When I first walked down the corso of Ariccia, I noticed the old-style streets that pave the way for cars and passersby alike. Looking at swaths of cobblestone everyday has inspired me to view life in a new way. And no, I don’t mean it in the sense that wearing stiletto heels around Italy probably isn’t the best idea. Rather, what I mean is that as I walk on the cobblestone streets of Italy, I realize that each moment of my life is like a cobblestone, making up the highway of my life (insert Rascal Flatts song here).
I find this to be a fitting comparison, as the many cobblestoned streets in this country have witnessed so many people, all on their own paths, paying little mind to the stones supporting their feet as they make their journey. The moments of my life are similar. They make up who I am and all play a role in how my life will continue, affecting the decisions I make and the relationships that I build. As I break down this comparison even more, I find myself recalling certain moments that have been instrumental in forming my cobblestone path, and I know that many more stones will be added during my semester in Italy.
So far, collecting stones for my path has been easy here in Italy. Each experience is so new and fascinating, and they shape the way that I view the world around me. A moment doesn’t have to seem big and important for it to become a stone. A particular moment that stands out to me is from my first weekend trip during the program. I traveled with a group of classmates to Florence, and as I sat down on the train, I realized that I was traveling abroad for the first time as an adult, without my family to help along the way. This wave of independence crashed into me and I became so excited to continue this journey of personal growth as I branch out on my own. That feeling in my heart formed a stone to be added to my cobbled street.
During the remainder of my time in Italy, I look forward to having new experiences and turning a moment of my life into something that will stay with me forever. And when I am long gone from Ariccia, I will revisit these moments, just like how I walk down cobble-stoned streets in the town that I now call home.
First there was the stray tom cat who made his home in the park we’d walk through to get to the train for a day in Rome. Then there was the sweet friendly cross-eyed cat–barely a stray—who would roll over on the sidewalk outside the pet shop in Albano to show us his belly and purred as we pet him. Then there was the legion of strays lazing about in the ancient ruins of the Roman empire, showing us that the real rulers of the world have 9 lives. Then there was the kitten who captured our hearts in Sicily as she mewed from a tree branch on the beautiful little farm we stayed at.
These are only a few of the encounters I have had with the stray cats on the streets of Italy. I have crouched on the ground, clicked my tongue, offered out my open hand, and generally made myself look like a fool for any feline friend I have caught a glimpse of. Some are friendly; they approach me and enjoy the attention. Some just stare from a careful distance away and make it known that they don’t want to be approached. I try to respect the wishes of the cats of Italy.
Italy is a country that is as diverse and varied as its stray cats. The rich cultural history means that cities only a train ride apart can feel like completely different countries with distinct personalities. Florence was artsy and fashionable, Rome was ageless and powerful, Palermo was rustic and lively. I have experienced the cobbled streets of these cities with wide open eyes and a desire to soak it all in. I try to respect the streets of each city like I respect the stray cats that roam them.
Sometimes my experiences have been closer to what it’s like when I meet a shy street cat. Maybe the language barrier or my nervousness or the newness of the culture makes the experience awkward. But sometimes I am rewarded for making my brave step forward into Italian life. Maybe it’s the local market stand owner greeting me with a smile, or when my practiced Italian pronunciation is easily understood by the waiter. That feeling of satisfaction is just as rewarding as a hesitant stray finally letting me pet it.
Touching down at the Fiumicino airport two weeks ago was my first time outside of the United States. The trans-Atlantic flight was like a baptism. I got on the plane with anxiety and a little fear but landed with giddy anticipation. I embarked on the 20-minute taxi ride to Ariccia awestruck, experiencing everything for the first time and taking in everything I could.
The best comparison I can make to my experience over the past couple of weeks is that it is like being a child. The pure newness of everything from the history to the landscape to the culture put me in a state of perpetual wonder and at times disbelief. I have tried to prolong and preserve that feeling, but like how a child cannot stay small forever, I have found myself adjusting and acclimating to my life here as time goes on.
This ongoing process of maturing, however, is proving to be even more transformative than that first wave of the initial shock. Settling into a routine, forming strong relationships, and being able to call a place home are things that only come with time and experience; and are the things I truly value. It’s only been two weeks since I arrived in Italy and I feel like I have seen and learned enough to last me a lifetime. In such a short time, I have made beautiful memories and what I know will be long-term friendships.
The intense anxiety I once felt about traveling overseas and living with 9 other people seems like a distant memory, and my current reality is filled with more amazement and gratitude than I could have imagined possible. I still feel like a kid here in many ways, but I find myself growing and learning every day, maturing and coming of age with each new experience.
The days leading up to my departure for Italy, I was incredibly excited but also overwhelmingly anxious about leaving my home and my friends. Everyone around me would say that I was going to have the best time and that it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will impact me forever and they were right. The thing that no one tells you, however, is that you will have bad days and you will miss your home and your people so much that it physically hurts.
This study abroad program is an incredible experience, and I would never trade it for anything but everyone telling me how phenomenal it would be and that everything will be perfect made me feel like I could not express when I was having a hard time. You are allowed to have bad days, feel homesick, and want to go back to what you know sometimes; it is completely normal and just because you are studying abroad in a beautiful country does not diminish what you have left behind.
I, personally, have struggled deeply leaving my family and friends. I was holding back tears in a club one night in Florence because I was suddenly so overwhelmed by everything and everyone around me and that none of it was familiar. This is okay and something that everyone should be prepared for. The days that are not phenomenal, perfect, or fun are going to come and whatever feeling you may have in those moments are completely valid. It is a unique experience and not everyone will understand but we are allowed to miss things from home and our feelings of loneliness in a foreign place are valid. Take in every moment and adore those times that everything is perfect, fun, and phenomenal because there are so many of them but never feel like you cannot struggle because we all do.