I was particularly interested to learn that Guide 9, and this weeks’ assignment, focused on societal values, as this was the topic of discussion in my sociology class last week. The class discussion was the perfect backdrop to this assignment, as I have found taking sociology, at an institution that truly costs students from all over the world, to be a very meaningful learning experience. When I first read the assignment to interview a local last week, I was entirely unsure who would be not only appropriate to chose, but able to speak English and willing to speak with me. Nonetheless, I kept the task at hand in the back of my mind as I went about my daily routine.
There is a community center just around the corner from my street, and I pass the small, unobtrusive entrance everyday on my way to school. I usually peer in, curious about the open-air garden I see inside. I could tell there were certain covered areas, but generally the atmosphere looked casual; there were usually just several members of the older generation sitting around tables, chatting, sometimes playing cards, always enjoying each others company. As I passed yesterday, with the task at hand, I was compelled to wander in. The sign outside said “community center,” after all, and surely if I was not welcome someone would let me know (this was something I’ve learned about Italians – there are more than happy to invite you to leave).
I approached a table of people chatting away in Italian, consumed by conversation. I asked if any of them spoke English, and amongst the group only one older gentleman affirmed that he did. Dario, who I guessed was in his late sixties, although it can be hard to tell with Italians, was more than happy to talk to me. Generally, the younger generation is much more likely to be fluent in English than the older generation here in Italy, but as Dario explained to me, his many years in a somewhat nondescript government job required his proficiency in the language.
The very first value contrast listed in the Guide particularly struck his attention. Dario seemed almost offended by how the way Americans embrace change was portrayed. Even in the United States, most older people will be less likely to embrace change than the young, but Dario said that Italians value tradition above ‘meaningless’ modifications to the way of doing things. His eyes lit up with pride as he described the importance of continuing in the way passed down by generations before.
The conversation also became very interesting as number 5 came up, listed ‘independence versus dependence.’ Again, Dario had a strong reaction at the notion that staying in the family home longer than an American would displayed dependence. The incredible importance of family ties, again tradition, and shared time was evident. Having multi-generation homes is much more common in Italy than the United States, and Dario specifically spoke to the value of regular shared meals. Eating is of upmost importance here, and not just for the food. In restaurants, waitors will intentionally pace courses so that an entire meal takes many hours. This is because the shared time is just as valuable as the food. The same is true in the home, where, as Dario explains, everyone shares in the meal.
The concept of direct versus indirect questioning, number 9, I was confident I knew what a local would say before the topic came up. As I predicted from my observation of the locals in my last month here, Italians are, if anything, much more comfortable with direct dialogue than Americans. I have often observed them snapping at each other one minute, and expressing affection the next. This is simply because, as Dario explained, no one feels the need to soften a message, when plain language can be used.
I often feel uncomfortable because I cannot participate in the language that is spoken. Despite my Italian classes, my conversational skills have only improved mildly. Because I looked Italian, when I am on my own, people tend to assume that I am, and start speaking to me rapidly in a language I cannot understand. I usually just apologize, and excuse myself. This wonderful opportunity to sit down with Dario allowed me to communicate about another culture, on anothers’ ‘turf’, yet in my own language, so that I could be an active participant. There was great value in sitting down with him beyond my own personal gain. I hope that it allowed the members of my immediate community to see me as a genuine individual, rather than an assuming outsider.
Sadly, as I was not planning to stop in that day, I was unable to capture an image with him. Instead I decided to include an image of the fountain in the center of the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, a central point for my community, which I grew closer to through this experience.