Being American Abroad

Haley Winkle Arcadia in Rome, Italy


October 16, 2017

It seems counterproductive to flock to the things advertising an English label with your English-speaking friends while abroad in a non-English-speaking country. For example, visiting American-style stores and restaurants and going to see an English production of Much Ado About Nothing (including buying the tickets in English) with others in your program. At the same time, it’s comforting. At the risk of sounding lazy, it’s exhausting to translate all the time, and while I know it’s best not to remain in my bubble, sometimes my bubble is where I need to be for a little bit. That said, I feel much more empathy toward people who move to (or even just live in) America and don’t speak much/any English. It’s a hard but worthwhile time learning a new language and culture by immersion.

Last weekend, I went to the Globe Theater in Villa Borghese with a few of my American friends to see Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing performed in English. It was such a great experience – this theater is modeled after the original Globe Theater, and our floor tickets were for the literal floor. We sat on the ground with others who also bought the cheapest tickets – though bearing pillows and blankets, they were a bit more prepared than we were. Regardless of the unexpected chill as night carried on (this theater is open; we could see some stars if we looked upwards), we loved it. The play itself was both great and hilarious. Throughout, I wondered if this experience would be the same for us if it wasn’t in English – and whether it would have sold more tickets if it were in Italian. Would the context and our limited knowledge of the language alone have helped us understand if it was in Italian?

This week, I found a restaurant that specialized in serving real American breakfasts (with actual bacon!). This was the first time I’ve found actual bacon and pancakes/French toast on a menu here, which felt strange – strange, but comforting. A few days afterward, I hopped onto a bus to go see a former US poet laureate read at one of the American universities here in Rome. Something notable that I remember him saying was “I never consider myself an American poet until I leave America.”

Despite still being surrounded by Italian youth and their language, these spaces themselves were American. Before that reading began, I felt out of place among the Italian gossip that I didn’t understand, which felt strange – usually I feel at home when I go to a poetry reading, usually surrounded by other poetry lovers who also are there by choice. However, the familiar feeling returned when the poet spoke as well as when I was able to ask questions to the staff members about seating in English.

Both of these spots were in Trastevere, which is known lately for being a magnet for Americans, wherein I hear the most English around me at a time in Rome.

I love the chance to understand everything for once. After spending my time all over Rome in a short period of time, practicing my Italian to get me where I needed to be and what I needed to have, it’s nice to be in pockets of the city where people spoke my language. Plus, how often do you get to say that you saw a Shakespeare play in Villa Borghese? Or have a nice breakfast of French toast and real bacon served with drip coffee for the first time abroad? Or get the chance to hear the poetry of and meet Billy Collins in the heart of Italy?

Not to worry (this is mostly a message to myself but also to any of you keeping up with my experience here), I’m getting out of my bubble again and working more towards my goal of advancing my language skills. The funny thing is that I often am approached with questions about directions – I must seem like I belong here.

A short aside about Villa Borghese: after a very long metro exit from the Spagna station, stepping outside and seeing no buildings/only greenery made me question whether I actually was still in Rome. I only spent a short time exploring the place because of the play, but I can’t wait to go back with more time to spare and see nature again/breathe cleaner air.

As for the American stores, last week I also found a little shop in Monti (a neighborhood of Rome) that sells American junk food. Its name? Americaland. This is the only place where I have seen several types of barbecue sauce, Pop-Tarts and Combos and – for the steep price of €8,90 – Lucky Charms. I also saw peanut butter! I didn’t need this place necessarily, but it’s nice to know that I can find my favorite middle school foods just a few metro stops away in one of my favorite neighborhoods of Rome. It’s also nice to know that Romans don’t have these over-processed foods in many places. They have much better quality sweets and snacks at their disposal, and that’s one assimilation that was effortless for me.


Italy Semester