People often romanticize travel and life abroad. Here’s an honest account of three months of my life abroad in Italy.
I have one full day left in Itay. I still have two classes to teach, goodbye lunches and dinners to attend, bus and train tickets to buy and bags to pack.
Before all the hustle begins, I wanted to just sit. Breathe. Take it in.
My time in Italy has been one of the craziest times of my life. It started with a bang, had lots of ups and downs in the middle, and is ending with another bang.
My first week in Italy, I was pickpocketed during teacher assistant orientation in Turin. Toward the middle of my trip, I was abadoned by new “friends” in London (in the middle of a snowy night.) My last week in Italy, my American checking account was hacked, and I had to cancel my debit card. You just can’t make up a better script than the one life writes for you.
Sometimes, you just have to laugh at the obstacles life hands you because it doesn’t always make sense. While some hard things just happen arbitrarily, other hard and painful things happen because of the person staring back in the mirror.
My time in Italy has been a lot of deciphering between the two, the things I cannot control and the things I can, like my attitude, my ability to communicate and listen, if I will forgive and let things go and my willingness to perservere and push through.
One of the hardest parts of living in Italy for me was the feeling of being an outsider. I am a brown, American woman with curly hair who speaks English walking up and down the streets of small town, Bra, Italy. There might as well have been a sign painted on my back that said: OUTSIDER.
It might sound harmless, but three months of getting stares wherever you go and few smiles or hellos from passersby is exhausting. I have been told by many Italians that this is the reality of northern Italy and Piemonte, the region where I lived, that people tend to be cold and not overtly friendly.
My semi-introverted personality couldn’t handle the stares and all the attention. My extroverted side struggled with the lack of hellos and smiles.
Within my teaching program, I had these “outsider” moments too. While a lot of my fellow teacher assistants had the financial ability to jetset across Europe every weekend, my bank account said a big, fat, “Hello….uh, no.” I am just a normal, middle-class, twenty-something American, who mommy and daddy cannot and will not foot the bill for. I was still able to travel to several really cool places though (Barcelona included!), but I was penny-pinching and saving money at every corner. I couldn’t go on all the pricey trips my peers went on, and when I did, I couldn’t do everything they did.
It’s true. I felt like an outsider here in my time in Italy, but I don’t think that has to be a bad thing. Being on the outside gave me an appreciation for some things that I may have previously taken for granted. It gave me perspective. It also helped me realize some areas where I can grow in. (Aaah, growth!)
For example, something as simple as a smile or a hello is magical. It can literally warm a person’s soul. Anytime a student stopped me to chat or said hello in the hallways or around town, it cheered me up instantly! I really appreciated a kind hello.
I gained an appreciation for a listening ear. The English department head at my school sat and listened to be rant and sometimes cry in the teacher lounge. I am so appreciative of her taking time to listen to my struggles. Several other professors helped me work through the stresses, or just got loads of messages on Whatsapp from me trying to work through them.
I gained an appreciation for friends. Friends back home kept me sane by checking in on me. The few friends I made here, English speaking Italians and assistants in my program, helped me laugh. One friend and I burnt a pizza and lost electricity all in one hour! Friends make a world of difference.
I gained appreciation for kindness. Daniela is a woman who works for my host family, and she is literally my favorite person in Italy. Get this- She speaks no English! But we talked every day. (Hello, Google Translate!) I learned that you do not need to speak the same language to communicate with someone. Kindness, warmth and a smile, they speak volumes. Daniela made me feel welcome and seen. (Boy am I going to have a hard time saying bye to her tomorrow!)
Twenty-Something Advice (for Anybody):
“A person is only an outsider until someone decides to let them in. That one person makes a world of difference. You can always choose to be that one person.”
I was nervous to think what I would say when people asked how Italy was. What will they think if I’m honest? Will they judge me if it wasn’t this picture-perfect, movie experience? Can I be both positive and transparent?
I decided I would be honest. Italy was hard, but in the midst of the difficulty, it was still good. I learned. I grew. I was challenged. I cried some tears, and then, I got back up and put one foot in front of the other. I struggled. I made mistakes. I got frustrated. I frustrated people at times (I’m sure!) I laughed. I adventured. I lived well.
Perhaps my experience as an outsider would have been a bit different if I spoke some Italian or maybe if my skin were a different color. Perhaps, then I would have felt not so different. Italy is currently in a time of political tension as it faces a swell of immigration from Africa and with it, a swell in racism. I asked my students about the current state of politics in Italy and how immigrants are viewed here. They shared that immigrants are often looked down upon and seen as outsiders.
There’s that word again- OUTSIDER
I can only imagine what their lives are like, to live in a country as an alien, to be seen as different. I get to go home, but for them, this is their day-to-day lives.
Here’s what I know- A person is only an outsider until someone decides to let them in. That one person makes a world of difference.
Thank you to all the beautiful people who made me feel welcome during my stay here. To the people who took me for coffee, traveled with me, made a seat for me at their dinner tables and showed me around wine country and small, Italian towns, thank you for making me feel like less of an outsider.