So, the past week and a half has been very… interesting, exciting, scary, overwhelming, mind-blowing, awing, amazing, and overwhelming… did I already say that? Ha, which is part of why I am a little behind on my posting. Sorry, people. As transitions go, this is certainly no walk in the park. New country, new language, new people, on top of missing home country, home language, and home people has not been easy. I won’t lie to you, loyal readers — I have had some tough days. But I must say that as far as first weeks go in a new country, especially while fighting through my homesickness and broken heart, in retrospect, it has been pretty amazing.
I figured I would talk mostly about cultural things and differences in this post and save some more of the fun stuff for later (but don’t worry, there is still plenty of fun to go around). So, my biggest window into sharing cultures and gaining a more worldly perspective so far has been through my Italian Intensive Language Course offered here by Bocconi, 5 hours a day Monday through Friday until academic classes start, then night and weekend classes for another week after that. Now, as you can imagine, 5 hour classes starting at 9:30 in the morning that are spoken in a language few members of the class can speak at higher than an elementary level can be a little boring…. to put it nicely. But as people have been known to bond together through agonizing experiences, my class has become somewhat close-knit over our past 10 days together. This melting pot of world travelers studying at the University includes an equal mix of Brazilian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Canadian, and American students, all being taught by an Italian teacher. While we all come from different places and walks of life, we have found things in common that have created the beginning of some beautiful friendships. I have been pleasantly surprised (especially given all of the American stereotypes I am trying to kill off) that our different cultures don’t separate us, but instead bring us together with an attitude of curiosity and open mindedness. Spending time in and out of class, going during our break time to get lunch together, and hanging out in the park on a nice weekday night has really been meaningful to me. Sharing customs, jokes, games (I played my first game of European soccer on Tuesday and it was sick; 1 goal and 1 assist)… We have been able to learn a lot about each other and where we come from.
Besides learning about everyone else and where they are from, I have also learned a lot about myself and where I am from. The first week I was here, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine from Barcelona about Milan and studying abroad, and in the course of the conversation, I asked:
“What do you hope to get out of being here? What are your goals?”
Needless to say, his answer shocked and made an impression on me, or I wouldn’t be writing about it now. He said: “That is a very American question, John,” in a cool Spanish accent that I’m slightly jealous of. “Americans are so goal oriented, always looking for the outcome… I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing, ” he continued. “Americans are very driven and motivated, so they accomplish a lot, but sometimes they forget to stop and look around.”
So I thought about my response… and I thought, and then when I thought I knew what to say, I thought a little bit more… and I finally said, “You’re right.”
I was impressed by his insight in evaluating my culture, and I was taken aback by the true realization that Americans frequently miss what is most important in life. Europeans value things much differently than Americans in terms of success. In terms of time and efficiency, they are polar opposites; just being in Italy for a week has driven a control freak like me to insanity because of the inefficiency, constant strikes, and seemingly pointless bureaucracy. But I must say, in many ways, they are happier people. They are more welcoming, less competitive and cutthroat, and often very relaxed. Whereas Americans get annoyed by foreigners who don’t know English, Italians welcome foreigners and are always eager to explain and help them learn. I hope while I am here, I can continue to develop myself in a way that allows me to hold both my goals for success and my values of a happy and enjoyable life on an even plane. I will not be disloyal to my beloved America, but I will also not be naïve enough to believe we always know best. Everything about this is a learning experience, and the first thing I am learning about is my own perspective on life.
Words of wisdom: like flavors of gelato, we are all made from different things, but we are all very good in our own way.