Reflections on language learning and acculturation:

Upon my arrival in Italy in June, I was hesitant to speak with my first taxi driver. I was embarrassed about making mistakes and scared that I would get stuck halfway through a sentence searching for vocabulary. However, over the course of my time in Siena these inhibitions slowly diminished. I learned that Italian are, in general, happy to humor a language learner. Although sometimes restaurant workers or cashiers would address me using English, if I explained that I was in Italy to study Italian, they would happily switch back to Italian, and sometimes even give me mini grammar lessons. Once I got over my fear of speaking to locals, I also realized that I was much more easily able to correct grammatical mistakes or remember vocabulary when it was pointed out to me during a conversation than when I learned it in class. In terms my pre-departure goals, I wanted to be able to blend in well enough to not be pegged as an American immediately. I think I was successful here. By the end of 7 weeks in Italy, waiters often asked me what country I was from. A few times in Siena, visiting Italians even asked me for directions!

Reflections on my SLA experience overall:

SLA gave me my first opportunity to live/travel outside of the United States. I didn’t anticipate how difficult the first couple weeks in a new country would be. Going to the grocery store, eating at a restaurant, or even buying a slice of pizza all showed me how much the little differences matter. For example, trying to buy a 1 euro coffee with a 50 euro bill is a no-go. Over time, though, I learned to set aside my pride and be more open and comfortable with embarrassment. I realized that although locals might get frustrated with tourists, if they notice you sincerely striving to adapt to the culture, they are happy to help. I also learned to sit back and observe before jumping into an unfamiliar situation. By simply watching people in restaurants, train stations, or bars, I gained valuable insight into the little difficult-to-define cultural habits.

Plans for the future:

My time in Italy has given my language skills a huge boost that I will carry through my last year of Italian classes as I fulfill the requirements for the minor. I also feel that the insights I have gained from living in Italy will make my Italian cultural classes much more interesting and fulfilling. In a more general sense, I have developed a desire to live/work abroad after graduation. I know that many American engineering companies have offices in Europe, and my new goal is to get one of these jobs. The skills that I have gained through living abroad this summer will definitely help me whether I end up in Italy or any other country.

Arrivaderci Siena

Friday was my last day of classes and the official end of my SLA grant, but since I am staying in Italy for 2 weeks to travel independently, I decided to continue my blog posts. My computer is still broken, so I am writing this on my phone.

For the last week of lessons my class only had 3 students for the first time since the first week. I like these smaller class sizes better because there is more opportunity to speak. The difference in my abilities between the first and last week were amazing! I could even express myself using the periodo ipotetico without stumbling too much! For the last day of class we watched “La Mafia uccide solo d’estate,” which is a historical fiction movie set in Palermo during the height of the Mafia killings. Afterwards we discussed the themes and historical context. Having this type of discussion class instead of a grammar lesson was a great way to end the program.

Sunday morning at 4 am I set out on the Via Francigena, which is a historical pilgrim route that leads from southern England to Rome and passes through Siena. I have a trekking backpack as my only luggage, so I thought it would be cool to walk at least part of the way to Rome. After packing all my belongings though, my backpack was heavier than I expected, and after about 20 miles of walking I was dead tired. I ended up in a town called Buonconvento. Little did I know that small Tuscan towns virtually shut down on Sundays. The tourist office, bus station, and most restaurants were closed. On top of that, my phone charger had stopped working.I had a hard time even finding an open restaurant, so I didn’t think there would be a place to buy a new charger. Physically exhausted and cut off from the world. I decided to take a nap in a park before I decided what to do. At this point it was only about 2:00 in the afternoon. I woke up at about 3:00 and figured my best option was to take a train to the next large town (I had learned that no buses run on Sundays, so having no way to get to it, I had to cancel the airbnb that I had booked a couple days before.) I bought a ticket at the self-service kiosk, but the next train to Grosseto didn’t leave for about 3 hours. While waiting at the train station, the town really got quite. The only noise I could hear was the occasional car driving by a few roads away. It was a bit eerie. After a while a well dressed but obviously mentally handicapped man walked up to me and started talking. I had a pretty long conversation with him in Italian. Apparently, he had just clocked out of his job at the museum up the road and liked to come to the train station to talk to travelers. Eventually, the train came and I got on. Luckily, there was a hotel in Grosseto right next to the train station. I got a room, showered, and slept for about 12 hours.

Although I only did a part of the trail, walking through Tuscany was really special. Eventually, I would like to come back and do the whole trek from Siena to Rome, but with a lighter backpack and when it’s not so hot. Now, I am in Rome and will be here until Saturday.

I will update with pictures when I get access to a computer.

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

One More Week

This post is a little late, but my laptop charger decided to stop working, so I have had a hard time finding access to a computer. Last weekend a bunch of the other Notre Dame students and I went to the Cinque Terre. It was beautiful! While I have really been enjoying all the museums and churches, it was nice to have a weekend of hiking and relaxing on the beach. The picture bellow was taken as we were hiking between Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza at around 2 pm. It was extremely hot, so as soon as we reached Vernazza we went straight into the ocean for a swim.

In terms of language progress the last week has been great. We transitioned to speaking mostly Italian in my culture class. Being able to spend the whole day speaking Italian instead of having to transition back to English has really helped. Over the past few days we took two field trips to Florence, visiting the Accademia and the Uffizi, but it was too crowded to get any good pictures. We have now moved on to more modern history. From the end of last week and all through this week we are discussing fascism. On Friday we watched the movie “Una Giornata Particolare.” Granted there were subtitles in Italian, but it was still really cool to be able to understand all the dialoge.

Because it was my last weekend, I decided to stay here in Siena. It was the first non-Palio weekend that I have spent here, and it is amzing how at home i felt. I am really going to miss living in Siena and the Senese people. Anyway, I am going to keep this short today because I don’t have much time on the school computers. A Dopo!

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

Pre-Palio Festivities

Last Tuesday was Il Palio, the biannual horse race and festival that takes place on the main square Piazza del Campo. Although the race itself was fun, the best part was the lead-up to it. This week in my cultural class, we focused on the cultural significance of both the Palio and the Contrade, or neighborhoods, that compete in the race. I learned that both of these are much more than they appear on the surface. From the mutually sustaining relationship that the Palio and Contrade have, to the intriguing and complex strategy and bribery that goes on in the race itself, the system is at the very basis of Sienese culture.

What I’ve found most interesting about the system is the deep connection that people feel with it, even though it really doesn’t matter in any way other than symbolically. The winning Contrada, for example, doesn’t get any reward other than a banner. The Contrade themselves, in fact, are very similar to each other in terms of organization and activities. The only difference between them being the artificial boundaries. Still, rivalries between Contrade exist that are so heated that “mixed” couples have to live in separate houses during the 4 days of the event. Altogether, the allegiance to Contrade and importance of the Palio rises to a level beyond even the most intense professional sports rivals. Interestingly, though, this rivalry only exists during the Palio (and maybe during the few weeks leading up to it.) For most of the year, the rivalries don’t really exist.

Last Saturday my Neapolitan roommate, Michele, invited me to go with him to the first Prova, or trial, of the horses after they had been selected and assigned to the Contrade. Having watched the pre-selection runs of the horses and the assignment lottery with my Notre Dame friends, I was excited to get the perspective of a non-Sienese Italian on the Palio. Although he has lived here for a year and a half, he didn’t grow up with the Contrada system. The differences between how he and my cultural class instructor (who is a prominent member of the Torre Contrada) view the Palio is striking. While Michele was quite knowledgeable about the details of the horses and jockeys, he seemed to view the race as just a sporting event, a view that any “real” Sienese would disparage.

On Monday night we had the opportunity to go to the Contrada dinner  for Torre, which is a massive event where about two-thousand people dine on the street. The cooks and servers are all volunteers from the Contrada. I ended up sitting by some people from Rimini, who had family in Siena. We talked a lot about sports, especially basketball and baseball. I feel like I’m making a lot of progress with my Italian, especially after talking so much with Italians during the Palio events.

Arrival, Settling in, and Assisi

(Apparently I failed to actually hit the publish button on this post last week.)

It has been one week since I arrived here in Siena. After over 26 hours of traveling, it was with great relief that I finally stepped out of the taxi in front of the door to my apartment last Sunday. Lucca, one of the teachers at Dante, had been conducting a class in Rome and was nice enough to pick me up at the airport. Together James (one of the other ND students here), Lucca, and myself took a taxi from the airport to the Tiburtina bus station, then a bus to Siena, and then finally another taxi to our apartments. Lucca made sure I got in the building door alright, and then left in the taxi. Now alone for the first time, I was confronted with an issue. There were two staircases Infront of me, Scala A and Scala B. Not knowing where exactly my apartment was, I chose Scala A and started up. After reaching the top without encountering any open doors, I turned around and tried the other staircase, with similar results.

Now a little concerned, I luckily remembered that I had received an email with my landlady’s phone number. I called the number, and Paula answered, “Pronto?” After using mostly English with Lucca, this was the first time that I had to use Italian, so I was a little rusty. With some effort, I succeeded in explaining that I was actually inside the building but just didn’t know which door my apartment was. Once we reached an understanding, Paula came down to collect me and take me up to my room (which ended up being near the top of Scala A).

Paula showed me the “need to knows” of the apartment and introduced me to some of my apartment mates, including one native Italian who is studying at the University of Siena. After this point I was exhausted and went to bed as soon as possible but was quickly woken up by a Contrada parade in the street bellow my window.

First day in Siena

The rest of the week involved getting settled in at my apartment and at the school. I am taking two classes here. Every weekday, I have 4 hours of language classes. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I have about three hours of Italian History through the Arts, which involves field trips to museums. This week, we went to the Archaeological Museum, focusing our study on Etruscan funerary statues, as well as the Duomo museum and “so called” crypt. (It is “so called” because there actually aren’t any bodies buried there.)

On the Porta del Cielo above the Duomo

In terms of language use outside of class, I have been running into an issue. When I am talking to a shop owner, for example, I use Italian. However, when the owner responds in Italian, I take a couple seconds to understand the question and think of a response. Most of the time at this point, my conversation partner just switches to English. Hopefully in a week or two I’ll be able to respond quickly enough to avoid this problem.

Eating a panino

Oh yeah. Yesterday a bunch of the ND students here decided to take a trip to Assisi. Here are some of the pictures.

Basilica di San Francesco
Overlooking the Umbrian countryside

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