IV: The Beginning
By Bridget Meade
Last time I traveled abroad, I spent a few days at the beginning of my trip in Edinburgh, Scotland. A friend from high school was living there and took us to the best places in town tourists would not know of otherwise. My first few days in Viterbo have been similar.
The USAC office in Viterbo contacted me the day of my departure, making sure I had a place to stay until my program started. I had also spoken with my thesis advisor, Donica, who gave me her local number and told me to contact her if I needed anything or wanted to see a familiar face.
After several restless nights prior to departure and eighteen hours of travel, I arrived in Viterbo Friday afternoon extremely jetlagged. I spent most of the time on my flights chitchatting with my seatmates, the last of whom is an Italian born astronomy professor at UMass. Mauro showed me pictures of Italian bread made with wine and chocolate, and most importantly, where to get coffee.
“At a bar,” he said. “It also serves alcohol too but go to one for a cappuccino first.”
It turned out my first cappuccino would have to wait until the next morning. I woke up at 4 a.m. Saturday morning. Even though it was the first eight hours of sleep of sleep I had in weeks, I was still tired. The night before I realized that my professor was right, not many people in Viterbo speak English. While I don’t expect to be able to communicate perfectly, basic understanding helps when one is tired and confused about what to do in a restaurant. I found myself dreading trying to order food later on.
Twenty minutes later, I received an email from Marco, a USAC coordinator in Viterbo, telling me he would meet me at my hotel around noon for a quick orientation. He explained how to get an Italian cell phone, asked what time I woke up that day, and showed me where my professor and family lives.
Donica and her family invited me to their house for dinner that night. It turned out that Saturday night was La Notte Bianca, a modern festival in which performers dance and sing, stores stay open until midnight, and people meander through the alleys. Each piazza had stages set up with people singing and dancing. In Piazza Dante Alighieri, the neighborhood parish celebrated San Giovanni with dinner and dancing. Old men twirled women around the piazza, children chased each other, and a small dog told dancers what he thought of their moves. He barked at people until they acknowledged him and then ran.
My professor and her family told me about where to find handmade pasta, the best gelato shop, and where to go for fruit and vegetables. They cautioned me against the “supermarket” students tend to gravitate toward, as the quality and prices in small stores are better.
“The smaller stores require you to speak Italian,” Donica’s husband said. “I suppose some students want to avoid those situations.”
We laughed about crossing streets in Italy. Pedestrians in Italy do not have the same luxury American pedestrians do. Marco, the USAC coordinator, cautioned me to be confident when crossing the street. If one hesitates, they will never be able to go anywhere. I learned this is true for “bars” as well. Waiting to be served doesn’t work and I have learned to push my way forward. Once I figured this out, it was not especially difficult. My desire for caffeine and food usually overrules any shyness I experience.
As I wander around Viterbo, I am reminded of some experiences from previous trips. For example, the unmistakable smell that comes from shops and apartments. I can’t say it is pleasant but it means I am somewhere new. Europeans also have a different attitude on smoking. According to my professor who has spent a lot of time here, it’s improved over the years but it still prevalent.
“In America, it’s almost acceptable to look at to someone who lights up near you,” I remarked. “However, here, I have to remind myself it is normal and do my best not to make a face.”
I also remember noticing that people are just people. We all have similar experiences, even if our rules and languages are different. Groups of teenage girls make their way through crowds in Italy much like American girls do; close together, carefully eyeing who is around them. Children get tired and sleep on the walk home. Old men dance their way into a coffee shop. Okay, that might be more likely to happen in Italy but I suspect that happens in America too. I’m just usually at home where anyone seldom dances his or her way to coffee.
One can make such observations and attend town events like Notte Bianca when traveling in a place where they do not know anyone. It’s not difficult to watch other people interact while wandering around or observe how others cross the street or order coffee then mimic their actions. However, without Donica and Marco, I would not have understood last night’s events as well or known the names of the piazzas I spent time in Saturday night. Sure, paying more attention to my map and take notes would help but it’s not my style. I would not have had less time to make observations about my environment and would not enjoyed myself as much.
Bridget Meade is an Interactive Journalism graduate student at the Reynolds School of Journalism. She decided to pursue her Master’s in Journalism after she discovered personal blogging several years ago. As a result of online communities like 20-Something Bloggers and the new friends she met all over the world, Bridget’s interests expanded and she redefined her personal and professional goals. Her interests are in social media, specifically Twitter, technology, and networked news. She enjoys snarky humor, the ocean, all things Italian, wine, and time with her 90 lb German Shepherd, Keo.