Kent State University (Micah)



Sep '09 - Feb '12

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    Figuring out Italy.

    Micah McKelvey
    Jan 14, '10 5:39 PM EST

    For someone who has never been abroad (okay, I've visited Canada but we can all agree that hardly counts), studying in Italy this semester is a big change. And being transplanted from cow-town Ohio, maybe even more so.


    Orientation week started Monday. This is meant to help us in our transition to Italian life, and also to complete necessary tasks and documents associated with our extended stay. We heard from the Florence program director, Marcello Fantoni, first. Even though his welcome was far from brief, he said some very important things that shed light on some of the troubles I have been experiencing since my arrival here in Florence. Amongst them, and the most notable to me, is that Fantoni made a remark comparing Florence to an American mall or amusement park. He claimed the two to be very similar, especially considering themes, but where the theme in a mall tends toward a “tropical” environment with palm trees and foliage, here, the theme is the Renaissance. He warned us to not be deceived by the appearance of it all. And taking a second look around with his words in mind I now see clearly why I had the uncomfortable feeling that the city was a fabricated movie set from the very beginning. Because that's exactly what it is. Of course, Florence has its moments of truth I am sure (and am even more motivated to discover them), the real intent behind the city isn't so obvious. I am still feeling it out, but the city will have to prove itself to me as I get to know it better.

    Fantoni urged us to seek out the real Italy and the real Europe, which he believes exists outside of the main tourist cities. This has had me thinking a lot over the past day. It almost appeared that Fantoni essentially dismissed the substantiality of entire cities based on their touristy status. He offered another example when explaining his experiences traveling to the States. Specifically, he believes New York City is not an accurate depiction of the United States as a whole. While I agree with him, I also disagree because I do know there is truth there. But being a citizen of the country familiar with its customs, habits, political landscape, and history, I can decipher somewhat easily what is reality and what is fake or for show in a comparatively familiar place. This however is not true for me in Italy. Since I know almost nothing about the country, I cannot fully understand one thing from another. It's people, it's buildings, the customs, the language, and other elements of the whole I come into contact with on a daily basis must be taken as they are, yet there exists a reason and a history for all of these things. For example, I must take everyone I see on the streets as they appear to me, but to me almost everyone looks Italian. Except for a few obvious exceptions, I cannot decipher who is a native, a businessman, a tourist, an illegal immigrant, likely poor, likely wealthy, or from other parts of Europe. To Italians, understanding the typology of the local population seems very important when considering day to day life and current issues, for reasons I don't yet understand. What troubles me, and causes me slight paranoia, is that I am told everyone in this country can likely determine just by sight my status as an American student (a label, I learned, that holds certain connotations).



    This was pointed out by an Italian police officer that spoke to us yesterday in addition to Fantoni, and was also successful in shedding some light on the conditions we now find ourselves in. When coming here I didn't expect quite what I have experienced so far. I of course expected differences from my life in the U.S., but being here puts a new spin and perspective on so many elements of my existence in this world that goes beyond what I could have imagined. My hope is to discover the true Italy and maybe even the truer me. Time will tell, but one thing is definitely unquestionable: this experience is changing me.

    And it has only been four days.


    • dillup.

      that crazy. i can't believe your program director underwrote the city's entire cultural heritage in his opening remarks. how cynical to call it a theme park. if you want to go that route, call it a museum piece, a piece of artificial preservation. but before he goes off and starts telling undergraduate students in architecture that Florence is a simulation of itself, he might remind them that it is a product of hundreds of years of aggregation (albeit halted in the 19th or 20th century) that is still lived in and, though quite touristy, bears important lessons about architecture and habitation . i would advise you to enjoy the canonical works that italy has to offer and not worry yourself with what bernini has to do with koolhaas.

      that director might do well to ask himself why architecture students from ohio should be primarily concerned with discovering the "real modern europe" because, as he himself admitted, they certainly wouldn't come to florence (or italy, frankly) if that were their ambition.

      anyway, it should be great time... just keep an open mind and enjo

      Jan 15, 10 2:24 am  · 

      re: micah

      re: dillup
      I think you're reading into Micah's translation of Fantoni's statements a bit severly

      Just keep your eyes open (Micah). I think you are (and will continue to do so).

      Jan 15, 10 2:20 pm  · 

      Micah, do not be discouraged by Fantoni's remarks: there is a real Italy and real Italians that live there, even in places like Florence and Venice, but you have to seek it out amidst the tourist masses. His hatred of "tourist Italy" is a common affliction of many Italians. I have a cousin there who will not set foot in Venice, is in fact repulsed by the mere mention of it. I do understand where those feelings come from: they live there and feel that they are seeing the "real" Italy which they love be trampled underfoot by the tourist hordes (I sometimes feel that way myself when I am there). But Fantoni is wrong: places like Florence are very much substantial, and I don't really know what he means by "accurate depiction" - are countries or cities just one thing, with everthing else that doesn't fit that one thing being wrong? I don't think so. So, again, don't place to much weight on his remarks, and don't be paranoid about looking like a student: just relax and try to "be" in the place, and you'll discover the Italy that is your own.

      Jan 15, 10 3:52 pm  · 

      I've heard this speach Fantoni gives as I have done this program... He meant to saw Florence has so many architectural \ historical sites or objects to visit, that it has become completely overrun with tourists and in turn the studid little shops and everything else related to tourism came with them. While you'll learn that some things in Florence are completely fake, like the ponte Vevchio as it was destroyed by the allies in WW2 to save the bridge just down the river, you can find a great many true treasures in the city.


      If you your schedule is till open, make sure you change to get the little old grandmother Italian Professor, Gloria i believe is her name. She is the best.
      Also, make sure your art/sculpture histroy class is schedule for late class. It will become immesly handy. If you have to take an overnight train back to Florence on a Sunday, you can still make it to class on time Monday morning.

      Find the restaurant called "il latini", best food in flornece.

      Jan 15, 10 5:00 pm  · 

      w4000, if you're going to comment on the fakeness of things at least get your facts straight: the Nazis destroyed all the medieval bridges in Florence except the Ponte Vecchio.

      from the internet:

      "Why the bridge was spared is the source of some debate. Some say that the soldiers intentionally disregarded orders to bomb the ancient bridge, while others claim that it was saved because of “an express order by Hitler"

      It's really not that hard to look this stuff up instead of making up facts.

      Jan 16, 10 12:43 pm  · 

      emilio > i'm not discouraged in the least. actually encouraged, if that makes any sense. it's incredibly worthwhile for me to get opinions and viewpoints from real italians.

      dillup & emilio > i believe fantoni's remarks to have an incredible validity as someone from italy and living in florence for some time. of course, i see his words as a part of the puzzle, many pieces of which i hope to collect in the coming months.

      w4000 > i am in another italian language class with roberto, but from what i hear gloria has proven herself incredible already. regardless, i enjoy her orange iridescent coat.

      jake > i try.

      Jan 16, 10 1:02 pm  · 

      "some of the troubles I have been experiencing since my arrival here in Florence"

      and other things you wrote above gave me as sense of, maybe not discouragement, but definitely unease. And to state that Florence was a "fabricated movie set from the very beginning" shows me that you are buying into Fantoni's Baudrillard/simulacra/no-reality theoretical mumbo-jumbo (SPOOKY LANGUAGE!! SPOOKY LANGUAGE!!, as George Carlin would put it).

      I would say that his words have some validity, but are more about the intellectual grandstanding on the part of some academic Italians which is very familiar to me. He might be Italian, but his opinions are of an extreme variety which really don't clarify anything much.

      Florence is not now nor ever was a movie set, no matter how many tired tourists trudge through it: it's a real city, and I personally know some of the people who live there. and they would take exception to hear it's just a Potemkin-village front with no substance. Here's a clue: most Italians don't live in the Renaissance or in academia; they live in the real, day-to-day Italy, which exists in every city and town there, no matter what Mr. Fantoni might think.

      Jan 16, 10 1:46 pm  · 

      And a clarification on something w4000 wrote: every place in the g.d. world is selling something. Italy happens to sell its history to tourists, through the art and architecture, and in many "stupid little shops": is that more "fake" than being sold a shoe or a cheese-steak or whatever the fuck someone is trying to sell you every second of the day? This "tourism is the worst kind of fake" school of theorizing and barking is really tired and old to me. Are there too many tourists in Italy? most likely yes, but it's a place people actually want to go to. Is it better to be in bumfuck Ohio, off of a highway, in a place NO-ONE wants to visit: is that more "real"? give me a f'in break.

      Jan 16, 10 2:04 pm  · 

      Micah, no offense meant in using Ohio above, just re-read your intro and realized that's your state...could have used North Dakota or Pennsylvania or fill-in-a-state just as easily.

      Jan 16, 10 3:58 pm  · 


      im not here to tell you "as someone who was there 2 years ago and sat through fantoni's speach" and im not here to argue the validity of his statement (which I agree with). I just want to remind you of what I have said to the past 2 classes when we would have our meetings, and you have already said it.

      This trip isn't JUST about architecture. It may have started that way. But it wont end that way. You are going to learn a LOT about art and architecture. But what you are going to REALLY gain is everything that you are going to learn about YOU and LIFE. It sounds cliche but its true. Just let the trip happen, you'll figure out exactly what YOU need to figure out, nothing more nothing less.

      I'm incredibly jealous! Have a blast, if you happen to see paola, tell her i said hello.


      PS. pick a piazza on a map, bring something to write in, NO IPOD, walk there and just sit, preferably on a weekend. thats the real italy to me.

      Jan 17, 10 4:35 am  · 

      I studied abroad in Milan for 5 months and had the exact same problem... I knew everyone looking at me could see I was American, despite trying to dress like them, before I even opened my mouth.

      I, also, couldn't detect if the Italian-speakers were native or not... Except for when the speaker was from Naples, you'll see there's a very distinctive accent on it.

      Now that I live in the Middle East, I've been told I can be spotted as an American simply by the openness of my facial expressions- I'm not as guarded and hardened as the local populace. What can you do?

      Just have fun... In buco dal lupo (=good luck)

      Jan 18, 10 1:15 pm  · 

      I was just going to let this thread burn out, but Sbeth has an interesting point...

      There were quite a few times (maybe as often as once or twice a week?) that I'd be asked a question in Italian (and usually something to do with directions)...but these almost always happened outside of the Florence city center. We lived way up north.

      So perhaps since it had been a few months, and I had found my feet, and my jaw closed (both linguistically, and regarding my typical amazement), and because I was outside of the typical Florence zone, I wasn't as much of a sore thumb.

      Micah, you'll get an email from me in a bit.

      Jan 18, 10 8:17 pm  · 
      brian buchalski

      i went to italy once. i think i'm still in shock that i couldn't find a little caesar's pizza, let alone the original/historical one

      hopefully you'll have more success than me. good luck & enjoy!

      Jan 19, 10 4:13 pm  · 

      I think I can understand what you're going through.. I've been living in Italy already for four years and belive me, to understand the life and the people here is not so easy at all. And I'm still working on it and trying to figure out the italians. But one thing I've learned all these years- you have to take them as they are. As simple as it sounds and really is, it doesn't seem so, and that's the catch of it. Don't worry.. you'll be amused for the rest of your stay here, just don't panic and take it normally, or should I say- TAKE IT EASY:D

      Jan 20, 10 4:44 am  · 

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