Mar 27, 2014

A Personal Experience Gone Public: How the Media Negatively Affects Students Studying Abroad (Taylor Fitzpatrick)

Before traveling outside of the United States and Canada, my concept of America was most probably consistent with the pop-culture stereotypes. I considered it a melting pot, a leading political power, the land of the free, as well as a symbol of hope and opportunity.  Moreover, when I tried to picture a typical American, it conjured up images of obese, lazy, greedy, stupid and ignorant people with little consideration of or tolerance for differences in other individuals, lifestyles, societies, and cultures. 
            I found that my peers both at home and on this trip have or previously had a similar concept of America and what it means to be an American.  Since traveling, my concept of America(ns) has been confirmed in some regards, primarily through the realization that most citizens of other countries view America almost exactly by my previous definition.  However, some components of that schema have altered.  After realizing how far this stereotype had traveled, I began to question it.  The worldliness of this conception frustrated me.  Did I automatically embody all these negative attributes?  Was that the first thing people saw when they met me?  I began to think of all the people I knew that weren’t obese, lazy, greedy, stupid, and ignorant.  I came to the conclusion that Americans can’t achieve too strong, specific, or narrow of a stereotype since the collective population entertains every stereotype across the board.  I found some of the attributes of my previous American stereotype to be also present in other cultures.  Eventually, my concept of America and Americans became much weaker and broader.
            Then, when I was asked to define Italy and Italians according to my own concept, the first images brought to mind were overly romantic scenes enriching and tantalizing to every sense.  The taste of the olive oil, the smell of the Chianti, the feel of the supple leather, the whimsical sensation of walking down narrow, “Disney-like” streets with brightly colored apartments and a street violinist playing in unison with my footsteps. I pictured old, Italian men, complete with their short stature, mustaches, and explicit hand-gestures, sweeping the streets in front of their family-owned bakeries.  I pictured very heavy-set, Italian mothers creating overly abundant, culinary masterpieces for their very large and very emotionally involved families.  Furthermore, I thought of Italy (particularly Florence) as “the museum of the world” that would contain all the richest history and the artwork I would find to me my favorite in the world and most pleasurable to my senses. 
            Content with the romance of these images, I never dared to let my mind wander behind the scenes of the façade that is Italy to give anything the chance to taint my completely inaccurate portrait of perfection.  However, now that I have been living “behind the scenes of the façade,” I’ve been forced to taint the perfect painting, or should I say ‘buon fresco’.  I’ve been first-handedly exposed to the faults and downsides of Italy.  I’ve become aware of many accounts of political turmoil through protest and conversation.  From my experiences, it does not seem outlandish to say that the majority of Italians are dissatisfied with at least a few aspects of the current government system.  I have been exposed to the unfortunate unemployment statistics causing Italian “children” to live with their parents even into their 30s. I have also experienced first-handedly and witnessed the incredible bouts of sexism and vulgarity towards women that my mother warned me about.
            Moreover, now that I’m burnt out from visiting museums, I realize why I never went to them in the first place.  I’ve purposely neglected all but a few that America has to offer.  My hometown in the middle of nowhere in Connecticut has museums as well, but I’ve never made as much of an effort to explore them as I have while in Florence.  Why couldn’t it be possible for me to like the contents of the museums at home more than the contents of the museums in Florence? Does renaissance artwork have to be the best in everyone’s opinion?  Do I have to travel all the way Pisa to take a picture with a particular building, even though I know nothing about the building itself and Pisa has nothing else at all to offer me aside from it.  That’s one expensive and meaningless photograph.  I thought it was called “The Leaning Tower of Pizza” when I was kid for God’s sake.      
            This realization helped me bring Italy (and Europe for that matter) down from the pedestal that I had put it on.  I was taking a picture to participate in a Rite of Passage. So that others could look at my Instagram photo and be envious of me, like I was of them when they were studying abroad. 
            Without these images of perfection blinding my view, I was able to see Italy (and Europe) for what it really was.  This has helped me, once again, confirm and disconfirm some of the aspects of my initial concept of Italy.  Some confirmed facets of my conception are the extreme sexism present in Italian culture – more than I have ever experienced in America or elsewhere. 
            On a lighter note, I’ve also confirmed their slow pace of life and active participation in “the art of living”.  I can also confirm that yes, the food the good. They way they live is decadent and fabulous.  It is in the moment. They appreciate the conversation and linger on your words while Americans blink their vacant eyes and nod just waiting for their turn to speak.  They treasure hospitality. Their need to express their emotions (exteriority) is also hard to miss and you witness small personal bouts of theater in the streets – anything from a beautiful young couple kissing on the steps of Santa Croce to an enthusiastic and passionate debate next to the carousel in Piazza Della Republica.  The stereotype of Italians expressive hand gestures is also confirmed.