Long Hair, Slicked Back, Five Layers of Sweaters

In Florence, The Art of Travel Fall 2015, Style by Serena Wong

I was nearly tackled to the ground by my host mom because the temperature fell below 60 degrees Fahrenheit and I was only wearing a t-shirt and shorts to the dinner table. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? GO GET A SWEATER AND A SCARF AND A HAT!” she aggressively suggested. I tried explaining to her that in the United States, especially in my hometown in Northern California, people tend to underdress for the changing weather because it really doesn’t get that cold. Even after spending my second year in the winter in New York, being in the “arctic” temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit was not, frankly, all that cold. Reluctantly, I went to grab a sweatshirt because I didn’t want to distract her from her dinner.

Walking down the streets on the first day it truly felt like fall, you could quickly spot who was Italian, and who was American. The American students and tourists could be seen wearing light layers, maybe a light jacket. The Italians, however, seem to all have brought out their ski jackets and wool scarves, and they WILL judge you if you are wearing anything less than that. And that’s the thing about living in Florence – the Italians are particularly good at spotting and acknowledging those who stray away from the normal style whether it be the way foreigners dress or their dining habits. My Italian teacher spent an entire session explaining the many dining customs in Italy such as how frowned upon it is to order a cappuccino past eleven in the morning or how eating alone is a sign of loneliness and sadness. I remember a student asking her, “But what if you just don’t have anyone to eat with at that moment?” to which she sincerely responded with “why don’t you have someone to eat with? Are you sad?”

I believe that coming to a foreign country should be somewhat of a culture shock, at least at first. As travelers, you simply don’t know what you don’t know, but eventually you begin to grow into the culture. That is, if you allow yourself to. The progression into the foreign culture is shaped by the style of your environment – how people interact with one another, what you see and hear and smell when you stroll down the street, how the city’s organization affects how people behave in public spaces. For example in New York, specifically Washington Square Park, the open space invites people of all different backgrounds to treat the public space as their own. On a nice day, there are people tanning, playing games, meeting their friends for a quick picnic, or trying to sneakily have sex with their loved one under a blanket in the shade of a tree. Open spaces welcome relaxed and diverse behavior. Here in Florence, however, the Renaissance buildings are narrowly shoved together and you can barely have conversations with your friends because you walk in a straight line on the sidewalk to avoid getting hit by Italian drivers. It makes sense that the people here are quick to point out the outsiders – and it’s not like all American students are doing much to mediate that relationship. At night, you can hear drunk students running around the streets screaming and disrupting the otherwise serene Florentine evening. I hope this post doesn’t make me seem like I’m resentful of the American stereotype abroad – I just feel as though it is an extremely American attitude to bring our culture to another country without first trying to assimilate. After all, it’s just a semester and we can all go back to drinking cappuccinos at three in the afternoon soon!

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  • Daily Espresso: Serena Wong