I sit here writing this blog some nine months after the midpoint of my study abroad trip. This last year has given me some time for reflection over the lasting effects of the trip on myself. Certainly the most evident is the assortment of new friends I now possess as several of the blogs of my peers have covered. Hearing from others who have gone through similar programs, I have learned that this is not always the case; I believe the fact that we were all from UT Dallas certainly helped in breaking the ice. Beyond these friendships, academic knowledge, and of course bills the trip has left me with a much more thorough understanding of cultural differences.
I came into Europe with a few nation based stereotypes. Some were confirmed; Italian public transport is in fact as unorganized as claimed. Trains were canceled without warning or future information, connections often required literal sprints to make, subway cars were often overpacked, and a certain bus company’s rides left 3 hours late in one instance, and 20 minutes early the next. In contrast, my view from the cozy front seat on my rescheduled bus ride had full witness of German drivers cutting each other off, slowly cruising in the passing lane and aggressively tailgating each other under the peaceful backdrop of the Alps which quickly shattered any idea of Germany being a haven of safe and efficient drivers.
Beyond any national quirks, however, people generally acted the same as I would expect them to act in the US. Cashiers seemed tired, guards seemed bored, and tour guides expressed great excitement about the art and artifacts they were tasked with explaining. People generally minded their business, but were usually happy to talk when approached by the more gregarious members of our student group. They would converse about the usual topics: where we were from (Texas!), the environment (beautiful), and the weather (unbearably hot).
That is not to say there weren’t major cultural differences, only that they were more subtle. One area that I noted particularly was people’s views on race. Some of this was humorous confusion; there was a general astonishment whenever it was claimed that one of the non-white among us were from from the United States. Another aspect I noted was racism. Border agents would not even glance at my passport, yet harassed the darker skinned student I sat next to. In the Munich airport, the friendly British couple that I was talking with got into a shouting match with a man and his burqa clad wife which were cutting in line, that ended with cries to “go back to their own country”.
Yet, beyond both the confusion and the racism though, there was a greater sense of ethnic and religious distinction than I am accustomed to. For instance, I found it interesting that within Rome the membership of each Islamic prayer hall was almost exclusively divided by ethnicity. This surprised me. While there are ethnic churches and temples in the US, they are more rare, and membership at each religious group is usually drawn on theological lines instead. Similarly, I was surprised that interreligious and interethnic were notable. A speaker at the Mosque of Rome talked with us about the recent phenomenon of immigrants and their children beginning to intermarry with Italians, and the growing pains that entailed. He described how these marriages resulted in a sort of cultural mixing, which recalled the melting pot imagery. I got a sense that the old concept of district identities was starting to break down into a more mixed sense of identity.
That is not to say that there aren’t ethnic churches, or racial identity in the US. There is, but this trip has shown me that there is a different cultural attitude towards the meaning of race and religion than I am accustomed to. I hope to eventually return to Europe someday and get a better grasp of these differences, and how they have shifted in the meantime.
-Christian Duffee, Faculty-led in Italy/Switzerland, Summer 2019