Culture shapes our world, from the food that we eat to the music we enjoy to the way we build relationships. It defines how we live our lives. And by exploring a culture other than our own, we often end up learning more about ourselves.
By Cora Webb
Mom, are we going to Virginia this summer? Every year that was the question I asked as mild spring days turned to hot summer afternoons. It provided me, a young black girl from the South, a small taste of adventure – a major leap from the familiarity of “any meal of the day” grits I was used to.
Virginia. A seemingly short, eight-hour ride packed in a minivan with eight people and pets – me squished with joy in the middle seat. A trip near and easy, cushioned with family. This was my adventure, and it was enough for me. As a child, I didn’t dream of anything beyond our minivan excursions. Consequently, time sped by, college came, and, at 20, I had never been on a plane. But that would soon change.
Early in my sophomore year at the College, I declared my major as public health. Shortly after, I began to hear talk of a study-abroad program being planned – the first ever that would be specific to public health. During an information session, the host country of the new program was revealed – Italy. I had to go. So did a close friend of mine who had also never flown. We ran to each other, excited and eager.
Over the next few months, we both committed to getting in the air. We applied for our passports, toiled to complete the study-abroad application and searched for scholarships. We worked in overdrive to save every dime for nearly a year. Every time someone asked me why I worked so much, I would explain how I needed to have this chance to see the world, to have this experience – and hard work was going to get me there. But sharing details of my impending journey opened up a flood of concern, joy and advice from friends and family. People told me to watch out for Italian men. They said I should be worried about all the terrorist attacks and turmoil in the world right now. Some said flying was nothing to fear. Others said they flew once and would never do so again. I started having doubts. But my traveling buddy told me we shouldn’t be too afraid to live our dreams.
Through all the confusion, hard work and waiting – our applications for the trip were approved. We were going to Italy. The days passed quickly, and seemingly with a snap of my fingers, the day of departure had arrived. After the chaos of getting through the security line, we boarded the plane. As we prepared for takeoff, my friend and I squeezed hands as the plane taxied out and gathered momentum. Just like at the start of my minivan treks as a child, I was full of excitement and anticipation as we lifted into the sky, coming face-to-face with the clouds.
When we arrived in Florence, we met the study-abroad staff that would assist us. We received the details about our apartment and were given our keys and whisked away in cabs. I arrived ahead of my housemates and found myself getting a tour of my new abode by the property manager, who excitedly spoke Italian as I nodded yes, pretending to understand. When my housemates finally arrived, our Italian exploits began with a simple meal of pizza, but quickly morphed into an explosion of new experiences.
Within our first week, we climbed 463 stairs at the Duomo (the main church of Florence) to view the city from the perspective of its builders. We traveled and toured Bologna, Cinque Terre, the Colosseum and Roman Forum, the Vatican museums and Siena’s Dievole vineyards. Each city offered uniquely different attributes, but there was one common thing among them that humbled me: the Italian people’s value of the historical connection between their land and homes. They understood and appreciated how the legacy of their predecessors affected their everyday lives.
It was amid this prism of history that my trip focused on how culture affects health and wellness. While in Italy, I was enrolled in Global Health and Health Promotion. These courses explored how the concept of health (and how to promote it) is impacted by the culture in which we live. The cultural heritage and significance of food in Italy, for example, offered insight into the society’s perspectives on lifestyle and nutrition. Unlike in the United States, where our food culture is more fluid, in Italy, food connects you to your ancestors. Italians value the authenticity of their food and want it to remain unchanged. Such values are reflected in government policies such as the Italian school lunch system, where all school meals are handmade, meal times are part of a slow-food movement and children are not rushed to eat. As Americans, we were a little shocked, but it was alluring to my classmates and me, who remember hurriedly eating microwaved pizzas for breakfast in our public schools.
Italy’s approach to smoking, however, stood in sharp opposition to its approach to food. Where food was given a great deal of consideration, the dangers of smoking were largely ignored. Smoking permeates Italy’s culture. Everyone smokes, including children – some as young as 10. Lung cancer is among the most prevalent types of cancer. Yet, there is no public education regarding the risks associated with smoking and there are no prevention campaigns. The only deterrent is a huge warning label plastered on cigarette packages.
Ironically, the country’s public-private health system offers a level of compassion seemingly foreign to healthcare in the United States. In Italy, medical staff often follow a patient’s care from beginning to end until the problem is addressed. And unlike in the United States, where medical care is often dictated by health insurance, in the Italian system, anyone can be treated: immigrant, poor or rich.
Outside of my academic pursuits, my education into the Italian way of life continued. I learned that spaghetti and meatballs is not an Italian meal. Restaurants open late and usually don’t give straws or to-go boxes (so eat up). I also discovered some interesting perspectives on how Italians viewed my American culture – particularly one entertaining stereotype that Americans enjoy skating and barbecue. And while we in the United States certainly love to love, in Italy, eager men deliver handwritten notes with phone numbers and romantic words to women they met during a night out, replacing the awkward text messages that often mark the start of many new American romances.
Undoubtedly, traveling abroad has changed my perspective on life. It has taught me how to view myself and my home country through the lenses of other peoples, while remaining willing to understand and explore the unfamiliar culture of another nation. I also developed a greater appreciation of the differences in problem solving, and how cultural values influence these skills. It was a challenging endeavor, to be sure, but being uncomfortable for a moment was worth the heightened sense of cultural awareness I came away with. Even though I started off a little timid and confused, I ultimately felt welcomed into this new and different world full of food, passion and contradictions. And not unlike those spring days of my childhood pining away for Virginia, I have felt a sense of longing since I returned from my Italian adventure. I miss the excitement of discovering something new at the turn of every corner.
Hopefully, Italy can become my new Virginia.
– Cora Webb is a junior double majoring in public health and women’s and gender studies. She was among
the first group of students to study abroad with the public health program this past summer.