The guys and gals at the Northwestern Study Abroad Office love to market the experience of studying abroad as one that will “ultimately allow you to learn more about your host culture — and a lot about yourself.” (Yes, that is a direct quote from the Study Abroad Office’s Pre-Departure Handbook. Yes, there really is a Pre-Departure Handbook.)
But, let’s be honest here, “learning” was not exactly high on the list of reasons I wanted to study abroad. I saw the classes I was forced to take as a hindrance to my main objective — living la vita bella.
Much to my surprise, however, I have learned many things about my adopted culture. And it isn’t all sunshine and gelato.
It was a seemingly typical Thursday afternoon in my Politics of the European Union class (yes, I actually have to go to class here, I know, I was shocked too). The professor was talking about…well, to be honest, her English was totally disjointed. All I know is that the lecture had something to do with political parties.
But then my professor pulled up a slide on PowerPoint. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Myself and my classmates sat up a little bit straighter — the kid on my right woke up from his study abroad-induced daze. The poster depicted an old northern Italian man forced to stand behind a Muslim, an African, a gypsy and a Chinese man in a line for “homes, jobs and healthcare.” The tagline read “And guess who’s last?” The media specialists at this political party might have used Photoshop instead of drawing by hand, but this poster (as well as others my teacher later showed us) looked disturbingly similar to those used by the Nazi party in the 1930s.
I was, quite simply, shocked.
My teacher went on to explain that the political party responsible for these posters was a regional group known as Lega Nord.
The word “regional” reassured me. Perhaps this party was only active in one part of the country?
But Lega Nord (from what I could understand and later confirmed through my own research) is not an obscure, backwater party lacking political clout — it is a major Italian political party with ties to Italy’s (now rather infamous) Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. And the xenophobia does not end with posters. Lega Nord’s leader, Umberto Bossi, talked about opening fire on boats of illegal immigrants from Africa in a 2003 interview.
Maybe this bothers me because I’m Jewish and thus have been indoctrinated to be uber-sensitive to anything that is even faintly reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Maybe it’s because in America, political correctness is king. Or maybe I just have not seen a harsh political poster in a while.
Regardless, I feel rather stuck in a country that does not give a damn about my opinion. In Italy, I am just another American college student. No right to vote, no right to protest, no nothing.
As I watch Berlusconi’s latest scandal rock the Italian political landscape, I cannot help but feel the urge to get involved in this temporary home of mine. And then I remember another slide from my Politics of the European Union class: “Money is power.”
Today I walked over to a store owned by a Chinese man — a store that my host father, who supports Lega Nord, told me to avoid for no other reason than the owner was not Italian. I applied what I was taught in class: I went shopping. No, I am not naive enough to think that the pitiable amount of money I spent will change much of anything. But I know a member of Lega Nord will never shop there. And I felt pretty damn knowledgeable and powerful as I exited the shop.