As a quick introduction for this new semester, my name is Owen Davis and I am a senior political science major. I am currently studying abroad through Virginia Tech’s Center for European Studies and Architecture in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. I am here with about 25 other liberal arts undergrads and 15 students from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.
For the next four months, the liberal arts program covered here will focus on issues of environmental sustainability, culture, society and green policy. Don’t worry though; this isn’t your run-of-the-mill hippie-fest indoctrination.
While the tantalizing topics of U.S. current events and politics will undoubtedly pull me into writing certain columns this semester, I also want to infuse elements of my experience here to help make some of my columns more unique. This is one of those columns.
Coming to Switzerland, my greatest fear was being able to communicate and operate in what I saw as an alien world. Rather than worrying about getting lost in a European city or being “Taken,” I worried about how to ask where the bathroom was or how to come off as a friendly, not boorish, tourist.
Last semester, I was required to take an introductory Italian class (the southern region of Switzerland — where Riva is located — is Italian-speaking) but I forgot most, if not all, of what I learned over winter break.
Not to mention the fact that not all of Europe speaks Italian. I was self-conscious to say the least. But I’m here and after a week of living and traveling through a few different cities, my anxiety and discomfort has turned into a realization; everyone must feel this way when they’re not in their native land.
Just think about the little things in your daily life that require you to communicate with people around you. Whether it’s buying a coffee, practicing common driver etiquette, side-stepping to the right or left of someone before you walk into them, or providing a “bless you” to someone who sneezes, such little things are so small and so common that they become natural and knee-jerk.
When you enter a world that has different languages and customs, this reality is completely flipped upside down. You don’t know if left is right or right is left. You’re filled with angst and a pressure to fit in that only further reminds you that you’re not at home anymore.
It’s hard to tell if saying “hello” (in any language) to a passerby is a demonstration of camaraderie or just plain impolite. Recently, I discovered that saying “ciao” — the common “hello” in Italian — is not something you should say to older adults. In fact, it is seen as disrespectful if you do so. For strangers who are elderly, you are much better off saying “salve” instead.
Of course this is common knowledge to anyone with half a brain here in the surrounding regions of Italy, but for an off-the-plane American, such as myself, this doesn’t even cross the mind. Back in the States, I could parallel this example to someone who may not provide a quick and expected “Thank you,” to another who holds the door open for them.