I am in my first semester as a college junior, living abroad for the second time, and living in Rome, Italy, for the fourth of six non-consecutive months.
Upon my first departure for the Eternal City in fall 2012, I was told, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Sometimes, abiding by this saying involved little things, like not wearing bright colors or flip-flops, to understanding that tipping waiters at restaurants is extremely rude. Other times, it involves understanding a whole new perspective on life I have not yet mastered.
When talking with foreign friends, I’m met with an ideology I was never before familiar with.
I asked them what they planned on doing after their stint in Rome, and I was met with seemingly uncertain answers like, “I’m not sure where I’ll go,” and, “I’ll see where the world takes me.”
Given by self-considered Romans of nine and five years, respectively, these answers struck me as unprepared and not thought out.
It wasn’t until I was talking with one of my English professors, native to New York but living in Rome for the last 25 years, that these instances of such cultural differences came up. He said he never fully understood that way of living Americans are accustomed to: go to school to get a job to earn money. Yet this is exactly the progression I had thought was the only logical strategy of survival in today’s world. While this is true to an extent, it isn’t the way I see people living here.
Everyone must go to work and come home each day; that isn’t refuted. But it is not the day-to-day routine that I find to be different. It’s the ideology behind what the job means that I found to be surprisingly more eccentric.
They work to earn money, not so that they will acquire more material things, but so they can gain more experiences.
One friend of mine, a waitress for as long as I’ve known her, had saved up €1 and €2 coins so she could visit Arizona, while two other friends who are tour guides around the historic center are taking a vacation to Istanbul. After all, experience is something money can’t buy.
Their living arrangements and technological gadgets will stay how they are. But the perspective of the world they acquire could outweigh any picture we can pull up on our iPhones.
I tell my group of girls that, upon their departure from Italy, they should be exhausted, broke and happy. So buy breathtaking views, buy getting lost in a new city, buy weak knees and wonder and awe. I beg you, buy something that can’t be taken away from you.
The “once in a lifetime chance” is what I was told my first abroad to Italy was. Yet here I am, not even of legal American drinking age, and I’ve done the “once in a lifetime” twice.
Coming to Rome a first time opened my senses to the differences in everyday life like dress, food and transportation. But coming to live and study in Rome a second time alighted me to think differently about why we do the things we do.
And even after my return to the States in December, I know “doing as the Romans do” will always be more than not wearing bright colors.