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During my junior year of high school, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a student exchange program to Italy sponsored by the Ontario Student Exchange Foundation and Intercultura. The exchange program worked on a reciprocal basis: my Italian partner, Simone Pisana, came to stay with my family in Canada for three months in the fall of 1995, and after a three month separation I went to Italy, where I lived from March through May of 1996. Simone bore the brunt of the situational unfamiliarity; by the time I went to Italy, Simone and I had become fast friends (and remain so today).
My initial trip to Italy was so successful that I chose to return for ten weeks in the summer of 1997 to work for the Pisana family real estate business. It was a wonderful opportunity to gain further cultural understanding of the differences between Italian and American culture. Business, like life, is done very differently in Italy, and at a much slower pace. I also had an all-expense paid working vacation on a beautiful Italian island for the summer high season. I worked doing written and verbal translation from Italian to English and vice versa, escorting clients to rental units, running odd jobs, and doing “loss-prevention” detail at the high-end clothing boutique that the family also owned.
Over the course of the summer, I began hiking daily up the active 1,300-foot volcano from which the island, Vulcano, draws its name. I noticed that despite the natural splendor, tourists (mostly domestic Italians) had discarded all sorts of trash on the trail up the side of volcano. I began carrying a backpack up and down the volcano each day, picking up trash, piling it into my backpack, and bringing it back down for proper disposal.
A local television news station got wind of the lanky Canadian who was climbing up and down the volcano, picking up trash. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I had become a sort of local celebrity. Writers taking incredible journalistic license published articles about my garbage detail that appeared in all the major Sicilian newspapers. Following the articles, the Italian version of the Associated Press, ANSA, picked up the story, and it was run in countless publications across the country. Major radio stations broadcast the story, and I was interviewed on local Italian television twice. Finally, I was honored by the mayor of the governing body of the archipelago of islands in a special ceremony, accompanied on trash detail by a group of Italian environmentalists, and given all sorts of thank-you gifts.
To this day, it amazes me that it took a Canadian kid who never considered himself the slightest bit of an environmentalist to help the Italians understand what they were doing to their remarkable landscape. I am sure that old habits have died hard, and that if I was to return to Vulcano I would find a whole new layer of garbage defiling the beauty of the volcano. At the same time, I like to think that for one summer, I was able to draw the attention of a significant percentage of the nation to the things that make Italy special…things that are often forgotten by the natives.
Through this experience, I came to realize why I had set out abroad in the first place. My time in Italy gave me the opportunity to enjoy many sights, tastes, and sounds that cannot be found in Canada, and to interact with a group of people who are completely different on a cultural level, yet share a common humanity. My moment as an Italian celebrity made a great story, but more importantly, it encouraged me to value the beauty of my environment, whatever sort of environment that may be. In order for me to understand what I had at home, I had to travel to Italy, and help the Italians understand what they have.
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