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When in Rome, You’re Really Not

Until you try...

Urban water fountains in Rome, Annalisa Nash Fernandez

Remember that foreign vacation you had, discovering new foods, fumbling with the language, getting lost and feeling a world away from home? Then it must have been a long time ago. Street maps, traveler’s checks, glossy postcards, long distance telephone operators, and foreign languages are iconic vestiges of travel in days past.

Nowadays, the foreign is hard to find. Unless you’re an FX trader or manage a multinational balance sheet, foreign currency is all about small change: almost anyone will take a credit card or the US dollar for the big stuff. The Euro doesn’t have the cachet of the franc or lira. And taxi drivers march to the beat of a GPS, no drama.

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is not so easy to do. Tourists make Rome their land. Sit in a café on Piazza Navona, and you will struggle to hear a few words of Italian. Your waiter speaks English, the menu sports global offerings in picture format, and wifi connects you home. Is that foreign? Are you really even abroad? No. You’re going to have to try harder.

I grew up in the last century spending the summer with my grandparents in what were actually foreign countries. When my grandfather was transferred to Greece to run the foreign division of a Coca-Cola bottler, they didn’t have a home phone – let alone an internet connection. Taxi drivers slicked back their hair with olive oil, screamed out the window to ask and admonish, and turned off the engine to save gas going downhill. I smuggled avocados to my grandmother from California because produce was not yet globalized. You ate what was grown locally, and avocados weren’t grown in Greece. Then it was Italy, where my grandmother stopped the car alongside a cornfield to steal a few ears of corn for our little 4th of July picnic, because it was grown only for feed and not available in supermarkets. Most Italians didn’t have washing machines because they were hard on their fine fabrics. My parents sent my brother and I to visit one at a time, because there were no seatbelts in the back seat of Italian cars (my grandmother was relegated to the back for my safety). I got an allowance in Italian lira, and followed the exchange rate in the local paper to see if it rose in value. Outside of tourism and academia, no one spoke English, so I had to learn Italian to get through the summer. It was a foreign country.

As a college student in the 1980s, I studied abroad in Argentina. I learned Spanish like a native. Fast forward: the college kids to whom I taught Portuguese last year came back from their study abroad programs conversant, but not fluent. They didn’t have a foreign experience. Back when I was at the Universidad Católica de Córdoba, there was only one other foreign student, and he only spoke Japanese. My students are now separated from the locals to take classes with the other “world language” students. In the day, when I asked an Argentine on the street for directions, they either bombarded me with genuine interest and invited me for un cafecito, or had never heard an accent and thought I had a speech defect. My students now just use their iPhone for directions and travel with a pack of gringos.

When I travelled “deep” during those years, I defined returning to civilization as reaching a city big enough to distribute the International Herald Tribune. I grabbed it off the first newsstand like a caffeine addict clamoring for a cappuccino. Pesos meant a bargain: my parents mailed me a twenty dollar bill weekly, with which I paid my college tuition (no tuition reciprocity at Georgetown U in those days), the utilities in the apartment I shared with two real Argentines, and all my travel and incidental expenses. There was no room for helicopter parents – I called home once weekly from the cabinas telefónicas downtown at four dollars per minute. I therefore spoke only 8 minutes of English per week. And did I mention that I learned Spanish like a native? Kids these days …

Following in my grandparents’ foreign footsteps, I too became a corporate expatriate. As newlyweds, my husband and I arrived in Brazil on the forefront of globalization and a nascent internet, but it still began as a foreign experience. Shops and services closed midday on Saturday for the weekend. We always slept in after a long week as corporate slaves, so we went a year without a haircut. We got lost when roads ended in sugar cane fields, and celebrated finding the next village with a newly discovered caipirinha cocktail. By the fourth year, we bought imported food at Carrefour on Sundays, had a US phone number ringing to our computer, and socialized with a diverse expatriate community. Yes, we immersed ourselves in Brazilian language, music, and culture – but we had options. Options that my grandparents did not have, which made their experience truly foreign, and ours just global.

Technology has given us Skype language lessons, travel apps, online foreign newspapers, and a wealth of other resources with which to learn about foreign languages and cultures. It is easier than ever to study world languages or travel abroad. But it is harder than ever to become fluent or get a truly foreign travel experience. So When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Get just one hour out of town. Then you’ll really be abroad.  

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