It’s been several days since we first arrived in Venice or Venezia, a city that’s surrounded by water and takes your breath away when you stop to gaze down one of the many canals that have a gondola or two slowly floating down it.
I wanted to give myself the chance to become adjusted to the Venetian lifestyle, to feel as though I’m a part of this small community even if only for a week or two. Each day on our way to a class meeting or historical site, I notice the many shops and the people who belong to each of them. Every day is the same, they greet people who pass by with a “ciao,” or an “hello” if they can really tell you’re an English speaking tourist, and they try to invite you to visit their store or have a bite to eat at their ristorante. Since our first day here, I’ve come to realize the daily routine of our little neighborhood and the shops and people who surround us. By passing by the same little places daily and knowing which bridge will take me to a designated location, it feels like I’ve come to be a part of Venice. I feel like I’ve finally adapted to this lifestyle and that in itself feels rewarding.
Each morning, a small group of us look for a place to get breakfast. Sometimes we take a walk over the bridge which is very close to us where we can find a cappuccino and croissant for a reasonable price. The woman at the counter can speak Italian and a little English and is quick to wait on you when you walk in the shop. Here in Italy, the culture for a bar, which is what we’d call a café or coffee shop back in the states, is to stay at the bar while you drink your cappuccino. This gives you the chance to enjoy each sip without having to run around with a reusable coffee cup container like I would on a normal day at home. Sometimes our morning breakfast leads us to the Jewish Getto, a place that we’ve come to know a little bit better since our first day in Venice. There’s a small bakery in the Ghetto Vecchio that smells of delicious baked goods. When you walk in the bakery, you feel like you’re a part of a community, and the place you’re in is a place where locals pass by and grab what they need on a regular basis. And it’s here we find ourselves intermingling. Even something of this sort gives me the chance to realize that I have this amazing opportunity by simply being here to become immersed in this city’s culture. A culture that is so very different than our own, but so incredibly willingly to extend an arm or two to me and make me feel as though I’m actually a part of it.
Being a part of a new culture has given me the chance to think about my own culture, the lifestyle that I’m most familiar with, the one I’ve always known, and to compare it to this new Italian culture that I’ve adapted to. Sometimes when we walk through a piazza or pass over a bridge I find myself observing the people around me, even though I’m not sure where they come from, whether they’re Italians or tourists in the city of Venice, I try to soak up their characteristics and what it means to be who they are. In return, this causes me to think about what it means to be who I am- an American in Italy.
Our course has led us to investigate the concepts of identity and community, and I’ve extended them from our class discussions about the Jewish community to what I’m experiencing personally as an American student who is studying abroad in Italy. We’ve been questioning what it means to be Jewish in Venice and how Jews think of themselves here, whether it be as Venetians or as Jews, a concept which can relate to community.
I wanted to take these concepts of identity and community and think about them on my own personal level. I began by considering what’s most obvious, in America I would identify myself with the state I live in, the place I grew up, the kind of ethnic traditions I’ve practiced and the lifestyle I currently lead. Here in Italy, I can identify on a much broader level of just being American or being someone who is not from Italy. But I knew that before I began studying abroad I had made a connection between being an Italian in American to actually visiting Italy, since it’s a part of my heritage it became a part of my identity and how I think of myself. However, when in Italy being an Italian here means something totally different than being an Italian in American. I wonder, upon returning to America if I’ll still identify as much with being an Italian after actually seeing the country of Italy, does this change my sense of identity and what it once meant for me to be Italian (in America)? Will it strengthen or weaken my sense of identity? I know that the answer comes from the community and the atmosphere in which I’ve previously been exposed to in America, as opposed to this new environment of actual Italians. The sense of community has begun to change my sense of identity just as my identity will change based on the community I find myself in.
Sometimes when I pass by other people who are speaking another language, I listen to how their words and phrases, body movements and facial expressions communicate their message and then I wonder how my emotions, tone and expressions communicate my message. How does the English language sound to the foreign ear? And if they were able to observe the delivery of my phrases, would they still be able to communicate with me regardless of where they’re from and the language they speak? They say Italian is a language you can speak with your hands, and as someone who has studied communication along with performing arts, I feel as though our bodies can communicate for us. The other day, I had been walking along a street, or strada, and I heard a mother and daughter arguing behind me. Their tone was loud and the daughter started to get louder and louder as she got closer to me. She was storming off, scurrying in a frenzy and I could hear her tone as I tried to identify a word or two she was saying in Italian. She was not happy, they seemed to be arguing about something, and as she passed me by, I noticed a tear falling onto her cheek. Even though, I was unable to understand the language, I was able to understand their conversation and the way in which they were communicating. While there may be a language barrier, I’m coming to believe communication is universal. A laugh is a laugh, a cry is a cry, and a smile is a smile- no matter where you go, no matter where you’re from and no matter who you are. As people, we’re all the same, even though we may feel so very different.
As I continue to explore the rest of what Italy has to offer us, I continue to keep my eyes open to the conversations that surround me, the people who are fleeing and the feelings that I try to express to those who I communicate with, but as I do, I wonder if someone else is trying to figure out who I am and what I have to say, as I do with them.
Ciao for now!