Studying abroad is built up into this huge, ominous experience; one that plants itself as a potential option on your horizon during college tours as a 17 year-old in high school, one that you hear glamorous stories about from cool upperclassmen arriving back on campus after a semester away, one that seems to be the capstone of a perfect college experience (there’s no such thing as a perfect college experience, and everyone’s experience has the potential to be great in so many different ways, no matter if you study abroad or not, but this is just a common perception that comes with a lot of pressure to make it great).
Before you jump into the experience, everything about it seems fuzzy. I saw snippets of Rome in movies–The Lizzie McGuire Movie, Roman Holiday, and Gladiator to be exact–on postcards, on Google Images, trying to piece together my would-be experience from all these different, disparate elements.
It’s all so intimidating.
Abroad, as this abstract built-up thing, truly seems unconquerable. You have to apply–apply through Whitman, apply for IES, apply for a visa–and make sure you are okay to go. You have orientation for three hours at Whitman, and orientation for a week once you get to IES. You have lots and lots of people asking if you’re scared or nervous or how you think you’ll adjust. It’s not necessarily anyone making it seem so scary, because all the questions, help, and support are so appreciated. It’s more that with each conversation or orientation meeting or application you fill out, you realize more and more that you’re going to be living across the world for four months–it becomes so much more real–and that’s scary as all hell.
Because of that, the waiting game is most definitely the hardest part. I felt kind of numb and really didn’t know how to feel leading up to my big departure date, the only thing really on my calendar the whole month of January. But it alllll hit me that morning. That morning you have no idea what your experiences will be like. It’s just a big blur of expectations at that point. My family helping me pack made it even harder to go because I kept envisioning how the comfort of home, along with the kind of help and support they were giving me (which just isn’t the same when they’re not physically there), would soon evaporate in just a few hours, and I would be alone on the other side of the world, not knowing anyone, not speaking the language, even more clueless than I typically am.
But, I went. I sucked it up, I toughed it out, I got on that plane. I arrived, I survived, I thrived.
Stepping off the plane felt like a dream, and that dream lasted for about three days. I felt like I was walking through a fairytale every time I stepped outside my cute lil apartment. The Pantheon is right around the corner from my apartment and the Colosseum is only about a 15 minute walk away. Surreal is the only way to describe it. I feel so lucky.
By the fourth day, Rome started feeling more like home. After too many nights of getting locked out of my apartment because Italian keys are so different and hard to operate; too many times calling a taxi only for him to get lost, prompting us to give him directions to our apartment in Spanish because he doesn’t speak English and we don’t speak Italian (yet); too many times walking out of a restaurant bathroom with soap on my hands because I couldn’t figure out how to work the sink and needed help; too many times buying the wrong thing at the supermarket because I can’t read Italian and needing to pay extra money for a bag because I forgot to bring a reusable one; too many close calls with a billion crazy mopeds and tiny cars whipping around the windy, narrow streets; too many times getting lost for hours on the metro; too many times dodging my way out of scams and pickpocketers, Rome felt like home—a disorientating, new home, but still a home.
Home isn’t characterized as a dream or fairytale. Home is home, in all of its glory and all of its challenges. Real life comes with challenges and those challenges can be sticky, but they help you learn and grow. Abroad is all about problem-solving and that makes it seem more like home, like real life. I don’t have a resort to run off to, or a tourist program to consult when I run into problems (which both serve their purpose and are great resources that I have definitely utilized when on vacation, but they’re resources that don’t come with living in and getting to know a place as home). Living in Rome is all my own and I have to handle everything that comes my way on my own.
These uber specific kinds of problems I run into here in Rome reminds me that I am abroad and that this new home is disorientating and different; the problems I run into in day-to-day life in Rome (navigating the city; THE LANGUAGE BARRIER—oof actually so tough; needing to be cognizant about where I’m walking, especially at night and especially alone; dealing with Euros and trying to budget money for food and travel—UGH another really hard thing; getting a new phone plan; dealing with scammers, etc.) are very different than the ones at home (balancing time with family, friends, academics, and extracurriculars at home, for example).
Being abroad has been super fun. Meeting new people, seeing new places, and engaging with new ideas and values has been absolutely incredible. It’s made me realize how much of a bubble Whitman really is (a bubble that I absolutely adore, but a bubble nonetheless). But as much fun as it is, it has also been challenging, strange, and new (all good things). Growing pains accompany almost every aspect of study abroad–but that’s why I’m here, to learn and grow.
At the same time, study abroad is just normal life. I’m living and cooking and cleaning and studying and hanging out with friends, just like I do at Whitman. But that all happens along the cobblestone streets of Rome, on the edges of ancient history. And with more pasta.
I’m living in an apartment in the city for the very first time in my life and I freakin love it. I love the energy of the city, and our cozy apartment complements the chaos well. I love cooking for myself and feeling more independent and free.
It’s only the end of week 2 (week 1 of classes), so we’ll see how the rest of it goes, but so far I’m absolutely loving every second. I’m trying to live in the moment as much as I can because these moments have an expiration date of only three months from now (so wild). I’m trying to soak it all in. Ciao for now!