A Post on Family: Can You Guess what my Minor would be if I had Room for it in my Schedule? (Tara Lovdahl)

(I have less than three weeks left and I want to be sure I’ve taken pictures of all my favorite things! Pictures for this blog are from my latest “touristy” walk around Florence).

Our study abroad program at St. Norbert really is managed by wonderful people and they do their best to have us prepared. When did I closely read helfpful forms like “what should you pack?” or ”What to expect culturally?” and past student evaluations? In August. During my layover in Germany– I had four hours to kill in an airport on my way to Italy. When should I have read them? In March. Guess what I didn’t pack… go ahead, take a guess. Nope, I packed a swim suit (and used it twice). I brought Q-tips (but that was Mom’s suggestion). I even brought sunscreen.

Pants.

I packed two pairs of athletic shorts for sleeping in or “working out”, a pair of kapris and shorts, two skirts, and… no pants. I know somewhere in my thought process while packing I decided: “Hey, Italy is close to Africa. I don’t need to bring a lot of warm clothing” and I sure didn’t. Thankfully Libby met me in Naples with two pairs of jeans and my winter coat (yes, Italy gets cold–it’s also close to Switzerland) and beforehand I made due with two pairs of pants I bought from H&M. Ugh. I can’t believe one of the tips for future students I’ll be writing in my evaluations is: “pack pants”.

This is going to sound like such a cop-out, but one of the reasons I didn’t read my orientation packet closely was that I wanted to be surprised when I got to Italy (by the country and culture– not my packing habits… which still didn’t surprise me. I’m neither proud nor surprised…okay, letting the pants thing go now). But while sitting in the Frankfurt airport I read multiple student accounts of how family-oriented the Italians are. I remember thinking, “How can you really tell that they are more family-oriented than the United States? That’s ridiculous.”

Only a handful of hours later, while waiting for the rest of our shuttle party in the Florence airport I already knew what the previous St. Norbert study abroad students were talking about. Among the crowd I saw a young father –he couldn’t have been much older than twenty-five– holding his baby boy of about a year. This father was hugging his baby the whole time–those sweet hugs where one twists the torso back-and-forth while embracing the other. He kept holding his son just to look at him and kiss his face. It was like there was no one else in the world. This hugging, gazing, kissing routine went on for at least twenty minutes. My party left the airport before the father got over the miracle that was his son. One of my favorite memories of Italy occurred before I had even left the airport. I don’t think I can accurately depict just how sweet that father was.

The feeling of family didn’t stop there. I see fathers walking their children to school every day (mothers too) hand-in-hand. I see so many families just laughing together. It’s very common to see a teenager linked arms with a grandmother. And it may just be my imagination, but there are a lot fewer incidents where a child is throwing a public hissy-fit. La famiglia è molto importante.

I’ve previously blogged about how Italian men emote so much more than American men who are generally more reserved and on a whole are culturally discouraged to show feelings–particularly young men. Taking this into account, Italian fathers appear especially enthusiastic about being a parent compared to many cultures.

When I’ve had the chance, I’ve asked Italian women how empowered they feel. The answer I’ve gotten is just “no”–they don’t feel empowered. Maybe “Flower Power” never really reached Italy. Overall women still feel pressured into their traditional gender roles–they still get their education, but then they are expected to live at home until they get married and have children. I’m not bashing the traditional ways by any means–if that’s what the individual wants. I’ve gathered that mothers have a very tough time balancing work and children and not many opportunities in the workforce to begin with. It seems things are slowly changing, but I was very surprised to find out how unliberated women feel. I figured fathers who were so eagerly involved would have less of a problem sharing family responsibilities than other cultures and thus Italain women would feel more free. But so much of gender discrepancies derive from tradition and Italy is a country deeply rooted in old customs. Things could still improve, but I know how good American women have it compared to women of many other cultures (especially the Middle-East). Despite feeling frustrated at times, overall I feel very lucky.

I was also thinking about this whole notion that Italy is “more” family-oriented than the United States and other countries. Even though I’ve witnessed so many examples of how much Italians fervently value family, every culture values family, and families of the same culture differ from one-another simply by virtue of individual personalities over their nationality. If I’m going to attempt pinning a clear distinction of why Italians seem to value family more: they are very straight-forward people who wear their hearts on their sleeves and are very affectionate. Italians on a whole are so warm–I’m really going to miss that.

Tara Lovdahl is studying abroad at Florence University of the Arts in Florence, Italy.

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