Final Reflection

Reflection on Language

Reflecting on my experience in Italy this summer after having returned to the United States, I am amazed by how much I was able to learn about the country and its culture. When I first arrived in May, I was both daunted and excited by the prospect of using Italian in all of my everyday interactions, in and out of the classroom. Even though my study at Notre Dame left me fairly confident in my ability to speak Italian, I was worried that I would seem “American,” that is, that I would make embarrassing errors that would immediately give me away as a non-native Italian speaker. Of course, in many of my conversations with Italians, this is precisely what took place. But I now realize that these sorts of errors are uniquely valuable with regard to language acquisition. In fact, making mistakes and being corrected by native speakers over the course of a conversation is, in my experience, the best way to improve conversational ability in a relatively short amount of time. And because the experience of making a mistake in front of native speakers can be quite memorable, I feel that I am extremely unlikely to forget the the improvements and corrections I’ve made during these sorts of “trial by fire” conversations in Italy this summer.

Further, perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of my time in Italy was being able to experience and appreciate Italian culture. Of course, I recognized several differences between American and Italian life that I found interesting, and there were many instances where I felt that Italians have developed better, more imaginative ways of going about things than we have in America. At the same time, I understand that Italy occupies a unique cultural context, and with this context come a number of problems that are simply not present in America. Above all, I was fascinated by the way Italy is able to balance ancient tradition and full-fledged modernity. In fact, this exact blend of old and new is, in my opinion, one of the most appealing aspects of Italy.

Most importantly, this summer, I feel that I was able to accomplish all three of the language goals that I initially set for myself. By the end of my trip, I felt confident conversing with native Italian speakers, even for extended periods of time and about diverse topics. I had absolutely no trouble navigating Italian stores, train stations, airports, and other public spaces, speaking exclusively in Italian. Finally, I feel that I made great progress toward a deeper understanding of written Italian, especially in its more contemporary forms. I was able to study and understand many of the most important Italian writings of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, and these literary studies have continued to inspire me to stick with my study of Italian literature at Notre Dame and beyond.

Reflection on Experience

Overall, my SLA experience was enjoyable and enlightening, often in unexpected ways. Being in Italy certainly reinforced the value of travel for me, but I also came to realize that travel is an activity completely distinct from tourism. Although it was fun to see famous sites in Rome and elsewhere, by far the most valuable experiences I had while in Italy were speaking and connecting with native Italians, without any sort of language barrier. Still better, remaining in the same place for weeks or even more than a month at a time really allowed me to get to know the places I visited as well as begin friendships with several Italian people, both of which were invaluable experiences for me. Along these lines, traveling in Italy also helped me to change the way I see the world. Even though I had studied Italy and its language in classes, textbooks, and articles, I realize now that there is truly no substitute for actually being there and speaking with real Italians. Above all, I noticed that Italians are incredibly proud of their culture, much in the same way that Americans are proud of our country. This very fact shattered any remaining notion I had of America as a figurative “center of the universe” because the simple reality, as so clearly evidenced by my interactions with these new people, is that it is not. Traveling to Italy this summer has opened me to the incredible diversity available in the world and has given me an increased appreciation for the value of other cultures as well as cross-cultural learning. Most importantly, learning to communicate effectively and clearly with Italians in their own language proved to enhance my learning experience immeasurably.

For all of these reasons, I am grateful for the opportunity to have studied in Italy with the help of a SLA Grant, and I wholeheartedly recommend that other language students apply. Spending time in another country is an unforgettable experience, and I am now inspired to continue studying, learning, and traveling.

Reflection on the Future

Now that I am back in the United States, I will continue to improve my Italian language skills by reading Italian books and articles, watching Italian news and television, and continuing my rigorous study of the language at Notre Dame. During the upcoming fall semester, I will be taking Medieval and Renaissance Italian Literature as well as Let’s Talk Italian II (a conversational Italian class). In my remaining time at Notre Dame, I plan to complete a major in Italian Literature and Culture and will hopefully write a substantial thesis in Italian during my senior year. The language skills I have learned this summer as well as my increased cultural knowledge will be crucial to completing these academic tasks in the rest of my undergraduate career.

After graduation, my SLA has inspired me to seek opportunities to travel to new places whenever possible. In terms of my Italian language development, I hope to one day perfect my ability to speak Italian at a near-native level proficiency, and I feel that my time in Italy has certainly set me on a track toward reaching this goal. Because learning this language has already been such a valuable, transformative experience, I aspire to learn other languages as well in the hope of achieving both personal improvement and increased cultural understanding. In terms of professional development, although my knowledge of Italian may not directly apply to work in the medical field in America, I will be sure to take much of Dr. Anna Lisa Bilotta’s personal and professional philosophy with me as I work to become a doctor, and I hope that the empathy I’ve learned for other people while traveling will one day translate into my being able to more compassionately deliver healthcare. In all, I could not be more grateful for the opportunity to live and study in Italy this summer, and I feel that I am now a better person for having done it.

Capri, Italy

Rome, Italy

Greve in Chianti, Italy

Puglia, Italy

Rome – Dinner with Italian Friends

I have now reached the end of my time in Italy for the summer! At the end of my trip I spent a couple more days in Rome in anticipation of my flight from Fiumicino back to my home state of Nevada. While there, I was able to show my family some of my favorite places in the city including the Villa Borghese (a large public park just north of the city’s historic center) and the Galleria Borghese, which is a beautiful collection of art featuring works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Michelangelo da Caravaggio, and Antonio Canova, among several others. The museum also features an astonishing collection of ancient art, especially from Imperial Rome. My favorite work in the gallery was certainly Bernini’s sculpture, Apollo e Dafne. Executed between 1622 and 1625, the sculpture depicts the exact moment that Daphne begins to transform into a tree during her flight from Apollo, according to the ancient story. The sculpture is stunningly detailed, full of suspension and motion. In addition, the sculpture shows Daphne’s fingertips just as they are beginning to sprout tree branches, a detail which I found to be particularly thoughtful and creative.

Another highlight during my final day in Rome was the San Luigi dei Francesi church and a famous Caravaggio painting in its interior, Vocazione di san Matteo (The Calling of St. Matthew). This painting was of particular interest for me because I had the opportunity to study it as a part of my Foundations of Theology class during my freshman year at Notre Dame. Most obviously, the way Caravaggio was able to capture light and shadow in the painting are extraordinary. Further, the painting is replete with symbols and iconographically significant details, the most interesting of which is the hand of Christ as he calls out to Matthew. His hand is in exactly the same form as the hand of Adam on the ceiling of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, though in this painting, the hand is an exact mirror image of Adam’s hand, intended to be emblematic of the Incarnation. The Vocazione di san Matteo is absolutely one of my favorite paintings, and seeing it in person was an incredible opportunity.

The night before my flight home, I was able to have dinner with my family as well as our longtime friends who are native Italians and residents of Rome. My dad became friends with Dr. Patrizia Mancini when she was an exchange student at the University of Minnesota about 25 years ago, and since then, my dad has kept in contact with her. Earlier in the summer during my internship in Rome, I spent time with Patrizia, her husband Angelo, and their daughter Costanza. Over the course of the dinner, I spoke with the Mancini’s (almost exclusively in Italian), and I had the opportunity to discuss a variety of subjects with them, including their opinions of America. All three members of the family generally had positive impressions of America and are particularly impressed by the United States’ economic power, as well as American popular culture including music and movies. However, at the same time, all three of the Mancini’s were honest with me when they expressed their negative opinions with regard to American political discourse, which they find to be generally crass and mostly disrespectful. They resent that Italian politics are becoming more populist in line with political trends in America.

Costanza’s opinion of America as a young person was distinct from her parents’. Costanza is entering her final year of high school in Rome and, along with many of her friends, it is one of her goals to either attend a university in the United States or eventually work in the United States. America is generally perceived by Italians (especially younger Italians) to be a place of significant economic opportunity, where Italy can sometimes be perceived as somewhat corrupt and less conducive to economic mobility. Overall, my conversation with these Italian friends was enlightening, and it served to confirm many of the ideas that I had previously heard about in Italian classes at Notre Dame or in the Italian media.

Bernini’s Apollo e Dafne in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, Italy

Caravaggio’s Vocazione di san Matteo in the Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, Italy

Dinner in Rome with my family and Patrizia, Angelo, and Costanza Mancini

Puglia – Cavalcata di Sant’Oronzo

For the past week, after having officially finished my academic program in Sorrento, I have been fortunate enough to spend time in the region of Puglia, commonly known as the “heel of the boot” of Italy. The region is primarily agricultural, though it is dotted with several towns and a few larger cities including Bari, Lecce, Brindisi, and Taranto. During my time here, I was able to see the towns of Polignano a Mare, Monopoli, Ostuni, Alberobello, Locorotondo, and the city of Lecce. The cultural influences on the region (African, Greek, Spanish, French, and Turkish, to name a few) all blend to produce a fascinatingly unique region that is distinct from every other area of Italy that I have previously visited. In addition, English is much less common here, so I was able to fully immerse myself in Italian without being able to rely on English in almost every situation, which proved to be a valuable learning experience in terms of my conversational Italian skills.

I found the town of Ostuni to be particularly interesting. Its old town is an agglomeration of beautiful white buildings and squares, all perched on top of a hill some distance from the east coast of Puglia. Its historic center is aesthetically striking, and because of the number of white buildings in the town, Ostuni is known as the città bianca, or “white city.” While visiting Ostuni, I spoke with several local residents as well as an official in the town’s tourist office regarding local holidays and festivals, the most unique of which is certainly the Cavalcata di Sant’Oronzo. Both the local residents as well as the officials in the tourist office gave essentially the same account of the holiday, its origins, and its cultural significance today. The festival takes place on August 25, 26, and 27 in accordance with the feast day of Saint Orontius (Sant’Oronzo in Italian), who is an incredibly important saint in the entire region of Puglia. In fact, Sant’Oronzo is most popularly known as Saint Orontius of Lecce. The festival is said to date back to the 17th century (1657 to be exact) and originated because Saint Orontius is credited with having protected the town of Ostuni from the terrible plague that ravaged most of the surrounding area. Today, the feast is celebrated with processions of knights and horses, along with a large statue of Saint Orontius carried on the shoulders of local citizens, throughout the town to the cathedral. For this reason, the festival is referred to today as the Cavalcata, that is, involving a procession of horses.

The Cavalcata di Sant’Oronzo is of significant cultural import for the citizens of Ostuni as well as the people of Puglia. All Catholic holidays are important in Italy (which is not surprising, given the strong influence of the Catholic Church), but feast days of patron saints of towns are particularly important for local residents. These holidays are seen as a source of local pride and a way to distinguish towns and regions in Italy which are already extraordinarily diverse in terms of cultural traditions. Most impressively, the Cavalcata di Sant’Oronzo has been celebrated for hundreds of years, and it is likely to be a tradition passed down for generations to come. Overall, I am very glad to have been able to see this beautiful region during my time in Italy this summer. It was a wonderful opportunity to interact with Italian people in a region that is more rural and traditional compared with the places I have already visited.

Cathedral of Ostuni – Puglia, Italy

Alberobello, Italy (traditional Apulian trulli houses pictured)

Locorotondo, Italy

Tuscany – La bistecca fiorentina

Before coming to Italy, I certainly understood that food was an important part of Italian culture. However, I did not realize just how fundamental the country’s gastronomic traditions were to the national identity. Further, I was unaware just how diverse Italian cuisine is. Each of Italy’s 20 regions is home to a unique way of cooking and eating food, and yet every one of them is unbelievably delicious. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to travel away from Sorrento (which has a cuisine characterized most prominently by seafood as well as strong Neapolitan and Campanian influences like pizza) to Tuscany. Tuscan food is known for its simplicity. Vegetables, bread, cheese, fruit, game, and wine constitute the majority of the Tuscan diet and the region is especially well known for its preparations of wild boar, rabbit, and deer meat. However, there is perhaps no other dish more iconic here than the Florentine steak. The bistecca fiorentina is a porterhouse cut derived exclusively from the animal’s shoulder. I was fortunate enough to try it (along with many other cuts of meat, including the similar costata) at the Officina della Bistecca in Panzano in Chianti, a restaurant owned and operated by Dario Cecchini who in recent decades has become something of a celebrity in Italy and abroad for his traditional style of preparing the meat, as well as his meticulous care for the animals from which the meat comes. Earlier this year, Dario was featured in the sixth season of a Netflix documentary, Chef’s Table.

While eating at the Officina della Bistecca with some friends from Notre Dame, I had the chance to meet Dario and talk with him briefly. In addition, I also had conversations with Dario’s staff as well as a group of native Italians sitting adjacent to us at our table (Dario insists that all his guests sit together at large tables). What distinguishes Dario’s preparation from many others is that his intention is to highlight the quality of the meat itself as opposed to other extraneous flavors. He serves meat without any sauce (or any other additive for that matter) after cooking it on a fire grill for about eight minutes on each side, and despite the lack of any sort of seasoning, the steaks are shockingly flavorful. The bistecca fiorentina is clearly a source of pride for Dario, and it is certainly a culturally significant dish for the region of Tuscany. Historically, the bistecca fiorentina, because of the simple way it’s prepared, has been central to large gatherings and festivals intended to feed crowds of people. Today, it has taken on the identity of one of Tuscany’s most famous and most delicious dishes.

After returning from Tuscany, I have now finished my academic program at the Istituto Sant’Anna in Sorrento. I completed my last final exam for Contemporary Italian Literature and wrote my final paper for the History of Italian Cinema on Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza. Over the past five weeks of my program, I feel that I have learned a substantial amount about Italian language, literature, art, and history. In terms of my language acquisition, this has all been an invaluable opportunity for personal improvement. Next week, I will be heading to explore some of the region of Puglia!

Brendan O’Brien, Sabrina Vorne, John Duffy, and I with Dario Cecchini

Panzano in Chianti, Italy

Costata alla Fiorentina

Current Events in Italy

After almost four weeks of intensive study at the Sant’Anna Institute, I have very nearly completed my language program for the summer. During my last week of class, I will be preparing for a final exam in my contemporary Italian literature class and will be writing a substantial paper on the topic of one of my favorite Italian films, La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty), which won an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2014. In addition, this week, I had a chance to speak with Serena Vacca, the Study Abroad Coordinator at the Sant’Anna Institute in a short conversation about current events in Italy, especially those events that are of cultural and social significance.

When I spoke with Serena, I chose to ask her about a prominent political figure in Italy, Matteo Salvini, who is the Deputy Prime Minister of Italy as well as the Minister of the Interior. Although he is not officially the Italian head of state, he functionally is capable of setting much of the Italian government’s agenda and making executive decisions that have significant impact. Salvini is widely considered to be a controversial figure because of his traditional, right-wing beliefs that many perceive to be loosely correlated with those of the American president, Donald Trump. In fact, Salvini recently made a trip to the White House in order to further solidify a relationship between Rome and the Trump Administration:

I asked Serena what her personal opinion of Salvini is, how she believes Salvini is influencing and changing Italian culture, and what the popular opinion of Salvini is in Italy, both generally and regionally, as Italy is known for having significant regional cultural differences. Serena expressed her vehement disapproval of Salvini both personally and in terms of his politics. She believes that Salvini frequently makes use of propagandistic tactics in order to incite racism and xenophobia, especially against immigrants from African and Middle Eastern countries. Along these lines, Serena believes that Salvini is helping to transform Italian culture and society into one that is less tolerant of non-Italians and non-Europeans. Salvini tends to be significantly more popular in the north of Italy, as the political party of which he is the highest official (la Lega) originated as a “party of the North” in the 1980’s. Lastly, I chose to speak with Serena about Salvini’s relationship to Catholicism, as he frequently appeals to more traditional Catholics who make up a large portion of his constituency. Serena clarified that Salvini’s frequent invocation of the Catholic faith and its symbols are a facet of the above mentioned propagandistic tactics, and that in reality, Salvini is a political enemy of the Vatican. The Pope has spoken out, both directly and indirectly, against Salvini’s policies, as have many bishops.

In all, my conversation with Serena was extremely enlightening, especially in the context of the recent European elections that resulted in significant victories for Salvini’s party. Over the past week, I also had the opportunity to make another visit to the Amalfi coast to hike the Sentiero degli dei, or the “Path of the Gods.” In addition to the incredible scenery, I was able to speak with many different people from all over Italy, Europe, and the world.

Matteo Salvini in Rome

Agerola, Italy

Sorrento – Week 2 (June 9)

I have now completed my second full week of classes in Sorrento and am nearing the halfway point of my academic program for this summer. I have already noticed significant improvements in my ability to speak and understand Italian. Engaging in discussions in class, watching new movies, and speaking with Italians in town at markets, restaurants, and stores has allowed me to gain confidence when speaking and has proven to be a useful exercise in improving my ability listen, process spoken Italian quickly, and respond appropriately. Over my last few semesters of Italian study at Notre Dame and especially now in Italy, I’ve noticed that I rely less and less on mentally translating words and phrases that I read or hear into English. Italian, in my mind, has started to take on meaning, in and of itself, independent of my native knowledge of English. This allows me to be less clumsy and more fluent in conversation, and it means that I can write in Italian much more quickly and precisely.

In my contemporary literature class, we have just begun reading some early 20th century (World War I era) poetry. Today in class, we read four selections from Giuseppe Ungaretti, a Tuscan modernist poet and essayist who is known for having written extremely short poems on packs of cigarettes during his service in the Italian army. But even though the poems are short, they are intricate compositions, using words whose basic sounds are suggestive of a more symbolic meaning. Such poetry is a prime example of a tradition that would come to be known as Ermetismo (Hermeticism) which is cryptic, difficult to understand, and heavily dependent on context.

In my Italian film class, we continue to watch and discuss important movies such as Federico Fellini’s La strada and Pietro Germi’s Divorzio all’italiana. The former is an example of Italian auteur cinema (cinema d’autore in Italian) and the latter is the essential classic from the genre known as the Commedia all’italiana (Italian Style Comedies). Both are excellent, but I found that I prefer Divorzio all’italiana because, although it is somewhat dark in its subject matter, it is much more lighthearted and easy to understand in terms of its social commentary. Tomorrow, we are watching one of the most famous Italian movies ever made, Fellini’s La dolce vita.

This past week, I was also able to explore the town of Sorrento much more and I feel that I’m starting to get to know my way around. I’ve also been able to find some top notch gelato and pizza places. In addition, I’ve also enjoyed the experience of learning to cook for myself and plan meals. I appreciate the independence and the ability to try new recipes.

Me, my literature professor Domenico, and his two students, Lorenzo and Benedetta at a lecture and reading on Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata at the Museo Correale of Sorrento.

Piazza Sant’Antonino – Sorrento, Italy

Sorrento – Week 1 (June 2)

I have now completed my first full week of classes at the Sant’Anna Institute in Sorrento! I arrived here by train a little more than a week ago and am enthusiastic about the opportunity to fully dedicate myself to achieving a greater degree of fluency in Italian. Over the next five weeks, I will take two courses: Contemporary Italian Literature with Professor Domenico Palumbo as well as History of Italian Cinema with Professor Marco Marino. My literature class involves several readings each week as well as weekly compositions of varying length. So far, we have read works by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Aldo Palazzeschi, Italo Svevo, and today Luigi Pirandello. It has been incredibly interesting to learn about these early 20th century authors, the literary movements that they helped to create, and their unique historical contexts in Europe with such significant events taking place as the recent unification of the nation of Italy, the First World War, and the rise of Fascism in Italy and its corresponding cultural and literary influences and counter-movements. Italo Svevo and Luigi Pirandello have been particularly interesting because of the way they consider memory in an almost Proustian yet completely unique and provocative way. In my film class, we watch a new movie at each class meeting. The course is a broad examination of Italian film beginning with the Neorealist movement directly after World War II and continuing into the current day. So far, we’ve watched Roma, città aperta, Ladri di biciclette, and Umberto D., all of which are important films that, with the exception of Ladri di biciclette, I had not seen before this course. Over the next week or so, we will transition from neorealist films to some of the most important Italian comedies.

Outside of class, I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring the town of Sorrento as well as some of the surrounding area. I navigated the Neapolitan train station as well as the Circumvesuviana line to arrive here last week, and this past weekend, I had the opportunity to see both Positano on the Amalfi Coast and the island of Capri, both of which are extraordinarily beautiful places. I’m looking forward to getting to know the culture of Sorrento much better over the next several weeks as I continue to practice speaking, reading, writing, and listening to Italian.

Positano, Italy

View of Mt. Vesuvius from the terrace of the Sant’Anna Institute – Sorrento, Italy

Shadowing in a Roman Hospital – May 26, 2019

Over the past two weeks, I have had the wonderful opportunity of shadowing an Italian endocrinologist, Dr. Anna Lisa Bilotta. Dr. Bilotta was kind enough to provide this experience for me on relatively short notice, and living near and working at the Salvator Mundi International Hospital with her has been incredibly worthwhile for me, both in terms of my Italian language acquisition, as well as my knowledge of the healthcare field. I arrived in Rome on May 12, got settled in my small apartment in the Trastevere neighborhood near the Piazza San Cosimato (at the base of the Janiculum Hill), and began working with Dr. Bilotta the next day. In order to work in the hospital, I was required to enter the Italian Agenzia delle entrate (basically the equivalent of the DMV in America) to obtain a codice fiscale, or an identification number with the Italian government. Although this presented some difficulty, I was able to explain my situation in Italian to the officials in the office and eventually acquired the fiscal code.

Dr. Bilotta and her colleagues at Salvator Mundi are extraordinary teachers. Each morning at 9 AM, Dr. Bilotta took the time to sit down with me in her office and explain a number of issues in the Italian healthcare system and differences in her experience between Italy and the United States. She also gave me detailed accounts of her personal medical philosophy, taught me about the basics of internal medicine, and helped me to understand endocrine anatomy and physiology, disorders, and treatments. This was a wonderful exercise in terms of learning more scientific and medical Italian, and allowed me to more deeply understand how Italian healthcare works in both public and private hospitals.

One of the most interesting and rewarding parts of the experience was being able to meet some of Dr. Bilotta’s patients. As mentioned, Salvator Mundi is an international hospital. I was able to encounter extraordinary people living in Rome from all over the world including ambassadors, religious missionaries and students, professors and many others. In some cases, I was even able to help translate Italian terms and medicines into English (and on one occasion, French) so that the patients were better able to understand their prescribed treatments. Above all, I was struck by the compassion with which Dr. Bilotta approaches her patients and the love she has for her profession. Instead of viewing her job as little more than a way to pay her bills, Dr. Bilotta views endocrinology and internal medicine as serious social obligations, ones that she thoroughly enjoys fulfilling.

Lastly, during my two weeks in Rome, I was able to explore much of the ancient city and interact with locals. In my free time, I saw breathtaking art in the Vatican Museums, appreciated beautiful public spaces like the Villa Borghese, and spoke with real Italians in supermarkets, stores, and train stations. After two weeks, I certainly have a new appreciation for the city’s history, as well as its important place in modern Italy and Europe. Now, I am looking forward to taking classes in Sorrento!