country is definitely tough but being part of a university community is a great way to become acclimated to the culture. My apartment is right by Sapienza University of Rome which means that in addition to attending Temple Rome, I also live in an Italian student neighborhood. My roommates and I have settled into a totally Italian environment, making friends with our neighbors and getting to know our neighborhood. I think that not having the chance to live with Americans was a good decision because we are really forced to become a part of the Italian world rather than being able to isolate ourselves within an American community. That’s not to say that living in the residence is bad by any means. It’s a great way to make friends and ease your transition into a new culture. It was definitely difficult to settle into a place with no Americans around but Rome in general is welcoming of other cultures. Most places have at least one person who speaks English and my roommates and I have all lived outside of the US before this semester, so we are comfortable living amongst the locals regardless of the language barrier.
One great way to ease the transition from the US to Italy is to practice some Italian beforehand. I know it’s difficult, especially for Spring semester students, to study another language while in school. I didn’t get a chance to learn much Italian before I arrived because I am studying Spanish as part of my major and struggled to learn the two at one time. That being said, my Spanish experience is a huge help in learning Italian now. Having any romance language background will be really helpful once you arrive. Additionally, if the people don’t speak English, they almost always speak French or Spanish—and everyone understands hand gestures. Don’t sweat the language barrier, it’s really not a big deal. Human communication is done through much more than language—especially in Europe where the languages and cultures are so close together.
Another comforting fact that I didn’t know beforehand is that there are so many foreigners in Rome. Whether it be students, business travelers, or tourists, people of all sorts of cultures and backgrounds are consistently flowing in and out of the diplomatic city. A lot of places even have English menus or signs. The locals are not at all surprised when someone doesn’t speak Italian and are almost always willing to work with you.
One weekend morning, my roommate and I were eating breakfast when some maintenance workers knocked on our apartment door. The man saw me, a Mediterranean native, and assumed I was Italian. He started speaking rapid Italian at me and only slowed down when he saw my shocked expression. I said I didn’t speak any Italian and he said he did not speak English. My roommate, who speaks French, and I, who speak Spanish, tried fruitlessly to find a common language. We stood in the doorway babbling incoherently at one another, with his partner laughing in the background. Being the adaptive person that I am, pulled up a translator app on my phone and we passed it back and forth until we figured out what was going on. It was pretty embarrassing, but they were understanding and we all laughed in the end. There may be some awkward instances like this, but they are just fun stories for later. Being a little uncomfortable sometimes is a significant part of the experience because you are forced to learn to laugh at yourself and move on. Doing foolish things has helped me become more comfortable with making mistakes, and more resourceful when there are gaps in understanding.
Not only is Italy filled with foreigners, it is filled with American students. Wherever you go you are likely to hear one or two people speaking English, which I found surprising at first. Italy is an extremely diplomatic city with a lot of movement. There will always be someone else in your same position; and that person you’re struggling to communicate with has probably had a worse experience than yours. I recommend maintaining a lighthearted perspective of the situation and everything will be fine. It’s when you get frustrated at the lack of understanding that it becomes an issue. Yes, sometimes you’ll order a fresh fruit instead of juice or a roll instead of a sandwich, but you live, and you learn. It’s part of the experience.
Like anything, if you go into the experience with a positive outlook, you’ll most likely have a positive experience. There is some understandable anxiety that accompanies moving to a new country, but the experience is really whatever you make of it. If you choose to be scared of speaking and hide with the other Americans, then you likely won’t get much of a cultural experience. Studying abroad is all about moving out of your comfort zone, having new experiences, and making some mistakes along the way. Sometimes it’ll be uncomfortable and sometimes it’ll be funny but either way, your reaction and your perception are what shapes your experience.