The real culture shock

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.

  1. Sexism

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 Clubs here are so out of date that they still offer free entry to all women – but men still have to pay?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!

 

 

 

 

 

Some more useful advice

There are so many things I could tell you about preparing for a year abroad, but the truth is that you have to find a lot of it out for yourself. Having said that; there are definitely a few things that it’s better to know sooner rather than later!

1) Do things as soon as you can

This might sound confusing (or a little vague) so let me explain. Through the course of your year you will uncover problems or tasks that you need to complete. Such as: filling in a learning agreement or sending an email to organise a meeting. These seem like such little things that can be left for days at a time, but I guarantee that when you’re having a bad day, these will be the exact same things you’re stressing over! My advice: sort every problem as soon as it arises.

2) Don’t forget things at home 

While you’re away you will still have things to do for your home University  (they may be tiny things, but they are still there). This year I’ve had to make project choices for my 4th year, and I must admit that I almost forgot and definitely pushed it to the back of my mind. It’s easy to do this when you’re not in the place where all these things are happening. Don’t forget that you still belong to your home uni! 

3) Let people know when you’re unhappy 

You will probably be unhappy at some point during your time abroad. Either from exam stress, homesickness or culture shock. There are so many things that could overwhelm you at any time. The best thing to do is to talk to somebody. It can be somebody from home or somebody who’s on your year abroad with you. It could he a friend or family member or it could be a lecturer from either uni. Make sure there is someone, and don’t forget that, although you may feel disconnected, people still care about you, wherever you are! 

Remember that a year abroad will be a huge challenge! I really hope I can get to the end of this year and still say that I reccomend it – I just have to get through exams first! 

Wish me luck! 

Nearing the end 

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s nearly over! I definitely doesn’t feel like so much time has passed here. But now I’ve very nearly reached the end – just an intense revision period and an even more intense exam period and I’ve completed an entire year abroad. I must admit that I’m somewhat proud of myself! 

I have so any different feelings (above all is stress at the moment). I’m so sad to leave this beautiful country and return to normal life. I’m so excited to spend the summer here with no exams to worry about. And I’m so nervous about returning to England. So much has happened in the past year, and I’m constantly shocked when I think about the person I was when I left. I was so scared to get on that plane and leave behind everything and everybody that I knew – but I’d do it again in a heartbeat! I can’t believe how brave I’ve become and how many challenges I’ve overcome. To be totally honest I can’t believe I made it to the end without quitting! (Although I shouldn’t speak too soon – I do have 11 exams!)

Wish me luck! 

The thought of going back

The thought of going back to the UK after this year abroad scares me more than moving here in the first place. When I was moving here it was terrifying, but it was also exciting and I had so much to look forward to – it definitely felt like I was moving forward towards a new place, new friends and new experiences. The other way round is totally different. I’m not sure I’ll be able to reintegrate back into my old university, I feel like I’ve changed a lot in this year and I’m not sure my friends from York will have been through so much change so I’m worried we aren’t compatible anymore. I’m also aware that I’ve slightly drifted apart from some old friends – friends I used to see every day have become a couple of short messages every few weeks. I know I should have made a lot more effort to stay in contact properly – but I have been so busy and it often slips my mind (which I feel bad about), but I assume they are also very busy so I hope there are no hard feelings!

It’s not just going back to old friends that makes me nervous, it’s leaving the ones I made here. I breaks my heart that I’ll have to say goodbye to some of them. Leaving my friends from the UK was easier because I knew I’d be back (if only temporarily) and at least they all live relatively close (the same country at least)! Now I have friends spread over much of Europe and it’s definitely not going to be easy to keep in contact (that’s something I’m not great at anyway!)

I feel like I’ve made such an effort to create a life here and it’s going to be so strange to say goodbye to that and go back home – it feels like all the effort is a little wasted since it will mean nothing to me when I’m not here anymore. My worst fear is that I’ll lose my sense of adventure. Being here means that I’m already out of my comfort zone and so doing things even scarier is not much of a push! When I return home I’ll be back in my immediate comfort zone and I might lose interest in breaking out of it again – and I hope that doesn’t happen. I have dreams to study in Germany and The Netherlands (and who knows where after that) – I don’t know how I’ll keep the adventure alive.

Although I am looking forward to some things too – it will be nice to have lecturers who reply to emails and care about their students. It will be nice to be told if a lecture is cancelled or moved instead of turning up to find out it’s not there. But most of all I’m looking forward to cheddar cheese (and don’t forget bacon!)

 

Che bella Roma 

I finally got a chance to see Rome properly (although I had 3 days there so I’m not sure if that counts as ‘properly’). I was absolutely stunned by the city, but I definitely wish I had learned some more about the Roman empire, and read up on some of the art in the Sistine Chapel. 

The thing that amazed me the most was that there was so much to see. There were hundreds of parts of 2000 year old columns lying around – and people were just sat on them eating their lunch! 

Another thing that I was incredibly impressed by was the Pantheon – the architecture would be incredible even for today, but to have something so incredibly old and well-preserved made me feel privileged just to be able to see it. 

Of course the Colosseum is the most famous part of Rome but I definitely would not say it is the only thing worth seeing! Everywhere you turn in Rome there is something beautiful to stare at, buildings varying from over 2000 years ago – right up to recently.

Also make sure you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain – it means you’re bound to return to Rome one day.

Deciding to move abroad

I constantly have people telling me how ‘lucky’ I am to be living here in Italy; and how ‘lucky’ I am to be able to take day trips to some of the most beautiful cities in the world (Venice, Verona, Florence…), but actually it’s not down to luck at all. I MADE the decision to live abroad and I CHOSE to move to Italy, and I’m proud of myself for that. Moving abroad is not down to luck at all – anyone can do it. So when people tell me how ‘lucky’ I am, I like to remind them that it wasn’t luck that brought me here – it was a decision I made for myself.

People say that it is hard to move abroad – and it is; but in different ways to the ones you may think of. The difficulty was not the moving abroad itself, but in building a new life abroad. The opportunity is open to anyone (admittedly it is so much easier when you’re a student and there’s a study abroad program in place, but it still shocks me that out of about 150 students in my course, only 2 decided to take a year abroad – believe it or not it’s actually cheaper! We only pay 15% of the normal university fee, which is quite a discount for an English university student.). Building your life once abroad is a totally different story – you suddenly have to make new friends in a new language without much help. It takes you the first few months to get over the culture shock and learn how/ where to buy all the things you need.

It is a lot easier that you imagine though – and rather than looking at other people’s photos on Facebook or Instagram in jealousy you can be the one to take the photos! Here are some photos of me and Chloe when she came to visit to inspire you!

 

Learning a Language: Part II

Before I set out on this year abroad I had several ideas of how the language learning process would take place. Firstly I thought that I would just ‘pick up’ Italian – I thought it was impossible for me to spend a year living here and not be fluent by the end of it. I was totally wrong. It is true that you’ll pick up certain things (you would absolutely learn how to order food and coffee) and that you’ll likely learn to understand parts of the language, but I think it was silly of me to assume that I would be able to speak it well without putting in any effort. On average I have ~25 hours of lectures a week, all in Italian, and since I’ve been here for about 5 months (of lectures, about 8 months in total) I think I’ve racked up a massive amount of listening hours, and it is true that I can understand almost everything said in lectures without much difficulty (although a lot of it is specialist terms rather than everyday speech), but unfortunately listening does not transfer directly into speaking without some effort. It’s exactly the same case for reading and writing; I have no trouble reading my lecture notes in Italian – but I would definitely not be able to transfer that to writing.

The second thing that I was totally wrong about is the amount of Italian I would actually speak whilst here. I thought I would speak Italian with everyone here and never speak English, but the problem is that if you are English or fluent in English, it is so much harder to communicate in any other language because usually English is the one common language OR people want to use you to practise their English. I assumed all the Erasmus students would have the same level of Italian and we would all speak it to one another – but I was surprised to find out that since some courses here are in English, some of the Erasmus students have never taken Italian lessons and are starting to learn the language now.

The important thing to remember is that learning a language is not about the time you put in, but about what you do in that time. There are some Italian people here who have studied English for 8+ years and still struggle to communicate effectively and some who have studied it for less but speak it more fluently because they have been more motivated to learn it. You will definitely learn a language faster by being in the country it’s spoken but only if you use your time and resources effectively. Language Tandems are a great way to discover what parts of the language you need to practise and you can offer your language in return. If you have Netflix, it will often change to the Netflix in your current location – meaning there will be many more shows in your target language. There are also a large amount of books available (although you may have to start with children’s books) and so many people to talk to! When I first arrived a girl from my course spoke to me in English straight away because she said people are always much more grateful if you speak to them in their own language rather than making them struggle to speak yours. Never be scared to speak to people in your target language because they will understand that you are only learning and are likely to be very patient with you.

Don’t be fooled into thinking you will simply ‘pick up’ a language with minimum effort just because you are in a country it is spoken; effort is still required, but the learning process will happen faster if you make the most of the resources around you. Also, don’t be disheartened if you think nothing is improving, it’s likely that it still is and you’ll suddenly realise that you understood the episode of the foreign TV series you were watching where a month or 2 ago you could barely understand a word. Also remember that learning a language will happen at different rates for different people so you can’t compare your progress to others.

Bologna’s Best Bits

I would absolutely recommend Bologna as a must-see Italian city. It’s a city still undiscovered by the hoards of tourists and so keeps it’s Italian charm. The food is incredible and you only have to head about 5-10 minutes out of the centre (Piazza Maggiore) to find some incredible Ragù (Bolognese speciality) at an even more incredible price (€7-8). I would recommend the Osteria dell’Orsa as a cheap and welcoming place to get a good plate of Bolognese food – among locals.

Another place I think everyone should visit is a place called ‘San Michele in Bosco’ – where the word ‘bosco’ means forest. Me and a couple friends found it one day after I’d had a terrible exam and were absolutely astonished. The view is definitely the best you will find of the city and there’s usually a maximum of about 6 other people there. Everyone says San Luca is incredible – and I must admit that the church is beautiful – but the view at San Michele in Bosco beats it by far.

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The Biology department: You can find this on Via Irnerio, 48. If you’re at all interested in Biology or the human body, there is a really great (free) mini-museum in this department. It’s slightly gruesome as one room contains hundreds of skulls lined up (presumably in some sort of order) covering all the walls. There’s another room filled with examples and scientific information on all kids of diseases (from smallpox to malformations). It does sound pretty grim – but I think it’s definitely worth a visit.

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Spend a day just wandering the city – it’s absolutely full of secrets and every corner you turn you’ll find something worth a picture. Make sure you go inside as many churches as you have time for as each is a little different from the one before.

If you happen to get bored of the city (which is extremely unlikely) don’t forget that Bologna has the most well connected train station in all of Italy and Venice, Verona and Florence are all less than 2 hours away by train!

P.S. Feel free to add my snapchat: keelerc 

Round II

The new semester started last Monday and I’m beginning it with a positive and highly motivated attitude. I’m already slightly behind as I decided to take a short trip home after exams as a little break, but I’m back – and ready to start work. I’m already feeling better this semester because the weather is much nicer. I’m a person who can’t stand the cold and NOTHING will make me go outside if not absolutely necessary – I try to limit myself to one trip outside every few days to stock up on food and essentials (and maybe go to a lecture or 2 – as long as they aren’t the 8AM ones). Now, however, it’s completely different. I have no trouble getting up at 6 for my 8AM starts, and I really enjoy the walk to and from class which is a bonus.

My language seems to be improving dramatically as I can now understand almost everything said in every lecture (although I’m still unable to passively listen so writing notes at the same time is a struggle). I feel much less scared to have conversations with my course friends in Italian because sometimes I don’t even have to concentrate on translating every word; especially when listening, which I’m really happy about as this was always my weak point. Although some of my friends prefer to speak in English as they want the opportunity to improve – fine by me!

I also have some really great courses this semester; some of which I’d never considered as interests before (I did kind of fall into these though as the courses I initially picked had no online notes at all). I know I have a lot of work to do to make up for my exams of last semester, but I’m feeling positive. You can’t be unhappy when the temperature rose about 10 degrees in a week!

I’ve also got a few exciting things planned such as friends visiting and a trip to Rome(!!) with my mum and little brother. All these things are going to take time away from my studies, but I can’t waste my time in this beautiful country. Today was a hard day – 8AM start and I didn’t finish until 6PM (including one 3 hour lecture!) but I enjoyed it. I’m actually happy to be working all day because it makes my few hours of rest at the end of the day worth it (I do have to be ready for bed by 10PM though for another 6AM wake up!)

 

 

Changes 

As people, we tend to grow and change. I’m not the same person as I was 10 years ago and I won’t be the same 10 years in the future; all we can hope to do is change for the better.

I’ve changed so much since being away. I’ve been changed by my experiences and by the people I’ve met along the way, but I’m proud of the person I’ve become. I’ve become much more open minded and understanding. 

Every time I come back to York  (my home university) and I see my friends, I realise I’m changing – it’s hard to tell when I’m away. I’ve grown up a lot, but deep down I’m still the same – and the easiest way to tell that is that I still connect with my friends the way I did before I left. I’ve had so much life experience and it’s impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t had the chance to live abroad – but it feels incredible! 

It’s great to catch up with old friends and to see how life has moved on without you – although your life has also moved on without them. You lose people along the way but I believe it’s to make space for the better people you’ll meet next. 

Going abroad is absolutely the most incredible experience (and it makes the time back home even more special when it comes). 

Thank you to my friends for (temporarily) welcoming me back and letting me stay! I promise to show off my new cooking skills as a thank you! 

Xxx