2022 Summer Adjusting Cities COVID-19 Culture Shock Italy Mary Wetherbee Temple Rome

Adjusting to Italy after the shutdown

Two years ago, in February of 2020, I was working as an au pair in Italy when the Lombardy region became a COVID-19 red zone. A few days later, the small Italian institute I had been attending in Rome for a few weeks was forced to shut down, and all of Italy came to a stop as the rest of the world watched.  We weren’t allowed to go more than 200 meters from our residence without an official document giving permission.  The country’s borders closed, and many planes stopped flying (eventually causing one of Italy’s airline companies to go out of business).

Fast forward to summer 2022: I’m waiting in a long line at the airport to buy a train ticket to Termini station, tripping over tourists on my walk down Via del Corso – one of the most expensive and famous streets in Rome)–and jamming myself into a metro car on a Monday afternoon filled with people and their suitcases. Needless to say, in the two years since the original shutdown Italy has changed tremendously.

Corridor of Fiumicino Airport with an Exit sign
Exiting Fiumicino airport

I was surprised in a whole new way upon arriving in Rome to see that life in Italy was just as bustling and busy as any other city.  Sure, I had also been in Rome during the fall 2021 semester, but this summer, things feel very different than what I had become used to. For one thing there is no more mask mandate, except for on public transportation, and there are also many more tourists. There is a stark difference between the Italy I was in during the height of the pandemic vs the Italy I’m in right now, and the difference definitely felt a bit overwhelming at first.

Culture shock still gets to me from time to time in Italy. From the experiences I’ve had traveling, I’ve learned that the first three days in a new place are always the biggest adjustment for me. After that, things generally start to get easier, but not without their ups and downs. During my first full week in Rome, my brain was overloaded with new information: my location in the city,  how to navigate around on my own, my classes (many with teachers and students whom I had never met), and cultural differences – the way people dress, communicate, even eat.  Eating is often one of the biggest adjustments for me in Italy because the schedule is different from that of the U.S., and restaurants aren’t always open. After adjusting to some of these differences, I began to pay attention to smaller things as well.

Even though I’ve lived here before, coming to a different country can still be an adjustment. When I arrived on May 19th, one of the things that surprised me the most was that all the locals were dressed in long sleeves and pants, even though it was 80° F outside. In Italy, many people follow a specific wardrobe for each season, almost as a form of etiquette. Sure enough, a few days later, people started wearing short sleeves and lighter material, and somehow every Italian got the memo. 

Meeting other students was one of the best ways I was able to get over the initial culture shock through conversations with people who were going through many of the same things as I was. Creating a routine with other students in the program, such as a weekly aperitivo on the same night, or lunch before class on a certain day is a great way to stay grounded.

Ravioli con burro e salvia for dinner at Otello in Trastevere
Ravioli con burro e salvia for dinner at Otello in Trastevere

As someone who has lived here and is still learning Italian, immersing myself in the language has been really helpful in feeling like a part of the community. Communicating with locals and having conversations boosts my confidence, as well as my own language ability, giving me a sense of purpose in a place that isn’t my country of origin. Some of the greatest ways I’ve been able to meet and interact with other Italians is through the various volunteer programs that Temple Rome is involved with, such as student teaching at a high school, or volunteering at a soup kitchen.

Walking instead of taking the metro has been great in helping to familiarize myself with the new routes I need to take to school. It has also given me an understanding of my surroundings as well as which kinds of stores are near me.  Walking is one of my favorite ways to explore a new place, because you can go at your own pace, and discover more of the hidden local areas. It is also a great way to learn how to “do as the Romans do” as the saying goes.

Arco dei Banchi, a small corridor I discovered while walking
Arco dei Banchi, a small corridor I discovered while walking

The most important part of adjusting for me has been learning how to go easier on myself, and go with the flow. Many times things haven’t gone as planned, which can feel disappointing. Maybe a bus doesn’t show up, or a train is canceled, and a plan that I made doesn’t end up happening. It’s in those moments that I try to tune in to myself more, so that I can do what’s best for me: getting something to eat, calling a friend, going for a walk in hopes to stumble on something new. These are some of the things that have helped me in adjusting to Rome this summer, and some of the factors that played a part in my cultural transition. 

Read about a another student’s experience dealing with homesickness.

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