Convent as Contact Zone

When I first tell people what my living situation was while I was abroad in Rome, they tend to think I’m joking. Why on earth would a working convent ever be okay with hosting group after group of American liberal arts college students? Not many others can say that their abroad experience involved daily interactions with Italian nuns of various ages, and this was certainly an interesting coexistence. The convent was a sort of contact zone – not only were there great cultural differences between the members of my program and the nuns, but also age differences, spiritual differences, and a moderate language barrier that all resulted in the occasional bizarre interaction.

Being that we were something between guests and residents in what is both the nuns’ home and place of work, we were situated on the edge of very unique private and public spheres. Their work and lifestyle were on display for us as we experienced life in a new country, while our lives as free and privileged young Americans were simultaneously on display for them. Despite holding different roles within the space, there were a few instances during which the opposing nature of our lives was temporarily forgotten, the edges growing blurry.

One particularly memorable instance when I glided along the edge of insider and outsider involves a nun telling a joke (yes, I’m serious). Each weekday, the nuns prepared both breakfast and lunch for us in the convent, and it was always delicious. There was an ongoing joke with the people on the program (and probably those in past semesters) about the “mystery meat” that was served with many lunches. We almost never knew what this meat was, but usually still ate it because it tasted decent despite its odd light brown color and thin cut.

One day during lunch, a few of the girls on the program were discussing what it might be that time, and ended up actually asking one of the nuns serving us (they were all pretty friendly, so it wasn’t unusual to talk to them even though the communication was never perfect from either end). The nun looked at them and initially unsmiling responded “cat.” Considering the stereotypes that many Americans associate with nuns such as being strict and serious, the girls of course took her seriously and a small wave of shock crashed over them – they looked slightly terrified but were also laughing. In this moment, as they ran back to their table, the nun turned to me, started cracking up, and confessed that she was just kidding.

This interaction has many layers, but what jumps out as most significant to me is that despite all the social distinctions between us, and despite whatever dynamic power roles often existed, she felt comfortable enough to join in on a joke that many of us had been making (not hurtfully, but still) and actually turn it around so that she became the one making the joke. There are many complex aspects behind the relationship between the nuns who live and work in the convent and the students that reside there for just four months, but in this moment, it seemed as though these complexities fizzled away.

One of the first issues that the nature of this relationship brings up is the act of Othering. This is not to say that we were ever purposefully disrespectful to the nuns or that we even consciously placed ourselves above them, but I think that because of our inherent differences, there was an automatic distinction between “us” and “them.” Not only were our lifestyles and beliefs vastly different (them leading religious, modest, and even secluded lives, us in the midst of what may have been the most free and limitless time of our already privileged lives), but so were our appearances, cultures, and physical boundaries within the convent.

In his discussion of “alterity,” a term that has to do with recognizing otherness/differences, in his chapter “Memories” from In the Metro, Marc Augé mentions “the young,” a group to which my classmates and I certainly belong. According to Augé, we are “both the most bothersome and the most familiar,” as our “youth above all means in the eyes of others that their own has passed” (14). We dress differently and develop different values with changing times, and it would be untrue if I said we don’t often find our ways to be the best ways. This common tension that exists between young people and older people was pushed to another level by the plethora of other differences between us and the nuns, which is what made the nun’s joke so memorable for me. It was a change from some of the other encounters I had while there, that often involved the struggle to communicate or confusion about the extent to which we should (and could) actually interact. Lunch was one of the few times when we had direct encounters with the nuns beyond just seeing them in passing, as they lived on the other side of the convent.

The roles delineated by our physical separation within the space of the convent lead me to examine the mutual fascination and reciprocal gaze we regularly experienced. This gaze was never clear-cut one way or the other when it came to power: there were ways in which we felt powerful and ways in which we felt powerless. As So-Min Cheong and Marc L. Miller take from Michel Foucault in their essay “Power and Tourism,” “power operates in both directions” (374) and is fluid when it comes to tourism. My unusual living situation in the convent paired with the generally ambiguous status of study abroad students as neither tourists nor residents definitely led to a lot of fluidity when it came to power and the gaze. At the same time as we were observing the nuns in a situation that was completely new to us, they were observing us in the same light.

To return again to the nun’s mystery meat joke, however, I would not say that there was animosity as there often is when the tourist gaze is involved – it was more about curiosity. They had power over us in a way because we were their guests, younger, and in an unfamiliar situation, but we also had some power over them being that we came from one of the richest and most opportunistic parts of the world, which is a fact that many American study abroad students take pride in (and that does, in many situations, lead to animosity between locals and students). While this experience might seem strange in many ways, it also enabled cultural exchange on a level that we probably could not find anywhere else, and from the few times I gathered enough courage to have a conversation with one of the nuns in Italian, the relationship seemed mutually beneficial.

Beyond just the gaze, another important aspect of our coinciding physical proximity to and separation from the nuns has to do with the convent as both the nuns’ home and place of work. While it did temporarily become our home as well, it was first and foremost theirs, and this was made clear by our limited access within the space. Dean MacCannell talks a lot about work displays and the front and back regions that go along with them in his book The Tourist, and although the nuns’ working lives were not put on display for us, we still witnessed them daily. We did not have access to most back regions — the areas where work is done out of the public eye — including the kitchen, a private garden section, and the halls in which their bedrooms were located, but we still saw them at work: serving food, cleaning, and tending to the grounds.

Interacting with the nuns each day and having key access to a place that in most ways seemed private and intimate placed us on the edge of their realities, that without this program would have been almost entirely inaccessible. Because we were living relatively alongside them, it did feel as though we were getting more of an authentic experience than if we lived, for example, in university dorms elsewhere in Rome. Even having shared one or two brief moments when guards were let down and we exchanged a laugh added to this feeling of authenticity and gave me a lot of respect for their willingness to welcome us into their home. While we never exactly belonged to their group, we did in some ways belong to their community, and it was this that placed us somewhere between private and public.

One of the main "public" spaces of the convent.
One of the main “public” spaces of the convent.

Works Cited

Augé, Marc and Tom Conley. “Memories.” In the Metro. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2002. Web.

Cheong, So-Min, and Marc L. Miller. “Power and Tourism: A Foucauldian Observation.” Annals of Tourism Research 27.2 (2000): 371-90. Web.

MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Schocken, 1976. Print.


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