My STEP signature project was about going to a city called Lecce, in Apulia Italy for a study abroad. My main activities were studying the Italian language and culture, learning how to cook authentic Italian food, traveling to different cities in southern Italy to learn about their history, main dishes and landmarks , and engaging in diverse art forms that Italians take pride and joy in. I also wanted to see the similarities of my Dominican culture and Italian culture seeing how both use romance languages.
The changes that took place while I was abroad were mind blowing. I always wanted to test my speaking and comprehension skills of the language outside of a classroom setting on the Ohio State campus and that is exactly what this experience gave me. Ultimately, I have been studying Italian for two years and it has definitely paid off. I understood what people were saying except the dialect of different regions and cities of how Italians spoke was never taught to me, so I had to learn it by engaging with other Italians and my host family. One of the things that really changed my way of thinking was the way that Europeans and Italians think about Americans and the way we think about them. I went into Italy not having many expectations except thinking I was going to see some part of the Italian mafia there because I was in southern Italy. It was very silly and stereotypical for me to think that way. I experienced culture shock in a way I never thought I would.
The way that the pasta was made in Italy compared to the American version of the dish was one of the biggest culture shocks I had. Their pasta is made with the bare essentials: pasta, olive oil, and sweet tomato sauce. The way we make our pasta involves extra seasoning and combines meat with the pasta sometimes, when in Italy that is incorrect. In Italy there are five courses that come with lunch and dinner. First comes the first dish which will usually be pasta. The second dish are the meats. Third dish is a salad. Fourth dish are fruits and the fifth dish are desserts. All of this happens in one sitting and my mind and stomach were not prepared or trained to pace myself while I ate because in Dominican culture, we eat everything all together, except for the fruits and desserts. Immediately in my cooking class, the chef shut down the idea of what we think is Italian food. Alfredo sauce, spaghetti and meatballs, and chicken Parmesan are all made up by Americans. After that moment I realized how much American culture has altered the culture of another. I tried to keep my mind open to all the things they had to say about their rich and beautiful culture and country so that I would not offend and respect what they believe in.
This culture shock I experienced is significant because in America there are many different beliefs, cultures and customs in one country that we all have to respect and learn to live with. This trip has also taught me how to be aware of my surroundings more and use my street smarts to navigate through a city with only walking the path one time. Because I had a darker complexion than most Italians and am female, at night while walking home I would often be mistaken as a prostitute. I honestly got stopped three different times by men that would ask me something, but I was so nervous that I automatically said no and tried walking faster and eventually changed the route I walked home.
While I was there I learned a few things that I still do to this day. My hygiene was not terrible nor bad, but I personally feel like it has gotten better. For example, here in North America, we use only two towels in the bathroom. One for your hands and the other one is for our whole body. In Italy, there are towels for your hands, body, face, and private area. This changed my way of washing my face and taking showers. Now I use one towel for my body and the other specifically for my face so I feel cleaner knowing that the oils from my body are not mixing with my face to make my acne worse. Another change was my diet. Since all the food in Apulia comes from their own backyard, I was eating fresh food everyday without all the extra bacteria and GMO’s. I felt that I had more energy and I was usually in a good mood. It took three miles to walk home or 40 minutes from school which was in the historical center of the city. My sleeping habits got better too. Since there is time in the day specifically for sleeping, it did not make me feel guilty that I was missing a certain event or anything. I felt so refreshed after sleeping and I never realized how much naps can help change my mood. In the Dominican Republic, siesta and the different towels in the bathroom are still used until this day and never realized that other countries would practice similar lifestyles.
Some assumptions I had about Italians before going were that were all going to be tan, very family oriented and that they talked the way that most people would make fun of. My first assumption was wrong. Most Italians are fair skinned. Some have blond hair and blue eyes and others have brown or black hair with brown eyes. The way they got tan was actually incredible to me. They would put on sunscreen and then just sit in a chair at the beach and just lay there until they looked like a hotdog in the microwave. Instead of turning brown, they turned into a dark red and then the next day have a tan. My second assumption was correct, but to a certain extent. In southern Italy, my assumption was right because they still continue the traditions and customs that all Italians used to have. In northern Italy they are not that close with family and life is compared to the United States by being a fast paced, busy lifestyle. The way they talk is literally what we hear when someone imitates an Italian. I did not want to believe all the stereotypes until I saw and experienced it myself. One thing I did not expect was the amount of smoking. Almost every Italian smokes and it was everywhere. Honestly, I thought by the time I got home I would have lung cancer from all the second hand smoke I inhaled. For example, my host mom would buy three packs of cigarettes, Linda brand, and smoke almost half a box a day. Something ironic I found was that my host dad smoked and he is a lung doctor at the hospital.
My view of the world changed by the way the news was portrayed differently in Italy than in the United States and how they care about other parts of the world. The news in Italy had to do with different regions of Italy and other parts of the world. For instance, when the shootings happened in Orlando, the Lecce community held a vigil for everyone that was killed and it surprised me because it was something that had nothing to do with them. The news also talked about American politics and even had their own discussions about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Although the news in the United States show other countries, we do not leave them as the main story for the whole show. When the bombings in different parts of Europe and the shooting of Philando Castile in the United States happened these were the main stories in their news. It shocked me that they truly care of other parts of the world.
This trip and the personal changes I have encountered matter because they help me with my academic, personal and professional goals. My study abroad helped me fulfill my requirements for minor. Personally, it fulfilled my dream of studying abroad and seeing a different part of the world I never thought I would get to see. Professionally, this experience has made me more open-minded to different customs and how to adapt to things faster. Also, this experience has made more marketable for the job market as I am now trilingual.