It is a familiar running joke: returning year abroad students just won’t shut up about how “even the 3 euro bottle of wine ‘over there’ was far superior to anything here” or how they are sorry, but they “just can’t think of the right word – in Italy we would use a hand gesture”. And, much to the dismay of anyone subjected to this nostalgic babbling, this cliché is quite true. Yet, behind the bravado of these comments, there really is more: a love and longing for a different way of life that they have appreciated and come to see – even temporarily - as their own.
It’s true that Italy may not be the other side of the world, but it can still be surprising how crossing just a few borders can change ways of life and thinking. For me, the real beauty of the year abroad is how this becomes a way of life for you, and not just one to spectate or to dip a toe into, as it is when visiting. Some ways may well be easier to subscribe to than others – it’s true that a life of eating mountains of pasta, strolling along sun-bathed, saffron-coloured streets, and reaching for a glass of Aperol spritz each day at 5pm does not sound particularly taxing (apart from on the waistband). Indeed, one has to be conscious not to become complacent when rushing through the open-air museum that is an Italian city, or inhaling the sweet scent of the magic that is (real) coffee.
Naturally, there are also challenges and disadvantages wherever one goes and we expect to encounter some form of culture shock when moving abroad. But could we, among the comments about wine and weather, also claim to suffer from reverse culture shock on returning home? I certainly think so, even if it only consists of a longing for and a greater appreciation of those times away. Aside from that small issue of the sun, I was surprised by the shock I felt adjusting back to home ways from the Italian mentality (relaxed maybe, but also loving life and spirited), and the unrestrained enthusiasm they have for so much of their culture. And, of course, for those who experience different lifestyles and have a broader outlook on life, any reverse culture shock must be greatly intensified.
To counter this ‘shock’, I would like to think that I have invited friends and family not so acquainted with the Italian lifestyle to join me in celebrating it - if you can count the force-feeding of Aperol; the endless bowls of rock-hard pasta (the more al dente the better), or the insistence that everyone eats ice-cream (obviously incomparable to gelato) in the depths of winter. Even if this may be more fun for me than for the aforementioned friends, what a beautiful thing that behind the flare of the often infuriating comments made by a year-abroad student, there is an excitement to share aspects of another culture; to recognise a love for something different, and to encourage this love in others.