Disclaimer: As always, anything written in the post is not intended to offend anyone and merely represents my views as a British Erasmus student in Italy.
In terms of culture shock; I was definitely unprepared.
There were a few things that I’d been told or knew beforehand anyway such as: How passionate the Italians are about food; how unorganised the entire administration system is; and how friendly the Italians are. There were, however, a lot of huge differences between Italy and the UK that really threw me off.
This is a strange one for me because I’m not normally one to talk about sexism. That may sound odd, as anybody who is a frequent reader of my posts will know that I am a female studying physics. I genuinely don’t believe I have dealt with any negative sexism since I started to pursue a serious interest in physics. I say negative because there is positive discrimination – the plus side to being a minority is that there are a lot of opportunities saved especially for women in science. I’m not just talking about science though, I am talking about everyday life. People may disagree with me (and of course that is their right), but for me, the UK feels like a very equal society.
Here, in Italy, I have experienced a very different side of life – and it was a shock! I’ve now gotten used to the fact that it’s almost impossible to go anywhere without being catcalled, shouted ‘ciao Bella’ at, or simply stared at until you’re out of sight. I do not dress inappropriately (not that it should matter what I wear), and I do not aim to attract attention. I’m not talking about walking around late at night after a night out. I am talking about walking to my lectures at 8am with a dress barely shorter than my knees. I am talking about walking to the shop at midday in jeans and a t-shirt. It doesn’t necessarily make me feel unsafe, but it does make me feel a little uncomfortable. Clubs here are so out of date that they still offer free entry to all women – but men still have to pay? I actually found this very creepy and promptly stopped going to clubs.
‘International Women’s Day’ – of course we celebrate this in the UK and I think it’s a great day to celebrate the achievements of women. In Italy it’s different! I did not expect my male friends to all say ‘Happy women’s day’ to me when I arrived at class (not that I didn’t appreciate it!), and I didn’t realise that men were supposed to give all the women in their family a certain bunch of little yellow flowers especially for this day. To me, it was very bizarre, it was as though they had given women one special day to celebrate the fact that they are women. I felt that having this day was a way to push aside all of the issues that face women every other day of the year. All in all, I found it very patronising!
I don’t want to even get into how expensive female hygiene products are (over €5 for a box of 12 tampons…)
I am honestly not the sort of person to point out sexism all the time, I believe that a women can do anything she wants and that it’s up to her to go out and get it. I disagree with hiding behind sexism as an excuse to assume the world is unfair to you. I believe I have a right to say this because I have done something that would be considered as a ‘success for feminism’ by ‘beating gender stereotypes’ and entering a ‘male dominated profession’ – and guess what? It wasn’t hard.
(I do apologise if my above statements offend anyone – please remember they are only my opinions!)
2. Homelessness and begging
I feel terrible writing this paragraph because this year has opened my eyes and made me realise what a sheltered environment we live in, in the UK. I used to naively assume that the homeless problem was not so bad in the UK, but I’ve recently learned that that is not the case. The fact is that it is swept under the carpet in the UK. You are far less likely to see homeless people or people begging there because it’s illegal. It’s also illegal to sleep rough. These are the reasons that it is less likely to come across the problem to the same extent as you do here in Italy. It’s totally normal to be sat having a coffee or eating your evening meal and have someone with a little plastic cup and a sign saying ‘I am hungry, I have no work’ come and stand by you expecting money – even if you are inside a restaurant. The worst thing is that most people won’t even look at them. I hate to say it, but I am one of them. This situation is totally foreign for me and I don’t know what I should do. In a culture that is not my own, I am used to adopting the behaviour of the locals.
3. The Police and Crime
This one may have been a shock to me because I don’t come from a city – maybe the situation is different in London or Manchester. Petty crime is huge here – especially theft, and the police rarely do anything about it (but to their credit, they’re so used to it and they know there’s nothing they can do). Bike and bag theft are the worst. Your bike could be stolen and the next minute it is being sold in one of the squares nearby. There’s nothing you can do about it – even if you see it being sold! The only thing you can do is tell the buyer that it’s a stolen bike (and it’s likely they’ll refuse to buy it as they’re only trying to replace the bike that was stolen from them a week ago!) but calling the police will do nothing. Perhaps they’ll offer to send a car over in 10 minutes – by then it’s too late! Bag theft and pick-pocketing too, in broad daylight. I’ve lost count of how many things my collective group of friends have had stolen. The most recent was a friend of mine walking home one evening and a man cycled past and took her bag right from her arm. She went to the police and they said there was nothing they could do – even though she’d recognised the man.
I think these three point cover the main shocks I’ve received over the past year, but I welcome comments or any other differences you’ve experienced in your year abroad – Just leave a comment!