My first week abroad… One of the most mentally exhausting, exciting, confusing seven days of my life that I have experienced thus far. To begin, the first few days in Florence, Italy was far from what I expected. I have been to Italy before on a ten day high school trip of which I visited several Italian cities, not including Florence. Although I had been to Italy before, I had many of the same feelings that many study abroad students feel prior to departure: excitation and nerves. Student’s may choose their destination based on the novel surroundings and challenges a country may present, or the newfound ability for one to travel to places with pristine beauty within its culture, environment, and people, in the hopes that it will all lead to self growth. I have been taking part in excessive research since the day I applied to the program, sometimes unable to think of anything else as it had been a dream for so long. Sometimes when one has a dream, it can become just that due to unrealistic expectations that are not always met. When one is finally placed in a scenario where they are able to fulfill a lifelong dream, it can quickly become frustrating when things don’t happen the way one has planned or dreamt them to pan out. On account of my persistent research, mostly consisting of reading blogs about other people’s experiences, I thought I knew every restaurant I would attend and on which night, what gym I would join, or where I would frequent. However to be honest, I think that was detrimental now that I have begun my experience. Although I would never recommend to blindly go into a trip, I would suggest to simply limit oneself to a day or two of research consisting of a few restaurants, museums, and activities that are a must during one’s travels. Just like Slimbach stated, “we eagerly embrace the ‘prospect'” by saying “I just can’t wait to…” (156). This is fine as long as we don’t allow our anticipation to define what our journey should be instead of just letting it be.
When I arrived in Florence, I was shocked at how city-like the outskirts were. I remember thinking how much it looked like parts of New York City that I have visited before. As we approached the heart of Florence, near the Duomo of course, I could not help but pray that the city would become more like what I had envisioned: Italian looking, much like many of the Italian cities I had visited in the past. Then out of no where, the moment I had been waiting for and trying to envision had finally arrived. The cab driver was taking my luggage out of the car and placing it in front of the apartment that I would soon live in for the next four months. Locking hands with my friend Sarah, with extreme excitement and apprehension, we grabbed our bags and began our journey.
We were the last to arrive in a large apartment of eight girls. Our room, the smallest, although the coziest, was empty and cold, quite literally with marble floors and little heat. Immediately, I felt my heart drop and I knew Sarah’s had too when a flood of nerves came over us that were rather evident on both of our faces. However, we tried to smile despite our tiredness knowing our apartment is just one part of this journey. I mean, how bad could it really be?
Of course, we wanted to meet our future roommates that we would be living alongside for the next four months! However we found that all of the bedroom doors were shut, the lights off and the apartment quiet while we were given a tour around our new home. The washing machine next to our stove, a stove of which we had to first turn the gas on and then ignite with a match to work. A living room that looked like a bedroom and was about 20 feet from our ours. Finally, two bathrooms with showers so small I don’t think someone with a frame much larger than my small 5’2″ body could fit into. As Sarah and I were finally left alone in our new bedroom, we looked at each other and knew we had to explore the city, not just because we had been dying to see it for the past three months, but because we both knew deep down how much we were now questioning our choice to go abroad. We were on roughly two hours of sleep, a cappuccino, and two Swiss chocolates from our flight from Zurich. We needed food. Although I would normally advise one not to walk into a restaurant with no one else dining there, we were too hungry otherwise. It was a holiday in Florence so not much was open and we were in Italy for god sakes, so how bad could it be? We each ordered a glass of wine and a margarita pizza. Comically, it was the worst pizza of my entire life. How fitting I thought.
That night, I got an hour of sleep between my hopeless sobs. Prior to bed, Sarah mentioned how she was already homesick and was worried that she may not have made the right decision about studying abroad. She mentioned how hard it was to think about the fact that she would not be able to see her parents for four months. I couldn’t help but agree but I had been looking forward to this trip for so long! At first, when I was consoling her telling her it would be the best four months of our lives and that it will go by so quickly, I was confident in my words. However once the lights were turned off and it was time to spend my first night in Florence, those negative thoughts bombarded my mind and I could not be more frightened towards the journey I had been dreaming about for years. All of these unexpected differences from what I had pictured my experience to be, made me feel more unsure and alone than ever. I never expected myself to feel the way I had the first night at college my freshman year again. The difference being that I was two plane rides and a continent away.
Sarah and I had stayed up all night crying and consoling each other, so unsure of decision to go abroad. But tomorrow would be a new day; The first day to see the city of Florence in the sunlight. The next day, I saw all of my fellow communitas which made me feel extremely better. We went to coffee to start the day with our six other roommates and later saw other students from Quinnipiac at orientation. Although still tired, our first day was great and I felt much better after seeing the city during the day. As the next few days progressed, I felt that I was in an okay place, still tired, yes, but enjoying the ability to venture around the city and begin to plan my weekend trips to come. However Sarah, who had always been the person who had always dreamt of studying abroad, was not being herself. There was clearly tension between the two of us, snapping at each other and acting unlike we normally do toward one another. Each day I knew Sarah was struggling which was not something I had entirely anticipated. There were things that I wish I could have changed about our apartment and the life that I was slowly adjusting towards, however I am the type of person who will often embrace the situation I am placed into. Like most, I also feed off of people’s emotions, even if negative, that surround me. Each day we were walking distances I had never before and eating food that was heavenly. However I could not place my nerves aside about the thought of Sarah being depressed throughout our trip.
About four days in, we decided to finally book our first trip, to Interlaken, Switzerland, of which I am sitting on a bus to as we speak. Immediately after booking the trip and writing down possible dates that we planned to travel to other places, I saw a change in Sarah. She was finally acting like herself again, a talkative and happy girl. Yes, I thought. Things were finally coming together. However both of our emotions were on a roller coaster, going up and down. On the sixth night of our trip, we hit an all time low. We had yet to have a scoop of gelato and I turned to Sarah at 10pm while we were both on our laptops, and told her we should get up and get some late night gelato as it was open until 11pm! She turned to me with tears rolling down her face. “I have to talk to you”, she told me. Despite the fact that we had spoken almost everyday about how hard this trip was thus far, while convincing each other that we would get back to being our go happy selves, I cannot say the conversation that I was about to have with Sarah was one I was expecting. “I think I want to leave and go back to Quinnipiac for the semester”, she told me. I knew it was coming. I knew how unhappy she was thus far and that there was nothing I could do to help her just as she told me as her and I both knew it was her own internal struggles. Her thoughts reminded me very much of Lena who studied abroad in Lagos, Nigeria in “Becoming World Wise” by Slimbach, as Lena said she was trying not to count down the days until she was scheduled to leave (159). I didn’t want to tell Sarah she wasn’t trying as I knew how hard she wanted to enjoy the city of Florence, however I was having a difficult time conveying to her without her becoming defensive, that she was not giving it enough time as it had only been six days. Additionally, when one yearns for what they don’t have, it can be difficult to appreciate what is in front of you. I began to cry when the entirety of the dream that I had pictured, with Sarah always by my side, was beginning to change. Sarah later told me that night that she was not going home after speaking to her parents and that she knew she needed to give it more time.
Two days later, things were getting much better as we were beginning our exciting weekend trips with our other communitas. However I was surprised to see just how much communitas, whether that be your best friend or not, can affect your well being and experiences. On a positive note, this discovery is a new self-awareness as Slimbach explained, “New self-awareness allows us to recognize not only our own feelings but also how those feelings affect other people” (163). My dad, who always gives me the best advice, told me I am a strong girl and that even if I were on this trip alone, I would find a way to make this journey unforgettable reminding me to do this trip for myself and not allow myself to be held back. If I want to go and see my other friends, I should. If I want to have a pizza alone, I should. If I want to go skydiving, I should; I am (in the next 12 hours!!!)!
I have learned a great deal in the past week due to the challenges that I have faced, which is part of the reason why I know this will be an incredible learning experience. It has allowed me to remind myself that I am a strong, independent person that can travel the world by myself if need be. It has taught me that I cannot plan my future and that I cannot control other people’s emotions, as much as I may want to. It has reminded me how awful I am at directions and that I need to hone in on my map reading skills. It has taught me to love language as I used to dread the idea of learning a new language, yet it now it excites me to be able to speak to the locals.
We have had our entire lives to learn the norms that persist in our culture at home in America, of which can still present us with difficulties. When placed in an entirely new culture and country, you don’t have time to “grow up” nor can you begin your journey like an innocent child holding your mothers hand. You have to jump in with both feet (maybe you can have a walker/cane by your side!). For the first time, I was truly an outsider. I was never taught to deal with that, as I had always lived in a place that embraced equality; a life in which I’ve never had to think about what it feels like to be different.
The challenges I am still facing, which I know I can overcome, includes not allowing how it has rained almost everyday in the city of Florence since my arrival to bring me down and effect my emotions. Our apartment is cold, the shower floods regularly already having been fixed twice in the past week, and we are at least a twenty minute WALK from food, friends, and classes. However the plus side is that I can eat as much pizza and pasta as I want (when in Italy right?)! Finally, Sarah and I did not get very lucky with our roommates as they are a bit caddy and rather inconsiderate of the other people living in the apartment. However this just reminds me how thankful I am for all my wonderful roommates and best friends back at home at Quinnipiac that I can’t wait to eventually come back to in the Fall.
I can’t believe I have already experienced so much in my first week abroad. I look at the pictures I have taken and I can’t believe that all of that occurred in a time period consisting of seven days! Wow, the life experiences that I am about to embark on for the next four months excites me! Although there have many struggles, with more challenges to come, I will conquer them as I will embrace this trip and make it dream worthy even if it isn’t the dream I originally thought up; because this one will be better.
Slimbach, Richard. Becoming World Wise: A Guide to Global Learning.” Stylus. Sterling, Virginia. 2010.