“I didn’t know I had a culture until I lived in a different one.”
A member of the staff at my International Education orientation spoke these words shortly after I had gotten off a plane in late August, as she shared her own study abroad experiences and welcomed us to ours. Though it was one of the first things I heard, it was the one I am least likely to forget.
You don’t hear of many opportunities to spend an extended amount of time in a foreign country and still be productive toward your future goals while you are there. That’s why I never would have forgiven myself if I had passed up the chance to study abroad. After all, we seem to regret the risks we don’t take more than the ones we do. So here I am sitting in Florence, Italy, with a gelato shop lined with Vespas outside my window as an accordion player plays a tune (no, really). I have been here for twelve weeks and counting, and I am still not sure if it is all a dream.
Preparations for this trip were so thorough that I’m not sure I’ll know what to do with my time when I’m back in the US. There was also an endless cycle of “What if I go? What if I don’t go?” Packing up and leaving your family and friends (and favorite foods) for three to four months is a big decision and a huge risk … and one I’m glad I took.
The whole point of studying abroad rather than vacationing to a foreign country for a few days at some point in my life (as my parents would have preferred) was to understand what it is really like to live in someone else’s normalcy, and to see how it differs from my own.
Since I’ve been here, I fall asleep and wake up every day to the sounds of crazy local Florentines laughing and swearing and fighting and crying at all hours outside my window, to which nobody bats an eyelash. I’ll walk 25 minutes from my apartment to the university every day, and along the way I’ll encounter fruit vendors, leather vendors, novelty item vendors and every other person smoking a cigarette at eight in the morning.
Weekdays are also the time to catch up on schoolwork because, oh yeah, study abroad. Weekends are usually a blur of catching a six a.m. train or cheap flight to another dream-like Italian city or European country, navigating the sidewalks and subways and buses to find a hostel, and finally beginning a two-day adventure of another place that you thought was too hyped up to even exist.
For instance: Verona. Having dabbled a bit in Shakespearean theatre, it was a surreal experience for me to stand in a setting that I’ve imagined onstage dozens of times. The leaning tower of Pisa? Ridiculously leaning. But I think my greatest “pinch me” experience was when I went to the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The chapel itself was breathtaking, seeing as the grandness and sacredness were palpable inside. But as I stood craning my neck to try to get a glimpse of everything, I noticed a painting that I recognized immediately, because I had seen it many times on a projector screen during a Humanities Core course in my very first quarter of college.
This, among many, was a truly humbling moment. It was one of several times on this trip where I have felt like such a small, brief existence on this earth who has no idea how much each and every little corner of the world has to offer.
For every homesick day, and for every craving of a dish I am most definitely not going to find in Italy, my desire to understand more people, see more things and go to more places increases that much more. It’s true that I realize now what it means to grow up and live in the Californian culture, and how often it is a privileged place to be. But now my world has expanded beyond the seven-hour car ride between home in NorCal and school and SoCal, and I don’t think it will ever be the same again.
Italy might not be a third world country, and there are still little nods to the US to be recognized on every other street corner, but it’s still sending me back to the land of palm trees and beaches with a better understanding of “home,” and everything it’s not. That’s where the real education lies.