Italy Roundtable: What I’ve Learned from Italy

by Jessica on September 13, 2011

by | September 13th, 2011  

Now that I’m an adult, September is one of my favorite months of the year – harvest festivals, a slight crispness to the evening air, and the promise of shoulder season travel bargains.

When I was a kid, however, September meant only one, dreary thing – going back to school.

Even if you’re a nerdy kid like I was, going back to school after a long break can be a bit of a bummer. It’s not without a sense of irony, then, that I’ve come to love travel most of all for what it teaches me.

For this month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable topic, we decided to go with the timely theme of “back to school” or, more generally, “what Italy can teach.” Since I talked about how Italy teaches me patience in the very first Roundtable installment, I scratched my head about what I might write this time.

After a few drafts, I finally hit upon what I wanted to say this month, and although this post is a bit of a riff on my first Roundtable post, it explores an element of Italian culture that I haven’t talked about before. I hope you’ll forgive me the slightly nuanced (and very introspective) re-take on what I’ve learned from Italy.

Life is a Choose Your Own Adventure Book

As a kid, I cheated my way through Choose Your Own Adventure books. Leaving one finger at the decision point, I’d skip ahead to first one and then the next outcome in the book, making my decisions based on an ability to see the future.

I am, if it’s not obvious, a cautious person. I measure twelve times and then contemplate not cutting after all. I avoid quasi-risks. I have, I’m fond of saying, always been old and boring. Reading ahead in those Choose Your Own Adventure books was but one manifestation of my inability to just close my eyes and take a friggin’ leap already.

In some ways, travel helped force me into taking leaps. I learned during a meandering attempt to navigate my way across the outskirts of Paris by myself that when one is lost in the French capital one need only go into the nearest Metro station to, eventually, get back on track. This revelation came after quite a long time spent wandering, lost, through Paris streets, growing increasingly (though quietly) panicked about finding my way back to my cousin’s house. As scared as I was to be lost, I was also terrified to ask for help – so I just kept walking, resolutely and relentlessly forward. When I saw another Metro sign, a big light bulb went off in my head, and since that day I’ve been a firm believer in the idea that there’s no such thing as being lost. It may take you a bit longer to get from wherever you are to wherever you want to be, but there’s a way.

There’s always a way.

Real life doesn’t give us the ability to pause, scout the road ahead and see whether one path or another is safer, then return to the decision point and proceed from there. There’s no way to leave a finger between pages and peruse your options two or three steps down the line before making your choice. In real life, decisions are to be made right here and now, and sometimes without any time for deliberation.

While travel in general continues to give me ample opportunities to hone my skills at getting past decision paralysis, at making choices without over-thinking things, Italy in particular has given me a new way of looking at each decision I make.

Italians are famous for bending the rules. You can dig up statistics about how few Italians pay their taxes, either at all or in the amount they ought to based on their income. Schoolkids are more or less expected to cheat on exams, to the point that the concept of “cheating” doesn’t even exist in the same way in the Italian language as it does in English. The government is assumed to be corrupt, with politicians rather publicly using their positions to garner personal wealth and power. Outsiders often see the general disinterest in changing the way things are done as apathy, while many Italians will tell you it simply doesn’t matter who’s in power or what they say they will or won’t do – nothing changes. As a result, they take care of their own, no matter what the “rules” say.

An Italian friend of mine once said that whereas most people treat rules and laws as borders that dictate where they can and can’t go, Italians treat those same markers as so many poles on a slalom course – they’re forever dodging their way in and out, trying to find the best route down the hill without deviating so far off-course as to draw attention. They’re not hemmed in by decisions other people make, let alone their own decisions. Problems that pop up aren’t barriers that prevent forward movement, they’re road blocks to work around.

There’s always a Plan B. Even if you don’t know what that Plan B is. There’s always a way.

I will likely always struggle with making snap decisions or taking great leaps of faith, but the more time I spend in Italy and with Italians the more I realize that even if I make the wrong choice I can – most of the time – find myself a Metro station and get to where I want to be in the long run.

What have you learned from Italy?

Other Voices from the Italy Blogging Roundtable

Find out what the other members of the Italy Blogging Roundtable conjured up when they thought about “back to school” in Italy. Click the links below to read their contributions to the Roundtable, and leave comments to join in the conversation. Tune in next month for another Roundtable round-up.

Italy Blogging Roundtable Archives:

photos, top to bottom, by: Cea., Photocapy, Aloriel


{ 2 comments }

Gloria September 13, 2011 at 11:20 pm
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I like the image of rules being poles on a slalom course for us! LOL Mostly true, but because most rules make no sense and make our life just so much harder. Italy can be well described as “complicazioni cause semplici”: simple things made complicated! LOL

Something interesting you mention is the concept of “cheating” in school. That’s the norm rather than the exception, unfortunately. At least making an attempt to it. I am a teacher and drives me insane and makes my life so much harder… but I have to say that you also have to look at it with an “anthropological eye”. When I went to the States to teach, when I gave out the final exam sheet, I said what I always say to my classes in Italy: “You have two hours, don’t cheat”. They looked at me like I was from another planet. And I was!
People in Italy has been bullied for centuries by the authorities… be it an emperor, a foreign king, some local lord, a dictator or greedy politicians. Therefore, Italians in general have no faith in the authorities and assume that people in command are just there for their personal advantage and are to be – at minimum – opposed, fooled if possible. This is reflected in any sector: students vs. teachers, drivers vs. traffic policemen, etc.

This attitude also creates a “corporative interest”: I found students in the States to be extremely competitive. And that’s understandable. Merit counts for something. Students in Italy are extremely cooperative. They help each other against the power (the teacher) and the injustices that they are certain they are going to suffer (in their minds of course – in reality they are just like any other student in the world… you study, you pass). They help each other, because they have no hope to get any help from the authorities: passing an exam is a victory over the system. This of course is a wrong attitude and a wrong perspective, but it’s kind of understandable in a place where merit is practically worthless and people have had to struggle to get anything they have…
(Sorry for the long comment!)

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Jessica September 14, 2011 at 1:05 pm
Corner

Thank you so much for your comment, Gloria! I agree with you, it’s impossible to talk about cultural differences like this in a vacuum – so the note about how the people have been bullied by those in power for centuries, and how the Italian rules “make no sense” which is why they’re so often ignored, those are absolutely things I had in mind when I wrote this. I definitely didn’t want to come across as being judgmental, merely observing differences I used to find difficult to understand that now seem to make more sense.

I think your point about the cooperative/competitive aspect of school is an interesting one, and one I’d never thought of – it seems really true, though, and that atmosphere sets our two countries up for much of what we see in how people treat one another as well as how they deal with people in positions of power. It’s all so fascinating to this sociology major! :)

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