Sara Vitali is a sustainable tourism consultant whose mission is to make this world a better place. Originally from a small town on Lake Como, Italy, Sara got her Masters in Tourism, Territory and Local Development from the University of Milano-Bicocca.
She is a firm believer in sustainable tourism because she strongly identifies with its principles: responsibility, innovation, honesty, glocalization.
How did you get into traveling?
I’ve been traveling since I was child, thanks to my parents and my mom in particular. When I was nine years old, I took my first trip alone with WWF and a group of children to the Oasis of Orbetello, a protected area in Tuscany. When I was 10, I traveled to Alta Val di Vara in Liguria – again with WWF. From 14 to 16 I had the opportunity to go to the UK with a youth group. The holidays were organized by the Italian Social Security and Welfare Institute (INPS). I can say I never stopped.
What was your most intense culture shock experience? What did you learn from it?
I had two very intense culture shock experiences. First when I went to Wales for my first work experience and then for my last overseas work experience in Australia.
In Wales, everything was different than I expected. I thought I was used to country life but it was nothing compared to the lifestyle I encountered there. I discovered there was and still is a huge difference between what I considered rural life and what it actually is. I learned a lot about rural life and Welsh culture. I found it pretty amazing and completely different from Milan, of course, but also from life in my small hometown on Lake Como.
It was also my first work experience abroad. My English was awful and I spent the first 15 days with a headache because I wanted to learn in order to understand and speak as fast as possible.
Australia was pretty intense too. I was on the other side of the world and when I arrived – after a 27hour flight – I discovered that the apartment where I was going to stay, which I had already paid for, was a scam. Not a very good first impression. I was disappointed to see it’s something every country has in common.
I found temporary accommodation where I had to share a room with a girl from Mexico. After a while I needed a change and found a different place where I lived until the end of my stay.
Finally, I had a room of my own! The room made all the difference. I made new friends at work and outside of work. Now I have friends from Europe, Japan, Latin America and Australia. A couple of days after I moved to the last apartment I felt settled.
I met people who were living in Australia for various reasons. Some were studying English and others, like me, were doing internships. Some had a working holiday visa and others were simply traveling. It was interesting to share my life with people from countries I’d never been to like India, Mexico, Japan and Korea. I learned that I felt much closer to people who were in Australia for the same (or a similar) reason as I was. Where they were from wasn’t that important. What mattered was our shared experience.
As far as work was concerned, there is the tendency – like in the UK – to avoid speaking. It’s better to send emails. I don’t like it but I was aware of it already.
Any tips for someone going through culture shock for the first time? What helped you?
I’d say meet up with friends you made at the beginning of the experience. If you want to understand a certain behavior, ask. If you don’t feel completely settled, it might mean you need to find your group of people: it could be someone you have something in common with like your country of origin or languages for example; it could be someone who’s there for the same reason or someone who shares your passion and so on.
What has reverse culture shock been like for you?
I never felt very connected to Italian culture. I feel more Italian when I’m abroad. When I’m away, I miss some general aspects of life in Italy such as dinner with family and friends, “aperitivo time”, the passion Italians can have for their jobs and living their life, even if they’re experiencing economic difficulties.
I always felt more like I was in the right place (especially when it comes to work) when I was abroad, even if I missed coffee time with colleagues. I thought reverse culture shock could be linked to the different work approach the public sector has in Italy, but the truth is that it’s almost the same: the public sector is safer and less efficient than the private one everywhere in the world. At least that’s my experience.
I didn’t really experience reverse culture shock because I didn’t like the Italian way, the Italian priorities of work (and some aspects of the famous Italian lifestyle). I didn’t like not getting a response when I applied for an unpaid internship for example. That was part of the reason why I decided to escape for a while and have my first work experience abroad. When I went back, I already knew the culture and work attitudes. I knew where I was going and what to expect.
What is your favorite travel learning experience? Anything that triggered a profound shift?
Well, during a typical holiday it’s more difficult for me to truly immerse myself in a different culture because I’m generally not alone or I don’t stay long in one place. But during my last short trip to Italy, I had the chance to talk with a farmer and B&B owner. We had an interesting chat and it made me want to go back home, find an urban garden to help out or maybe even create one. You know, when you have an idea but you don’t know if it’s worth spending your spare time on, and then you meet a person who motivates you without even explicitly speaking about that idea. This is what happened to me.
Every time I work abroad for a while, I learn about diversity. That’s the reason why I find traveling the most interesting activity in life.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
In our world, there are many different cultures. Some are more traditional, some more modern, some mixed. In some cases they influence everyday life very much, sometimes not. Through vacationing and working abroad, I have seen and met people from all over the world who came from different economic backgrounds. I’m not sure it’s possible to talk about culture in a general way, like it was in the past, because now there is the opportunity to meet the whole world in one place.
In Brisbane, for instance, every person’s background is made up of their home country, their life, their work. There, I met Australians, Americans, Latin Americans, Europeans including Italians, Japanese and Koreans. With some of them I felt connected, with others not. Because everyone has a different background, I think it was possible for me to feel closer to people from Japan and Latin America for example than to people from my own country.
Sometimes it’s a shock to see traditional culture turned into stereotypical performances for tourists. The sector should work on that and avoid creating misunderstandings of what a given culture was like then and now.
I’m grateful for having been given the opportunity to reflect on this and express my opinion and experiences of culture shock.