Stereotypes fail to define cultures
Day one of my journey abroad, the word "stereotype" began playing over and over in my mind. There are preconceived expectations walking into any new situation. I had several notions about my time in Florence before arriving. Coming into a culture where alcohol intake and noise levels define Americans, I realize that an unfamiliar culture always falls victim to judgment. Going down the list, every culture suffers from inaccurate stereotypes — Americans are loud, drunk and brash and the French are rude. Alternatively, my experience abroad teaches me that stereotypes never live up to expectations.
Just like Florentines stereotype American students who study in their city, I began stereotyping the Florentines. At first, I was shocked by the stares and cold responses given by locals. It is frustrating trying to make my way through a new city when natives do not extend themselves. Making new friends was harder than I had hoped.
As the months pass, my fondness for Florence grows. Patiently learning about the history of Florence and popular customs offers a better understanding of attitudes and beliefs of today's city. What makes the city unique is the integrity and pride of the inhabitants. Tradition is steadfast and Florentine's loyalty is unique to the city. The importance of family and the close relationship between friends are top priority to Tuscan natives. After digging deeper, I am learning from the locals. They are open to me because I let my guard down and proceed with an open mind into their culture. After slowly tuning into their beliefs, I respect the Florentine way of life.
Not only did I realize how much I was going to discover while living in Florence, every city unexpectedly taught me something. Unsubstantial beliefs made me not want to visit some of the cities I have come to love the most.
While exploring new countries, I am left to depend on strangers. Proceeding with caution, I ask residents for directions or suggestions for a place to eat. This is a simple way of integrating myself into a new way of life. An uninhibited attitude seems to be the key to meeting new friends from different countries.
Looking back on the summer when my future roommates suggested we make our way to Germany, I had little interest in believing Germans were cold and Munich was a city that had little to offer. After three days, I met friends who I continue to talk to today. German natives were open and their kindness immeasurable. After a short weekend, I was planning a trip back.
Again to my surprise, Amsterdam was one of my favorite cities. The city is dynamic and the best discoveries lie beyond the red-light district. The Netherlands has traditionally been one of the wealthier countries in Europe. The city is known for its liberal policies, but despite common belief, the Dutch I encountered are hardworking, successful professionals. People in Amsterdam seem to balance work and leisure perfectly. Physically, Amsterdam best portrays the community's ideas about life. The city's simple but beautiful and expensive real estate displays the Dutch's dedication to work and simultaneous their passion for art and recreation.
Paris unexpectedly taught me the most about the inaccuracy of stereotypes. Before going to Paris, friends from home repeated the tired line that "the French hate Americans." Contrastingly, the people I encountered in Paris are some of the kindest people I met in all my travels. While in Paris not one glance was unnoticed, and eye contact was always followed by a smile. After ordering escargot, locals sitting next to my friend and I stopped eating to demonstrate the right way to eat the delicacy. The French seem open to Americans as well as world tourists who come to visit their city. Though I did not make my way out of Paris to the French countryside, I am critical of typical representations of French culture.
Looking closer, Americans cannot be defined through broad representations. Likewise, no culture abides by what outsiders typically expect. Everyday is a learning experience, whether traveling to another country or spending time in Florence, culture is not cut-and-dry, and as time goes on, fortunately, no culture lives up to the stereotypes. Select adjectives and broad reputations cannot describe an entire population. Culture is complex and an enriching experience enjoyed only with an open mind. Accepting surface answers would have cheated me out of the heart of all my new adventures.
Kathleen Crouch is a University College senior majoring in Journalism and media studies. Her column "Adventures from Abroad," which she writes from Italy, runs on alternate Fridays.