I don't think I've ever felt so disconnected in my life. Although Italy certainly isn't Third World-even if Naples sometimes seems like it is-most of the time I have no idea what's going on outside the crumbling Roman walls surrounding the outskirts of Florence.
As a self-professed news junkie and e-mail fiend, I'm used to being accessible and plugged in at all times. But my apartment's promised Internet connection isn't set up and Italian MTV (one of the few channels I get) doesn't typically provide the most relevant news. I do, however, enjoy an occasional episode of seasons-old Real World.
A phone call from my mom Sunday intensified my sense of detachment-she asked how the death of Luciano Pavarotti was affecting the country. Although the great Italian tenor died last Thursday in nearby Modena, it took my mom calling from the United States for me to learn about the local news.
In some ways it's remarkably refreshing not to know what's going on all the time. Fervently following politics or all things Duke-not surprisingly-hasn't seemed as important since I've been abroad. And perhaps it has even eased the transition from an American lifestyle to an Italian one as part of the out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon. It seems that Italians themselves are actually this detached from American news-I was shocked to find that one of my professors hadn't heard of the now-infamous Duke lacrosse case.
But in a strange way, this removal from my normal day-to-day habits has also allowed me to enjoy the simple aspects of actually living here.
Rather than spending my time Skyping or catching up with friends on Facebook from within the walls of my spacious Italian dwelling, my roommates and I are trying to be residents of the city instead of tourists hoping to visit the major sites without accepting full cultural immersion.
We've found that one of the best ways to soak up the culture is-not surprisingly, of course-to steer clear of the touristy parts of the city in the historic center and instead visit the nearby food markets, where most merchants speak to us in Italian not because they actually think we're natives, but because they don't speak English-a rare thing in Florence. Just as tourists come to America to absorb the so-called McDonald's culture, participating in the tradition of market life allows us to experience a thing of the medieval Florentine past.
While charming old women might add an extra tomato to your order in exchange for a smile and an attempt to speak Italian, other merchants see American customers as an opportunity to profit. In one of my few unpleasant moments here, I fell into the old "bait-and-switch" trick when I purchased an expensive (and overpriced) electronic item. When I returned and asked for a refund, the store owner-who had previously spoken fairly good English-reverted to a broken tongue and would only exchange the product. Cash refunds? Never in Italy, she said.
Whereas in the United States shop-owners bend over backwards in order to please the customer, in Italy, several of the merchants I've encountered insist that they set the rules and are oblivious to the concept of costumer satisfaction as long as they make the final sale. These moments are rare, but disarming, and stir a longing for home.
And often, the strange facets of Italian life make me reminisce about what Duke-in-Durham would have been like for the semester. Even though some freedoms-like the lower drinking age-are liberating, others seem strange and nonsensical. For example, wine is practically cheaper than water here. A can of Coke, however, costs several dollars. Italians don't turn off the lights or lack air conditioning out of a concern for the environment-the government will literally shut off the electricity if usage exceeds 3,000 watts per residence-a fact I learned from personal experience. In other words, don't bother turning on your laundry machine if one of your roommates is blow-drying her hair-unless you want to be in the dark.
You'd never know that Italy had national quiet hours considering how loud everything is-you can hear street conversations and motorcycles zooming by from the third story of buildings-but they start at 11 p.m. and it's not unusual for disgruntled neighbors to call the police or pour water on unsuspecting pedestrians. And by law, you can't have overnight guests who aren't registered with the police. If your angry neighbors call the police when your overnight guest is being too loud, it's back to America for them.
When I was talking to my mom about my academic experience so far, I explained that we didn't have Friday classes in order to travel more on the weekends. In disbelief, she asked if I wasn't actually on an extended vacation.
Maybe it's the gelato-or perpetual three-day weekends-but Florence has so far proved to be la dolce vita.
Victoria Ward is a Trinity junior currently studying abroad in Florence. Her column runs every other Wednesday.
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