by Steven Jacobs
I am sure that by now you have heard the saying “studying abroad makes you grow as a person” enough times that it makes you want to pull your hair out. I know I have at least. However, just how Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” being an overplayed song does not make it bad, the inevitable utterance of a variant of this saying at every single study abroad related event does not make its words any less true. Though trite, platitudes like this often hold important truths.
Experiencing meaningful growth while living and/or studying abroad is extremely contingent upon your relationship with the place you are residing in. Become a local. Because locals live somewhere, tourists just reside there. What does it mean to be a local though?
Think about your relationship with your hometown. Whether it is a minuscule village with one café perpetually covered in ice in the tundras of Alaska, or a metropolis like New York with a Starbucks on every corner, you can call yourself, with certainty, a local of that place. You know how to get around (with minimal reference to Google Maps), you’ve got your favorite spots, you’ve created memories there, you’ve left parts of yourself with that place and taken parts of that place with you. It has become apart of who you are. It is possible, but not guaranteed, to have this same kind of relationship with your study abroad location.
There are a few tips that I would like to share with you that will help you during this process.
Learn Italian. Whoa.
I know. Learn a whole language in four months? That’s impossible! You’re right. It is. But you do not need to learn the whole language! Memorizing a few introductory and interrogative phrases to start off will go a long way. Sprinkling some buongiornos, arrivedercis, and per favores will garner you some respect from your interlocutor, even if they speak English, and will most likely win you better service at restaurants and cafés. Remember, the waiters, baristas, hostesses, and cashiers that you interact with are potential buddies! Especially if you are down in Sicily where the people are overflowing with hospitality. If you are able to speak the language with relative fluency, even better. You will be able to show your true self to others and vice versa.
Make friends with locals.
These are the people who will be able to tell you what the city you’re residing in is really like. They’ll tell you: where the locals go to get pizza and where the tourists go to get bread with ketchup and cheese product on top; how those cornstarch custard-filled “cannoli” you’ve been eating at your local Italian-American deli are mere imitations of the traditional Sicilian recipe that dates back to the Arab occupation of Sicily; their opinions on the political state of their country, region, and town; the reason why there are ceramic pine cones, heads with three legs coming out of them (the triskelion), and chili peppers hanging from every other balcony. And most importantly, you will have people to spend time with that will make your experience abroad enjoyable and allow you to feel at home. Feeling at home will ultimately allow you to give yourself to a place which will then in return give itself back to you.
Read the street signs.
Not only will this provide you with a literal sense of place, but it can be rather satisfying to know the name of the via, viale, or vicolo you are walking on, or the name of the piazza, parco, or portico you are drinking your take-away cappuccino in. Additionally, if a lost tourist asks you for directions, you’ll know how to direct them to their destination with more than just reference points. There are few things in life more pleasing than helping a map-bearing, white socks with sandals-wearing sightseer, get to the “PEE-AZA DOMO.” Especially if you are yourself new to the place.
Become a regular.
After you finish your one week coffeepalooza where you try espressi in every café under the sun in order to find the spot with the best balance of customer service, ambience and coffee quality, it is time to settle down. Your café hopping years are over, pal. Try to stick to one or two different joints. This way you will be able to develop a rapport with the staff and they will give you the best service, and maybe even a drink on the house every once in a while.
Develop a routine, but mix it up every so often.
Finding the fastest way to school or work, stopping at the same cannoleria (because that is actually a thing here) every Wednesday afternoon to make it through hump day, and hanging out with the same people every day provides us with an important sense of comfort that actually makes the process of acclimating to a new environment more manageable and less painstaking. However, you run the risk of getting stuck on autopilot and consequently feeling bored. This also prevents you from experiencing new things which is probably one of the reasons you decided to live abroad! So shake things sometimes. Instead of taking the same street everyday to get to class, turn one block later or earlier than you normally do, maybe you’ll see something beautiful or impactful. When you encounter a fork in the road, take the one less traveled by.
Use the public transportation.
“But the buses have graffiti on the windows and I’m pretty sure that now dried yellow substance in the corner of the train car is not lemonade!” Welcome to the real world, my friend. If you can muster up the courage to get past the at times, but honestly seldom, off-putting aesthetic or odor, you will be rewarded tenfold. Not only are the buses, subways, and trains here cheap, but they can bring you almost anywhere. Take advantage of Italy’s 16,000 kilometers of train tracks and explore! The local buses are also great for moving around the cities and towns at an unbeatable price (the bus in Taormina is one euro and ten cents and a round trip fare to Catania will cost you less than 8 euros). Sharing a bus or metro ride with the horde of locals commuting to work will also make you feel more apart of the community. As I say for my hometown, you can’t call yourself a New Yorker unless you’ve been packed like a sardine into an airconditionless subway car in the summer brewing with B.O and gabbling with the cacophony of 9-to-5ers grunts mixed with the conductors’ mantras “please stand clear of the closing doors” or “we’ve got another train right behind us.” Riding the public transportation is a rite of passage for becoming a local anywhere.
How will I know if I have become a local?
When your acquaintances start to become your friends; when your barista starts opening up to you; when you give someone directions; when you feel at home. I could go on listing stuff, but none of these developments together or by themselves necessarily mean that you are or are not a local. It is a relative term anyways that has different meanings for everyone. What it means to you is of the utmost importance. Nevertheless, whilst aiming to become one you will have surely improved your experience abroad and will be a better and more complete person for it.
It may also interest you:
Taormina, Sicily is an ideal location to study abroad for a semester or yearlong program for the student who is interested in total immersion into the Italian culture and language. Host families extend learning during relaxed dinner conversations during the traditional Sicilian meals provided.
International internship programs in Taormina, Sicily provids a meaningful professional hands-on experience allowing students to build their knowledge of the global workplace, enhance intercultural skills and boost employment desirability. All internships programs are conducted in Italian.