Italy Snapshot: Otherness

I remember the first time I got home from Italy in the spring of 2005.  We flew into D.C. and the first thing I saw as I got off the plane and onto the escalator to customs was a huge American flag.  I almost cried.  I was that glad to be back in the U.S.A.  I enjoyed my visit to Italy, but I honestly didn’t think I would ever want to go again.  Why?

I think the answer lies is “otherness.”  Everything in Europe is different.  There’s the language barrier of course.  Every time I go to Europe I come home determined to work on mastering at least one foreign language.  I haven’t done it yet, but I am getting more and more familiar with the sound and pronunciation of Italian.  It doesn’t seem so strange to me anymore.  The language issue is expected, though.  It’s all the unexpected differences that get to you.

I never expected everything to be so much smaller.  Cars, rooms, beds, towels, streets, toilets, cups of coffee and food servings, all of them are small.  Because space is at a premium, everywhere feels crowded.  The constant press of humanity can be stifling.  Italians do not really stand in lines.  Whether it’s a coffee bar or a gelato shop, its pretty much every man and woman for themselves.  Little things like this can be exhausting to deal with on a daily basis.

Bathroom issues can be a hassle too.  Not only are toilets small, they are also few and far between.  They are not even available at all restaurants and often when they are available, men and women share the same hand washing facilities.  It feels really strange to stand and wait for a man to finish washing his hands so you can have your turn at the sink.  It is other than we are used to and does not fall within our comfort zone.  Often the only bathrooms you can find charge a fee or have an attendant you are expected to pay.  I have learned to like these places, though, because they are usually cleaner than most. Some of our students refuse to pay to use the bathroom.  It angers them and they just decide instead to “hold it” indefinitely. My nine pregnancy/five delivery bladder cannot withstand that kind of treatment. I pay. One of the happiest things about arriving back on U.S. soil is going into one of our clean, free bathrooms with rows and rows of stalls and plenty of toilet paper.  What luxury!

Finding food can be a challenge…well, not finding food because it’s Italy and food is everywhere, but actually procuring the food can be difficult.  Most places require you to go to the check out and pay first, then you take your receipt to the coffee bar or serving area and present that to the person behind the counter and receive your item.  This seems way too complicated to Americans.  If you want to sit down, you will pay extra.  Sometimes the food itself costs more and other times they bring you a basket of bread you did not request and charge you a high fee for it.  Occasionally they will actually list the cover charge on the menu, but only on the inside menu, not on the one posted outside the door.  All of this can be intimidating and it’s often easier to grab a slice of pizza or a panini from a cart.  A week of pizza, pasta and sandwiches can do interesting things to your digestive system.  You also have to check out the label on the bottled water.  Most Italians prefer their water “fizzy.”  You have to ask for “still.”  Watching people who do not know this take their first long drink of bottled water is, I must admit, amusing.

Another difference is age.  Everything is old.  I don’t mean 1700’s old, I mean really and truly old.  The dome on the cathedral in Florence had been finished for several years by the time Columbus discovered America.  Yeah.  It’s mind boggling.  Also the churches are, for the most part enormous and most of them have no pews.  They are also completely different inside.  They are beautiful, but they are full of candles burning before pictures of saints whose stories most of us Protestants have never heard.  It feels very unfamiliar.

Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way and cars zoom down streets we would consider to be alley ways.  I am always amazed that no one in our group gets hit by a car.  It seems like it is always more likely than not.

All of these things can result in an eagerness to return to our own world, to the known and familiar.  I see it every year.  I remember what it felt like.  Now, after six trips to the old country, I know that all of these things are part of the adventure.  They all add up and work together to make travel a growing experience.  What we learn is more than worth the trouble.   It also helps us to fall in love again with our own land, to see the many blessings God has given us and that can be a good thing, too.

The Duomo at the end of a medieval street in Florence

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