One of the aspects I have most enjoyed about my erasmus experience in Rome, has been the opportunity to get to know students of so many different nationalities; principally French, German and Spanish.
Us English are in the minority here, and our inherent individuality means we don’t like to stick together too much. It’s every man for himself in the quest of ‘making it’ in Italy. With other nationalities, it seems to be quite different. The Germans, French and Spanish have all formed distinct groups, with their own microcultures sprouting up around the city.
Most preoccupied with their rationality for being abroad are the stereotypically serious German students. Horrified by the disorganisation and inefficiency of the Italian beauraucracy, few make it to the second semester. They repatriate by mid-february, eager to catch up on the ‘worthwhile’ education recieved by their counterparts at home.
The approach of the German student to the Italian university resembles that of Angela Merkel’s stance towards Silvio Berlusconi. They think it’s a bit of a joke. But are content enough to indulge in gelato and perennial sunshine for a few months.
There’s not much point in seriously learning the language; they’d never dream of coming back to work or live in such chaos. “Have you heard about the lack of hygeine practices in the hospitals?!” they cry. But the international atmosphere is a good opportunity to practise their practically perfect English.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself the sole Brit among a party of 8 Germans and a Norwegian. Remarkably, barely a word of German was spoken the whole evening. Apart from being impressively courteous, they are proud of their ability to speak the english language. And they speak it so very well.
The French are more open to Italian culture, but insist on their gastronomical superiority. Crepe nights and sacred cheese and bread parties are regularly held in celebration of coveted imports brought over by visiting friends and family. What’s mozzarella to emmentale? Focaccia to a freshly-baked baguette? Cornetto alla crema to pain au chocolat? I love italian food, but they have a point.
Some of my closest friends in Rome are French, from cities such as Strasbourg and Bourdeaux. There is a strong Parisian contingent in the History of Art department, but they don’t deign to mingle with the “provencales”. And coming from the Sourbonne or Ecole de Louvre, they’re too stylish and intimidating to be approached. They are clearly already ofay with the entire world history of art and know we know it too.
Which brings me to gli espagnoli, or spanish, who make up the majority contingent of erasmus students in Rome. I’ve been to the spanish coast several times with english friends, but only to Marbella in the summer when it turns into a British colony, ruled by wealthy WAGs and their sporting counterparts – hardly an eye-opener to the Spanish way of life. So meeting so many spaniards in Rome has been a revelation.
Closest to the italians in colouring and language, they are distinguished physically by a brimming vitality; both in terms of physical musculature and strength of character. Their group has found it’s home in the laid-back studenty area of San Lorenzo, where beer and pizza al taglio are consumed economically in large quantities alongside friends in piazzas.
More than any other erasmus nationality, the spanish, emphatically, stick together. Not really a team-player myself, more of a wander-off-in-my-own-semi-conscious-direction-and-see-who-I-meet-by-chance kind of traveller, an absorption into their culture on a group trip to Lago Bracciano proved a bit of a shock.
Ahead of the daytrip an hour north of Rome, a dedicated facebook group was used by the trip’s principal organisers to alert participants of meeting times, location, ticket costs and necessary provisions to be brought.
I had been persuaded to join the gang by an english friend and we caught the metro to the train station together, arriving on time only to find that they were late. The next train was not to be for another hour but after several confused phone-calls between incompetent italian speakers we received the clear message that under no circumstances were we to divide ourselves from the group. This was going to be a team affair.
All together now, the next challenge was to find space for the team of fifteen on the train. A casual suggestion that a portion of the group might occupy a half-empty carriage was immediately rejected and frowned upon. Was I even a part of this mission?! Beginning to recognise some of the laws of Spanish play I was acquiescent for the remainder of the trip. Eager to conform, we quietly observed and exchanged notes, trying our best to do the right thing at the right time.
This was no mean feat. Every five minutes our attendance was required for a staged group photo. When we finally arrived at the beach, it was to witness the phenomenon of unabashed spanish girls, stripping off enthusiastically, revealing bras and bikinis before launching themselves into the water and onto the shoulders of their male compatriots.
Our next required move was clear. Us english girls timidly got down to our swimming cozzies before dashing in to cover ourselves up, timidly tiptoeing in to the clear freezing waters and assuming big grins of affected at ease.
You’re not going under?! said Anna. ‘Erm actually, I prefer to keep my hair…’ DUNK ‘…dry!’ Clearly not an option to stray from the norm.
We survived the rest of the day by mutual observations and secret coding across the bay to indicate what we were supposed to be doing next..’no, you can’t go and get a coffee! It’s time for lunch (carefully prepared spanish omelettes and fried chicken to share round) and then clearing up time.
Of course they’re lovely and warm and generous hosts. But, I’m just a bit too awkward and autonomous to exist comfortably in their culture.
In Italy, despite the chatty confident stereotype, it’s also quite acceptable to be a bit quiet and nerdy. As my half-scottish, half-italian friend pointed out, the italian loser is a fostered character-type. Surrounded by so much family, with cousins as automatic ‘friends’, one doesn’t have to be loud or funny to attract good company.
Recovering from the water emersion, safe in our national understanding, I pleaded, “Sophia, please remind me not to go when I romanticise about Madrid.”
To which she responded, “Louisa, promise me you’ll never move to Spain!”