Isabella, outbound to Italy

This exchange has taught me to open my eyes further than I thought possible and I am so thankful for that. I remember asking all the Rotex at my outbound orientation back home before leaving “What was your biggest cultural shock?” I would get a lot of thoughtful looks and one response: “I can’t even think, it’s just so much.” I would get so confused because I thought, “Could a place really be that different?” Like many exchange students, my eyes had yet to be opened and shown the world outside of America and something that this exchange has done for me that I will never be able to thank Rotary enough for is that this exchange has opened my eyes to the world that I was missing.

Unfortunately Americans my age tend to be closed in their American bubble. It's not entirely their fault. America is so big, its hard to look outside it at an age like mine. We tend to be uninterested and that uninterest takes us to be simply unaware and uneducated about the outside because there is so much we focus on the inside. We become ignorant. Yes, we are a diverse nation but we dont seem to understand the diversity around us. Yes, we care when an earthquake hits another nation. We pray for them, we donate, we spread awareness but that is it. We seem to care only when they need us to. It hit me when all the members of my host family sat down to watch the news, they sat down to inform themselves of the tragedies of this world. There is so much bad going on out there.

Do you know someone my age who watches the news or reads the newspaper? Only the worst of events reaches out to us through social media, and even then, unfortunately, we don't really get it. Our world, our people, our cultures are falling.. but we don't know that. We think war and we look back to history class not to the present.

Being an exchange student has taught me to understand a culture, but not just one. Once you are able to accept and understand another culture, you start seeing all of them differently. You accept people, you don't judge them. You don't see difference, you see unity. I feel more a part of this world's community. I feel more connected. Going on exchange and creating friendships from all over the world really shows you how great the world would be if it were at peace. If the cultures of this world saw each other as equals, and understood each other's ways. I will never look at another culture the same way I used to, because now I get it. We are one.. even if the destruction doesn't show it. The world is supposed to feel as one, it just needs to learn how.

I love this culture and the people. It has a very unique touch to it. I finally understand the response every Rotex gave me. It's so different, and it is just as hard to explain it than it is for one who hasn't experienced it to understand. The difference is so big, but the beauty in it is bigger.

My first cultural shock took place in the exact moment where I left off in my previous blog post. I was about to pass two big white doors that I had no idea walking through would change my life. The doors opened and the first thing I saw was my host family with a sign that read ‘Benvenuta Isabella’. My host dad seemed very happy (and I recently found out he was very happy and very nervous for my arrival which warms up my heart) and came up to me and leaned in for a kiss on the cheek. My thoughts went VERY quickly from “Oh nice, they do that here too. It’s not just in Hispanic cultures” to “Wait, wait, what’s going on? He’s leaning in for my other cheek”. I quickly and awkwardly learned that here in Italy they greet each other with two kisses not just one. This became a simple struggle because I never knew what cheek to kiss first and my biggest fear was kissing an old host uncle or grandma on the lips by accident. Four months later, I got the hang of it. I am also proudly announcing that I have not kissed any lips accidently… or on purpose. Although this mime actor tried tricking me into a kiss when I went on a family trip to Bergamo, Italy. I was very frightened and confused actually but my host family thought it was funny and gave him money. I even have a picture.

On day one after a two-hour ride home from the airport, I arrived at my first host house. It is located on a mountain, which everyone calls a hill, and together with the grandma’s enormous house on one side and the aunt’s on the other side it is a beautiful property. I was perfectly fine until a punch of fear hit me in the stomach as soon as I walked into my new room. The reality started kicking in and I freaked out… inside of course. I was going to live in that room. Reality check.

Already in my first week, I got to go to Lake Garda, the biggest lake in Italy. My first host family has a lake house there in a place called San Felice, which is gorgeous. I got to meet the grandparents (dad’s side) as well as an aunt and her family and they were such phenomenal people. It is funny because in my phone, I have my host grandpa’s number and my host dad’s number and I have confused them several times. Yep, you can imagine that hilarious confusion of me waiting for my host dad to pick me up but never coming because in reality I did not text him... I texted his dad. I got home that day, no worries. Anyways Lake Garda is absolutely a mind-blowing view. I did a lot of stuff that weekend. My host sister took me on what I did not know would be a hiking trail and we ended up inside a forest that ended high up with an incredible view of the lake. It was certainly an adventure.

She also took me to this little side of the lakeshore called ‘Baia De l Vento’ where people can go in. The shore is made up of rocks and rocks and rocks instead of sand. It is absolutely beautiful. Something really interesting is that you find a lot of ‘vetro colorato’ or sea glass. It is basically bits and pieces of broken beer glass bottles that become this smooth marble glass rock with the seawater over time. I filled up a whole jar with rocks that day! On our walk back to the lake house, we found dandelions. We grabbed some and blew on them. I told my host sister to take a picture of me doing it, (I love taking pictures by the way… I have over 2000 and I am only half way. It annoys many because I stop and take pictures everywhere but I happily keep doing it. ). She broke out in a hysterical laugh because apparently I was not blowing right… apparently, my lips were too closed or whatnot. We spent a good ten minutes discussing how lips should look when they are blowing air and laughing at each other.

This moment on my exchange is important because it began an unbreakable bond between two strangers that now call each other sisters and pull each other’s hair out once in a while or maybe more. We spent that night talking until late a lot about my spiritual outlook on life and well I guess I can say I found the older sister I have always wanted. Also on this trip, we went to visit Salo, Italy, which is magnificent. We stopped for ice cream and as I was trying to decide on a flavor, I came across one which made me laugh. It was called ‘orgasm’ and well, I chose it. I was curious and why not? I then clearly saw that Italians name many things after English words that many times they do not know the exact meaning to...

That night we went to a night market in town, which was organized by my host aunt. It was pretty lovely. My host grandma makes handmade decorations and sends them there to be sold. The lake house has two male pets: Romeo and Giulio. I know it is fantastic. They are quite the duo …. best friends considering the fact that one is a dog and the other is a cat. They sleep together and it is the cutest thing. I have also quickly learned that cats and dogs are best friends… at least in this country they are. You will find that almost every household has a cat and a dog. I like this, kind of shows you how beautiful peace is and would be if it were present in this world between different cultures. Unfortunately, very recently, Giulio died and Romeo was left heartbroken but is holding on.

During this trip, I also helped my host grandma make my first Italian pizza. Another place I got to visit on this trip is called ‘Rocca di Manerba’ which is a mind-blowing space of ancient remains where you find a cross standing on the top and where the view is breath taking.

My second cultural shock occurred when I had to use the bathroom while we were collecting that sea glass I was just speaking about. We found the bathrooms, which were, located in a tiny bathroom house not a disgusting portable bathroom like you would think to find. To my surprise, I think I would have preferred that portable bathroom you find at your city fair in America. I opened the stall and saw no toilet… instead, I saw a hole. “um.. how do I… okay” and my adventure of discovering and experimenting different types of bathrooms all over Europe began. Every bathroom is different. I find myself having to ask whoever I am with how the bathroom in a certain place works as well as sinks since to make the water come out you have to usually search a hidden handle or button. Crazy. Either the flush button or handle is different or in a different location or toilet is there or not or you have to use your feet or your hands or a million different types of bathrooms and I’m just asking myself why they can’t all just agree on one.

Speaking of bathrooms, I am going to hit this subject now… the bidet. “Why the hell do I have two toilets in my bathroom? Maybe one is for girls and one is for guys? but why does one have a sink? Ummmm I'll ignore it.” were my very thoughts when I used our house bathroom for the first time. Here in Italy inside the bathroom you find the regular stuff in addition to a bidet. A bidet is a toilet and a sink put into one looking thing. Italians wash themselves using this after using the toilet. We do not have this. I am not going to lie I think it is a good sanitary system and I agree with them on its importance. However, many Italians use this as an excuse to why taking a shower every day is unnecessary. They also can't believe how "dirty" we must be because we don't have one. I have encountered very smelly people here. I don't get them, they don't get us. We'll leave it that way.
Cultural shocks happen everyday, and everyday you realize just how different a place could be and how much beauty there is in that. I don't even remember what I thought Italy would be like, but I do know that whatever it was... I was wrong. I'm happy I was wrong.
Isabella.