As I meet students making their way through Europe, one thing stands out to me. It’s the red flag of premature wiseness. It’s a case of mistaken identity. Apparently, living in a place for a year — or even less — warrants instant expertise.
A couple of weeks ago, I met up with a friend who is a full-time resident of Rome and is enrolled in an Italian university for the next four years. We sat in Piazza Navona, a crowded public plaza with street vendors, fountains and an Egyptian obelisk. We ate chocolate together, and he listened to a one-man band intently before he had to go to work.
The scene was beautiful, and I started to get nostalgic for my time in Rome. I told him how much I didn’t want to leave because I didn’t know when I would come back. It was like mourning a death that hadn’t even happened yet.
Then he called me a tourist.
At first I was deeply offended, though I know he didn’t mean it as an insult. I resented being compared to those camera-toting sidewalk hogs. I wanted to correct him, tell him I was really grasping Italian, knew my way around the city and understood all the cultural codes. And then I thought about it, and I knew that he was right.
I may be learning, breathing, eating and sleeping in Italy, but I am not living the same life that’s been going on without me in the U.S. I thought it would come with me, but it hasn’t. I was lost in the idea that I knew Rome.
I’m still an Ithaca College student. I still have to find a job this summer. My name’s still on a lease for the fall. Everything that binds me to living — my “life” — is still in the U.S. And I always knew I’d have to go back and finish something, catch up with my life before I could return to Europe again.
It’s the funniest feeling, this dual life I’ve been living. But the first step is acknowledging that it’s there. Sure, my time in Rome has made me aware of another way of doing things, but it hasn’t in any way given me the right to think I completely know everything about Italy, or Europe as a whole. Four months to a year abroad does not mean cultural comprehension.
The truth is, I’ll probably never even be a full-fledged expert on U.S. culture, either. Like people, no matter how much you think you know a place, it always has the capacity to amaze you or change your mind.
And, you know, the best people I know, tourists or not, are smart enough to let people and places change their minds.
Liz Taddonio is a junior culture and communication major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.