On the first day of our time here, Scott McGehee said that one of the reasons that we go abroad is not necessarily to learn a different culture, (for it is nearly impossible to learn another culture in just a few short months,) but rather to realize that our culture is in fact, a culture. I have had many of those moments of realization in my time abroad thus far, shocks ranging from small to quite large.
Over spring break, perhaps because of the rapid-fire pace of throwing myself into a culture for just a few days, I was able to understand my view of the world as something informed by, and always in conversation with, my culture.
My most extreme moments of realization occurred in Budapest over spring break. I loved Budapest. I loved the beautiful architecture, the up-and-coming vibe, the prices, the bounty of history and the shortage of tourists. But the thing I think I loved the most, was how profoundly out of my element I felt. I found myself arriving at situations that I’ve never been confronted with before, and proved to be extremely surprised by what I found. Case in point: my massage experience.
Budapest is famous for its baths, and so my friend Julia and I decided to go to the baths and spend 10 euro on massages. “A ladies day splurge!” we declared. Now, I haven’t had a bounty of professional massages (I’m no Rockefeller) but I have had a few, mostly gifted from generous extended family members and friends. I have always had a pretty standard experience in the States: you walk into a temperature regulated room, or spa, with plush purple carpets and pictures on the wall of lotus flowers, balancing delicately on a women’s bare back, or hot stones, piled purposefully across an undeniably relaxed outstretched arm. Not in Budapest, let me tell you.
We walked into a ceramic tiled room, wading in water to get there, in which there are a line of maybe 10 or 15 bathroom stalls. Except they aren’t bathroom stalls, they are massage booths. Julia and I stand at the front of the room, in our bikinis, looking around helplessly. There is no check-in table, or room or really anyone clearly in charge. Julia has never gotten a massage before, so I offer to take the male masseuse ahead of time, so she is sure to feel comfortable. I’ve only had a couple male masseuses, but they have always been strapping, strong armed kind of athletic looking fellows. Strong, professional, like a nice personal trainer in a lilac polo. As Julia and I stand there a very large, toothless, man lumbers toward me. He doesn’t greet me with a traditional hello, or a wave (there is a language barrier), or even a friendly salute. He merely points to me and says, “You. Mine.” When I was in high school I read Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, and I’m pretty sure I’ve met the Underground Man— he’s alive and well in Hungary— and he wants to give me a massage. I feel a little startled, a little taken aback— but I’m game! I’m a traveler! I’m 20!
I follow him into the stall, waving goodbye to Julia, and looking around the room for the marked emergency exits—just in case. Then the massage begins. In the States, and in my experience, massages normally begin with “Any problem areas?” or “Now take a few deep breaths” or “Anything I should know?”— but this massage is a little more… to the point. “Lie down. Back up.” I do as I’m told, and then I close my eyes, because thankfully that is socially acceptable in this situation, and I have no idea what else to do. Then he begins to untie my bathing suit strap. This feels slightly terrifying, there is no blanket for me to lie under and this man has only said “You. Mine” and “Lie down. Back up” to me— not exactly the words that lay the groundwork for a trusting relationship. But oh well, it’s happening, and I guess a bare back will make the massage better.
I’m pretty terrified, and pretty skeezed out but this man, and feeling judgmental of this whole experience. “This is not how massages are done!” I think, with a tone of indignation (if the italics didn’t make that clear). After massaging my back and taking about three minutes to travel from limb to limb because of his rather sizable girth, he leans over and begins to re-hook my bathing suit. Now, bra-hooks are pretty tricky for most men, at least in my albeit limited experience, and this bra hook is an extra tricky one, plus this man has very large, stubby fingers. Probably three minutes pass, where this Hungarian masseuse is leaned over me, a skinny New York Jewish girl in a robin’s-egg-blue bikini she got at Target last year, trying to hook my bra strap. I realize how easily he could have just asked me to flip over; could have gestured for me to re-hook my own bra strap, or even have just flipped me over, not considering that my breasts may pop out (or perhaps considering it—a far worse option). Instead, this man spent minutes struggling with my bikini top, to make sure I wasn’t uncomfortable, to preserve my sense of safety.
In that moment I realized that I was such a fool for thinking this massage was somehow profoundly unprofessional, or unsafe, just because this man was large and curt. Better large and curt than fit, verbose and without compassion. And when he eventually re-hooked my bra strap I flipped over, relaxed into my last 15 minutes of massaging, and even when he did lift my leg over my head into a stretch that I did not expect nor could totally explain, I felt no harm. And when he curtly said “Finished,” I popped up and smiled at him. Giving the thumbs up I said, “Thank you so much,” and he grimaced and sort of patted the table, as if to say “No problem!” (But also it’s time for you to go.)
This experience made me realize how easy it is, in my own small silly way, to consider my culture “the norm.” I have so often always thought to trust my “gut”, but in this moment I realized that my gut is just as much conditioned by the images my culture feeds me, and the customs it teaches me, as any other part of me. Of course I have a sense of intuition, but that must be taken with a grain of salt, understanding that the way we judge people is not simply based off an inherent, instinctual understanding of all humans, but is in fact just as reliant on our culture and who we have been trained to trust and distrust. And while at first I believed this man to a spooky, Russian-novel-esque social recluse, I soon found him to be a man with strong hands, and a thoughtful spirit. I left wondering what he thought of me? Of course, from my American perspective, I imagined he walked out thinking “Gosh! She was adorable!” But for all I know, he thought I looked right out of who-knows-what novel, and that I was strangely pale or skinny or jumpy… and I would bet a good 50 bucks that he found my thumbs-up really weird. But, to be honest, most likely he didn’t think of me at all. I was just another forgettable client.
This brings me to the most important revelation I’ve had in my travels, that regardless of how much American culture conditions us to think we are profoundly memorable individuals, each and every one of us, we are, in fact, just humans. Humans meeting, and then moving along: temporary, transient. Despite our upbringings and our cultures and our “stories,” we are in fact not very different—not at all.
If there is one day in Arezzo that reminds me I am not at home it is Saturday, more specifically Saturday night… or, should I say, “Youth Night.” “Youth Night” has its name because Saturday is when all the Arezzo youth get to go out and dance and drink and get away from their long week at school. Even going to a college with a fairly vibrant party life couldn’t prepare me for the force that is “Youth Night.”
It starts a little bit like this:
You are walking down the quiet Arezzo streets, and all that lies between yourself and the city is the grand wall that protected its people long ago. As you ride the escalators or ascend the hillside toward the gates to the city you may be thinking, “Oh boy, a quiet night in a small town.” This dream is instantly crushed when you enter the walls. These walls no longer are used to protect the city, but to protect everyone from what is happening in the city. Youths… Youths as far as the eye can see. They are loud, and, too excited to get a drink, they mistake your entire body for air and walk directly into you. Confused by how doors work, they stand in hoards blocking the entrance. Still unsure how a grocery market works, they clog the aisles.
You try to escape the hoards of youths using tactics that worked back home, but somehow, every corner seems to spawn more and more of them. There is no silence, there is no escape, there is only “Youth Night.”
Could this explanation be a little overdramatic? Most certainly, but the first time I entered Arezzo on “Youth Night” I was baffled wondering how so many young folk could be bustling around the city. For me, this type of bustling is reserved for college kids or local burnouts… maybe one location in town was designated for the raucous youths to meet. But the scale in which it occurs here is astounding. It makes you wonder, “Where are they all coming from?” It makes me say, “When I was your age I was playing Monopoly on Saturday nights, not getting a drink with some delinquents.” It makes me feel like an old man.
Is youth night a bad thing? No.
Will it forever confuse me? Yes.
Have I been back in town on Saturday nights? Well… that is a story for another day.
The moment that I knew I wasn’t in the country was the day I stepped foot on top of the teatrino on a cool winter evening. The sun had just finished setting and the sky still had a hint of pink and orange peeking through it. It was the warmest sunset I had ever witnessed. There was complete silence, no beeping cars, aggressive bike riders, or loud college students running, walking, or skipping through the streets and sidewalks. It was just me and the sky. Me and my thoughts. Me and my breath. I could hear them in the countryside of Italy.
This weekend, some of us went to a “30’s/40’s/50’s” swing dance party in town at Spazioseme. I was wondering why swing dance exists in Italy, and people told me that Italians were just fascinated with that era of American culture. Since the moment I got here I have noticed the exportation of the American music industry, from American records at the antiques fair to American pop music at dance clubs to, most likely, the very existence of dance clubs. And Europe in general is full of jazz music. When I got to the party, it all clicked: Italians are incredibly classy! 30’s-50’s American culture, or more accurately, the impression of it that we get from Hollywood, was similarly classy.
As an American today I feel such a distance from the past culture of my own country, but Italians are inspired by (past) American elegance just as Americans are inspired by Italian elegance. This sense of classiness seems to be more accessible in Italy than in the US, especially when it comes to food. At home I have to go to a more expensive grocery store to get fresh, local food, but here it’s the default. Every grocery store is full of good and inexpensive wine, cheese, and olive oil, and there is very little processed food. Restaurants that we would perceive as fancy are moderately priced. “Bars” in Italy are casual places where you can get a cocktail, a cappuccino, or maybe a plate of pasta; these businesses stand in stark contrast to the excesses of most American cafés and bars.
The consensus among the students is that life in Italy seems less frantic than in the US. Here people seem to get most of their information through word of mouth, which can be frustrating because I am so dependent on using social media to always be in the know. And, perhaps with the exception of Milan (which is full of finance and high fashion and is about to hold a huge expo on the future of food), there is no hurry to move forward or to forget the distant past.