An Open Mind and a Full Stomach

782 1024 Ellen Ensher
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By Hanna Christerson

Being introduced to new cultures and places can be particularly challenging, but the confidence and compassion I’ve gained these five short weeks studying abroad in Rome, convinced me I’m ready to escape my comfort zone. One of the most memorable, eye-opening, and humbling experiences was my visit to see Pope Francis give a Papal Mass inside the Vatican. Seeing crowds of families raising flags from their countries, hearing themed speeches and prayers in different languages, and appreciating the beauty of Saint Peter’s Square makes you forget you’re standing in above 80-degree weather. The Pope comes out to speak to the public almost every Wednesday morning, riding in a car with no bullet-proof frame and blessing children held up by their parents. The difference between the social hierarchy of Italy contrasted to the US, and this particular event made me reflect on the actual differences.  

We learned in my Management class that a US CEO is paid 361 times more than their average employee, while an Italian CEO is paid only 5 times. When comparing this difference, it is important to look at cultural causes and implications. With a unified healthcare system, low university tuition costs, and higher average salaries, Italy did provide its population with more purchasing power and benefits. Another topic we discussed in class was Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory, a framework used to understand the economic and cultural differences of countries. I was particularly interested in one of the six dimensions, individualism, or the “I” versus “We” mentality of a country’s culture. Italy’s score of 76 (more unified) contrasted to the US score of 91 (more individualized). The CEO pay difference is just an example of the economic activity between the two countries reflecting the culture itself.

Learning about Italian culture and economy in the two classes I was taking (Management and Italian 1) connected to my own experience of Italy’s overall collectivism. My time in Rome and visits to cities including Sorrento, Capri, Florence, Naples, and Gaeta, allowed me to gain many social experiences. Talking to baristas at coffee shops, Italian interns, street vendors, wine tour guides, and even other fellow tourists, I noticed several patterns and customs. First thing that stood out to me was the fashion. Everyone, no matter what age or gender was put together with quality clothing, interesting accessories, and nicely done hair. Everyone treated each other similarly and every restaurant had parallel dynamics, making it so you could never really tell how fancy (or expensive) it was. I compared this social difference to America. Maybe it was because Italians naturally took great pride in looking professional, or it was just a coincidence high-end fashion brands appeared as frequent as McDonalds. Then the first weekend I got a sinus infection, eye infection, and a toe injury all at once. Debating whether a doctor’s visit would be worth it in a different country, I looked into the costs. To my surprise, for a home visit and antibiotics, the whole visit ended up being €50 euros. I was shocked by the difference between the healthcare system in the US, where my experience going to a local clinic in LA would require Uber-ing to the clinic, waiting for over an hour, and costing up to $300 or more.

Being able to experience both the cultural and economic scene led me to be more quickly and intensely immersed with the social factors influencing my experience. Battling jet-lag, poor weather, sickness, injuries, new classes, and the overall mental stress of a new place in the first week alone was a lot to juggle, yet not anything surprising. Unexpected situations will happen anywhere you go, but they make for great stories in the end. When I think about my experience of Italy, the most difficult challenge turned out to be choosing which flavor of gelato to get. While my time in Italy was one I’ll never forget, I’m ready to start a new adventure with an open mind and a full stomach.