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An Italian student discusses her adjustments to life at BU and the rest of the United States

Posted by  November 4, 2013 06:00 PM

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This is the latest in our series of interviews with international students here in Boston. 

By Carolyn Bick, Globe Correspondent

Claire Giangravè is a journalism graduate student at Boston University. She is originally from Bologna, Italy. Her family now lives in Rome, Italy.

Carolyn Bick: Did you know what to expect before you came [to the U.S.]?

Claire Giangravè: Yeah. The reason I can speak English is because I would come to see my grandparents here in Boston every summer. And, so, I was expecting to be spending a year with my grandparents, but my grandfather died [October 3rd], so, you know, it’s a little different from what I expected.

I knew what Boston was like, but I knew it as a little kid who spent time in Newton and was amazed by how people stood in precise lines when they were waiting for the bus, or how efficient and clean and big things were. But, definitely now, I feel that I know Boston in the sense that I talk to Bostonians, I go out, I know places to go, where to eat, and I’ve just been immersing myself in Boston much more.

CB: That’s a good transition, because I’ve been wondering how you’ve been getting along with your American peers.

CG: Wonderfully. Generally, Americans are very interesting and capable people, and they tend to be very kind, I’ve noticed. But what I think is very hard for students who come from other countries here to Boston University is that we just really feel like we … we’re so alone, we’re like orphans here, and we’re desperately looking for something to grab onto, to relate to, and to say, ‘I can call this person to hang out,’ and not just completely and utterly lost in the huge island that is the United States.

American students obviously are more at home, and they generally tend to be a little more individualistic, normally. So, you’d go to class, and they’d get up after class and each go off on their own little way, and they wouldn’t even make a little group of Americans, so it’s not like they’re excluding you. They’re just very … independent. They don’t need to relate to anyone. But the foreign students do, and that’s why the foreign students … click together. The first people who spoke to me were the foreign students, because we’re all in this together, and we don’t know anyone. If we have to complain about something that seems so foreign to us, we can understand why this is foreign.

The Americans later opened up. It just took them longer, because they didn’t have the urgency of, ‘I’m so alone,’ or, ‘I’m so lost,’ or ‘I don’t know anything,’ or, ‘How do I do this?’ That’s such a huge question the first couple weeks. If I have to do this thing, how do I do it? Where do I find a phone number? Professor Daly made us do [this] in his class. If I were in Rome, I would know what to do. I would look for the White Pages, we call them. But here, how do you do this in America? This kind of example relates to a hundred different things, small things. ‘How do you do this here?’

CB: Have there been any significant personal challenges you can think of?

CG: Here, okay, huge challenge: I’ve always been very jealous of my own opinions. So, I don’t like to … I won’t speak up, unless the situation calls for it. In a lot of American classrooms … tiny classrooms. My Italian classrooms, the last one I was in had 800 students in it. So, you’re just, like, 15 people, and it’s crazy, and you just have to lift up your hand and talk, all the time. And professors are looking at you to see if you’re going to talk. And I read the syllabus, they take that very seriously. And I’m not accustomed to speaking in public. That’s why I like journalism, because you can write down stuff in your own little room, and you don’t have to go out there. That was really hard for me. It created huge amounts of self-doubt and angst, and was scared to go into the classroom, because I would … I was just so afraid of making a fool of myself, and speaking in public, and saying things in English that were wrong, grammatically or any other point of view, or that would be weird.

Also, another challenge was … there are some students that are kind of harsh, and a little bit aggressive with me. It’s a question of tone, and they’re just … when it comes to expressing their opinion, whereas I am a very diplomatic person, other people aren’t, especially when it comes down to comparing your writing. I think Americans tend to be more candid, whereas Italians, we’re taught to be very, go around it, see how close you can get, because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But that’s not something you do here, and that involves students and professors, so you have to go there with a shield, prepared to defend everything that you think, and that’s very challenging for me. I’m not used to it, not in this fashion. I’m always used to people giving me criticism, and everything else, but having people telling me, ‘You should write about something else,’ or, ‘This isn’t okay,’ … that’s hard.

CB: What about challenges outside of school? With friends, or anything else that’s been difficult for you.

CG: Interpersonally. You Americans … Americans have fun in a very different way from the way Italians enjoy themselves. So, in Italy, I would go out with my friends, and we would … have a place that we would always go to, smoke a ridiculous amount of cigarettes, and drink a ridiculous amount of wine, and just talk about the most disparate things, and all sorts of conversations, and that’s the kind of evening you would have. If you went dancing, you would have Eurotrash music, but that would be for a younger crowd … 14 to 18, that’s when they would go dancing.

Here, dancing is still part of the culture of being a graduate student. I guess it’s because of the ridiculous drinking age thing that you have here in the United States. I say that it’s ridiculous, because it’s my firm belief that every time you frustrate someone into not being able to do something, you create a series of anxieties and issues that just resolve into being obnoxious.

Kids get much more drunk here. For me, that was a culture shock. Because, never, ever, in 20 years living in Italy, have I seen people drinking the way they drink here. Just to the point of … it’s disturbing to you, because it’s like watching a car wreck. You just notice that there must be such a deep unhappiness there, chugging down these huge barrels of beer. Conversation dies at the point. I’m talking about men, mostly. So, I’ve been grabbed by guys. I’m walking, and guys will grab my wrist, and push me towards them.

So, I have this complete stranger telling me nonsense in my ear after he grabbed me off the side, and that’s a very uncomfortable position for me. And you have to understand that it’s not them, because they just drank to a point where they don’t understand anything else. And on the T, it’s so sad. You get on the T, and there are these girls sprawled out all over the thing, throwing up. You get on the T after a certain hour, and it’s just covered with all sorts of bodily fluids. It’s just disgusting.

I’m no stranger to the nightlife. I stay out ‘til 4 AM in Rome. But never have I seen people do that, because I had my first glass of wine when I was 11. I would drink with my parents, and watch them, and see how they behaved and related to wine, and I understood fairly early where I couldn’t go over, and the point at what was nice and I could enjoy myself. I’m a total wine nerd and expert, so I even enjoy drinking wine, the experience, whereas here, I feel the taste is completely indifferent. The purpose is to not enjoy the drink, and that will loosen up conversation, and make things more enjoyable and jovial. For [these Americans], it’s just about getting totally wasted. That was very hard for me. The nightlife is very alien to me here.

CB: Is there something you want to do here that you haven’t done yet?

CG: It’s funny you should say that. I was thinking about it on the T -- I really want to go to Texas!

I feel like Texas is a very stereotyped place, and I want to see it for myself. I love to travel. It’s one of my biggest passions. I consider myself a very well-traveled person. And the United States … people tell me, ‘Oh, you’ve seen the United States!’ No, I haven’t! I haven’t moved. I’ve been in one city. I think the other two cities I’ve seen were Washington, D.C., and New York. That’s just a little tidbit of what America is. And so, Texas is the image that Italians will always say, ‘You have cowboys, and cows, and hamburgers, right?’ I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s something I -- I would love to travel more around the United States, because I want to be well-informed.

Another thing I would love to do is I would really like to go and see some of the museums here. I have gone to the MFA a really long time ago. I took art classes there.

You have so many cool people coming to Boston all the time. Already, I’ve been here, and I’ve met so many interesting people. I really want to keep doing that, and just make an effort to remind myself that I should take the opportunity to see as many of these people who come to Boston. I met [New York Times writer] David Carr!

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