“The survival of the fittest is the ageless law of nature, but the fittest are rarely the strong. The fittest are those endowed with the qualifications for adaptation, the ability to accept the inevitable and conform to the unavoidable, to harmonize with existing or changing conditions.”
I found this quote by author Dave E. Smalley to be the most accurate summation of my Study Abroad internship experience, and really, my internship experience as a whole.
My father was born in Italy and still has the vast majority of his family over here, including his four sisters. He left when he was sixteen years old to pursue a life far better than the poor mountain town he grew up in could offer. I was raised to appreciate life and family like a true Italian. We were fortunate enough to spend most of my summers with my dad’s family in Italy, thus allowing my knowledge of the culture and society to develop quite early on. When it came time to study abroad, I knew Italy would be the perfect choice. I could live in my father’s homeland and attempt to perfect my language skills. Little did I know how different living and working in Rome would be from vacationing at the family house in the mountains above Lucca surrounded by relatives.
I anticipated my tenure in Rome to be full of enjoyment and ease as I knew the language and felt certain of my knowledge of the way of life. Let me tell you, there is a major difference between the traditional Italian way of life and that of the modern working world in a major Italian city. After the first week or two, I began my placement at an small political consultancy firm run by three young Italians. Adaptation was the first thing I realized I must do! I expected to start work at 8am like I would have to in the US, but my boss chuckled and replied that they begin work around 10am. Fair enough. I showed up to the office at 9:55am on my first day of work to find the office closed up and locked. Wondering if I misunderstood- all communication being in Italian- I went to the bar to get a coffee and wait for five minutes. I then returned to the office to find it still closed. I waited outside until around 10:15 someone came and opened up the office. I took my place and began working still not knowing where my boss or any familiar faces were. Around 11am, my boss showed up nonchalantly asking how I was and telling me to come get a coffee with him. Around 11:45, another employee shows up and we all leave for another coffee. By the time I had to leave, around 1pm, we finally sat down to discuss the plans for the week. This is the Italian work environment! Some may have been disillusioned by this lack of efficiency and disorganization, but I knew that it was simply a different approach to work. From an American perspective it may seem ridiculous, but at the end of the day, week, year, the work is finished and done with excellence.
The next week I took my time getting my coffee and immediately adapted to the Italian way of living. This quick adaptation allowed me to work much more closely with my colleagues and truly be immersed in my experience.
Adaptation extends beyond work. It includes learning the way of life that locals live day in and day out. In using public transportation, in having to ask for the check at a restaurant, in dealing with strikes and delays, adaptation is recognizing the norms of another society and rolling with them. Sure, it is reasonable for one to prefer his native culture to a foreign one, but that isn’t the point of adaptation and immersion. The point is to recognize differences, appreciate them, and begin to accommodate them. Adaptation is not easy. Frustration sets in quickly and forcefully. Full immersion is immensely rewarding, however. At a certain point one feels like a member of the culture. I am certain that my time abroad has forced me to learn the art of quick adaptation in order to succeed.