Although last semester was potentially the most life-changing semester of my life, it is basically impossible to sum up in a sentence or two. Most of my conversations once back in the U.S. went like this:
Friend/Relative: “Omg you were in Italy last semester, right? It looked amazing! Tell me all about it!”
Me: “It was so fun! Uhhh… I ate a lot of pasta”
It’s so hard to guess how much someone actually wants to hear about your experiences abroad and how much of it is an attempt at small talk. So, for anyone that is genuinely interested in my travel-related ramblings, here ya go!
On August 28, I set off on my four month journey to Europe. I had never spent more than two weeks away from Illinois before, and here I was about to embark on the longest and most defining trip of my existence! I was not nervous at all. I was ready.
When I first got to Italy, I remember dripping with sweat under the Roman sun as I walked 20 minutes away from campus to arrive at my residence for the next few months, Zone Hotel. My situation was pretty unique since my university had an arrangement with a nearby hotel that allowed us to stay there. I enjoyed the complimentary breakfast of morning cornettos along with the privacy of my own bathroom, and a roommate of course. The neighborhood I lived in was called Balduina, just northwest of the Vatican. It was interesting though, because my university was one filled with about 200 American students, 20 Spanish students, and a measly 2 Italian students. Although my professors were Italian, I made it my mission to meet some real Italians (I’ll delve into that tea later).
I THRIVED in Italy for the first few weeks as I adapted to my new surroundings. I was picking up Italian like it was nothing, and for that, I thank my knowledge of Spanish. I decided that cappuccinos would become my daily coffee order, gosh I miss those €1 cappuccinos. On one of our first nights in Rome, my roommate, other friend I knew from home, and I decided to see a bit of our new home. As if out of a movie scene, we stumbled upon the Pantheon as a projector displayed a show. Beautiful music was playing in sync with the lights. You know those moments where you are just so in awe, you get teary-eyed? Yeah, that was one of those. I dunno, maybe I just cry in too many cool places (i.e. the streets of Rome on a few other occasions, Notre Dame, the plane ride home from Europe, you name it, I’ve probably teared up there). Another day, I took a trip to the beach, got really sunburnt, and wore a bikini for the first time because I really threw out my insecurities for a day. That same day, I challenged my fear of prehistoric sharks and water by swimming far past the shoreline and into the sea. I remember thinking, “why would I EVER go back to the USA?”
Anyway, as a first-timer in Europe I stuck out like a sore thumb. Like, every single time I walked into a store, I was greeted with a “hello” instead of a “buongiorno” or simple “ciao”. To this day, I am not sure how they were able to tell so easily that I was American since I did everything to blend in… It is baffling. By the end of my time in Italy, I had adapted enough to where people assumed I was Italian at first glance, and I was proud.
I quickly became an English tutor for a woman I will refer to as my “Italian mom” because she would always bring me tea and cookies. I will always remember her adorable black and white bulldog that never failed to greet me. I loved every moment I spent tutoring English because it is what allowed me to truly connect with locals, understand Italian culture, and teach someone about my culture. I also tutored two 10 year old boys who were clearly less invested in learning English than my “Italian mom” was.
My drawing professor was… interesting… but my friends and I enjoyed discussing the class and the strange things we had to draw. I realized that I actually love to draw and paint through this experience.
I had the opportunity to explore surrounding areas of Italy such as Naples, Pompeii, Florence, Amalfi, and Umbria. Each place is associated with a stream of nostalgia. In Florence, my friend and I were preparing to sleep on the ground since I had forgotten my passport and no hostel would allow us to check in, but the kindness of a stranger on couchsurfing saved us from a cold, sleepless night. Or, one of my favorite memories is cooking and dancing with my friends in a scenic Airbnb in Amalfi.
Oh, and I can’t even think about Rome without mentioning my Rome-ance. After the weird dating experiences I have had in the past, I think I really deserved this one nice thing. For our first of about 10 dates, we met at a bus stop near the Vatican. Usually, I prefer to see the other person before they see me on these types of dates so that I can sprint outta there if they’re a creep, but he recognized me first. We only had loose plans for the night, so he decided to take me on a tour of Rome at night. We talked and strolled over to the Vatican, then to Piazza Navona, Largo di Torre Argentina, and a few other places. It was impressive how he knew his way around so well. Advice: get yourself a date that doubles as a tour-guide! At some points, I was walking on the edge of the sidewalk, and he would pull me closer so I wouldn’t stumble into the traffic – nice move, dude. To cap off the night, he drove us to the top of a hill with breathtaking views of Rome. We took turns pointing to different monuments that were visible to us and guessing what they were, getting closer to each other with each one. THEN, out of nowhere a tour group came and crashed our moment. An old man kept apologizing in Italian to my date for ruining the moment and I hid my face behind my hair because it was slightly embarrassing. Even though that wasn’t ideal, I think it brought us closer because it broke the tension and we kept laughing at the situation. A few minutes post the moment being ruined, we found a more secluded spot where you could still see lights from the city. Aaaand yeah, we kissed a bit. It was sweet.
At first our conversations were all about the cultural differences between the US and Italy, but gradually, we began to get to know each other on a deeper level. His accent always got to me! His English was near perfect, but it was especially cute when he mispronounced a word or wasn’t sure of a translation and I had to explain it to him. Sometimes he would even accidentally slip into Italian when we were talking. Seriously, among all the Tinder garbage, how did I find this boy who made sandwiches and was willing to watch Queer Eye with me? The world may never know. The first time we met, he asked, “do you have any sad love stories?” At the time, I answered “nope” without hesitation, but now he is my sad “could’ve-been” love story. It was truly a wrong place, wrong time scenario.
Sometimes I truly miss the chaotic disorganization of Rome. The 990 bus especially, miss her! I am still haunted by the memory of being simultaneously cursed and flashed by an old woman. But actually, I miss hearing the loud, musical Italian language everywhere. I loved how you can just stumble upon things like the Colosseum, because as I’ve learned, the best thing to do in Rome is wander. Now that I am back in the States, I have to suppress my urge to order food from an Italian restaurant with the correct pronunciation, because that’d just be pretentious.
Looking back, I think what I gained most was independence and a stronger sense of confidence. Maybe a little gelato weight too. I had always been known as the timid, shy girl in class, other students prompting me with, “I’ve never heard you talk, can you say something?”… I really used to embrace the “shut up” part of Shut Up and Go, but not anymore! Italy turned me into the one who knows how to initiate a conversation, yet isn’t afraid to stand up to aggressive men in bars. I came back to the United States with more close friendships among myself and other Americans. I met some of my best friends while abroad. I have so many stories and new life experiences, I can’t imagine who I would be had I passed up this opportunity. At the end of my journey, I was ready to come home and see my dogs, but now I am eagerly awaiting my next opportunity for travel. If you get the opportunity to study abroad, make sure you take it and keep a journal!!