On a stress-filled day in January this past year, less than 24 hours before I boarded a flight headed for Italy, I recalled an old piece of writing I’d done when I was nine years old about my favorite place. It was spring of third grade, and I had recently returned from a family vacation where we spent one week in Rome, one in Florence and one in a farmhouse in Tuscany. I fell in love with the ancient farmhouse, so I chose it as my favorite place for the essay. Writing feverishly, as if the memories would fall away before I could get them out, I described in detail the layout of the sprawling land and buildings. The floorboards creaked like scenes from a scary movie, making me quicken my pace to a nervous jog when I left our room to wander. I was so free. My mom would be taking her daily afternoon “siesta” (her words, even though we were in Italy), while my dad would read in the common living room, and I might as well have had the magical place to myself. Countless cats roamed the yard and fields outside (heaven for me), and rock arches overgrown with vines led to back gardens where artists would come to paint the lemon trees. I realized that this was the way some people lived, cooking pizza in stone ovens, drinking wine on the terrace in the afternoon sun. I loved the way the days passed with ease; no one was in a hurry to get to tomorrow.
Italy’s leisure and pleasure–filled way of life left me eager to return. I’ve always wanted to study abroad, and 12 years later I found myself headed to the small city of Reggio Emilia, Italy — my home for the next four months. I’m not what you would call a light packer, and soon realized that my two 50-pound suitcases, one carry-on suitcase and backpack were not easy to navigate to my new city with. When I finally found the right platform at the train station in Milan, I found a seat and realized the only spots for my oversized luggage were the compartments above my head. I tried and failed twice to lift my suitcases up onto the shelf while passengers pretended not to notice my obvious struggle. I was ready to give up, but suddenly the weight wasn’t so heavy.
Behind me, an older Italian man was trying his hardest to assist me. With our combined efforts we were able to get the job done, and he said something to me in Italian. I smiled apologetically, knowing only how to say thank you.
The same man stood and helped me retrieve the bags when the train stopped in Reggio Emilia, and even carried them down onto the platform for me. As the train pulled away, he waved through the window. Despite my travel and anxiety-filled past 24 hours, I felt rejuvenated by the sweet old Italian man.
From what I gathered in the past about people’s experiences, either from talking to them or seeing their posts online, studying abroad seemed like an ideal experience. Travel packed weekends, a large group of friends with whom you do everything with and endless drinking (among other forms of intoxication). I’m not saying that this wasn’t a part of my experience, but as is true with most everything, there were parts I wasn’t anticipating that were challenging. My program was fairly small, consisting of about 30 students.I remember thinking, “so this is the group of Americans I’ll be spending the next four months with.” It was pretty nerve-wracking stuff.
Thankfully, everyone was friendly, and I could tell who I was going to get along well with. The first night in my new apartment, with two other girls, I wrote down everything that had happened since I landed. I wanted to write as much as possible while abroad. Life at home had been feeling too busy and uninspired, and I was planning on Italy sparking more creativity.
What happened at first was quite the opposite. I kind of shut down. I grew up in Maine and had never experienced being in a place where not a soul knew me. We had talked about culture shock and homesickness, but this seemed like a different kind of lonely. Very few locals in Reggio Emilia spoke English, including the university students where we attended our classes. I had never taken an Italian class before, so it was hard at first to do simple things like grocery shop or pay my rent. I don’t mean to sound negative — just real.
I can say that one thing I never doubted was my decision to put myself into a situation that wasn’t entirely comfortable for me. I signed myself up for the experience knowing it was going to be one of growth, which isn’t a simple journey that comes with tasting wine at every vineyard in the region. It came with days full of long classes, and carrying my groceries two miles home, spending the day by myself taking the train to the nearest new city, and treating myself to gelato on every walk home. I began to realize how much I enjoyed my own company. I wasn’t hard on myself when I would open my journal and realize it had been weeks since I’d written. I let myself be, let the experience be, and took from it all that I could.
In conclusion, I already want to go back. To Italy, yes, but also back to the rest of the things I haven’t seen yet. The world is much bigger than the corner of it you feel most comfortable in. There are so many ways to put yourself in new and exciting, adventurous situations. My advice — and a reminder to myself — take advantage of them! You won’t regret an experience that made you a more well-rounded and resilient person.