I studied abroad in Italy in the summer of 2000 to get back at my boyfriend. Yep. Besides shaving my head and getting a tattoo one time after a bad breakup, this was definitely the most un-me thing I ever did. Thank goodness. I changed during my three months there. I grew up. I got stronger physically and emotionally. My man actually didn’t recognize me when I came home. I learned to scream “Va via” (“go away”) at groping men. I learned that I was not a city girl after all. As every traveler learns on her first trip abroad, I learned what I loved about home.
My boyfriend in summer 2000 was future Mr. Okayest. What horrible thing do you think he did to make me leave the country out of spite? Forget my birthday? Ask to go on a “break”? Cheat on me? No, dear readers, it was nothing so lurid. He simply took an internship in another state. I thought he and I would come home from college that summer to be together, and, instead, he (smartly) got an excellent internship. So, out of spite, I thought, “Well, if he’s not coming home, then neither am I. He’s going to leave the state? I’m going to leave the country!” And that is how a ridiculous homebody like me leaves the country.
During the summer of 2000 (“estate duemila”), Italia was a place without air conditioning, computers, and cell phones. I lived in Florence (Firenze), which was a bustling city of nearly half a million, with Gucci, Prada, and Tiffany stores in between each ancient monument and art museum. This was a bustling metropolis, yet somehow it was stuck in time, too, in the most deliciously relaxed way. It was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Homeowners couldn’t even change the paint color on their shutters without permission from the town government. It was one of the fashion centers of the world, but I was just there in my Birkenstocks.
My trip to Italy was only 14 years ago, but it seems like another lifetime ago. The summer of 2000 was before the Euro: Italy still used lire. It was before the smoking ban: everyone, from my bank teller to my ice cream man, dropped ashes into my money and food. It was before the iPod: I actually brought a walkman and cassette tapes with me. [Insert sheepish grin here. Embarrassment is not resulting from being so old that I had a walkman and cassette tapes. Instead, embarrassment is caused by being raised by a musician who listens only to quality vinyl.]
I didn’t read about anything before I left. I was a smart/dumb 20-year-old. What I knew about Florence was from my two art history classes. What I knew about Italy was from “The Godfather”. What little Italian language I knew was probably food words or things my future father-in-law had said. There was no Wikipedia to peruse before leaving. I got a travel guidebook at the used bookstore and that was that.
There was no cell phone to take with me. I bought phone cards at the corner markets and called my boyfriend from the nearest payphone. He said it sounded like I was at a racetrack, which was somewhat accurate, since the traffic was crazy enough to knock one of my friend’s shoes off her feet. There was not much internet either. My parents did not have email yet, but of course my boyfriend did. It didn’t matter much because there were only a couple of internet cafes I could use – at exorbitant rates. What I am trying to tell you young whipper-snappers is: back then, when you left, you were gone.
If I remember correctly, I spent a whole summer in Italy for less than three grand. That included airfare. My parents said they supported my decision (although they were completely shocked) if I would handle all the finances myself. I visited the student aid office about a hundred times, and worked out all the details and kinks. I always had a job during college. I had some savings. I borrowed some from a generous aunt and uncle, and I added the rest of the cost to my already-generous student loans. In the late 90s, student loan rates were at a Clinton-inspired record low, so I figured I wouldn’t mind paying for Italy when I was 34 years old. I was right.
Arriving in Italy was a complete shock for this Southern country girl. I wasn’t sure if I was more shocked by city life or by Italian life. Both were a major change for a girl who grew up on a mountain in Virginia and went to college in a rural town whose only claim to fame involved turkeys. Suddenly, I was breathing exhaust fumes and not understanding a word anyone said.
Our study abroad group was broken up into groups of twos and threes for homestays. I lived with a very formal family who had Sicilian accents that made their Italian even more impossible to understand. We were expected to dress for dinner, not ever be barefoot, and eat whatever was prepared, even if it was fried octopus. As a lactose-intolerant Mormon who doesn’t like chocolate, I will also add that I must have seemed very rude when I declined pretty much every coffee drink ever made.
Their fancy apartment was on the second floor, but, in Europe, that means about 300 steps. They did not have air conditioning, but neither did anyone else. Even the most famous of paintings were sweating in the Uffizi without air conditioning. We were there during the summer, in a major heat wave. The weather felt a lot like it did at home: hot and sticky. At least something felt like home!
Half our meals were at our homestay, and half our meals were on our own. I learned a few things very quickly about how Italians do food. First, they don’t hurry. The first phrase I had to learn and use was “Il conto, per favore” (“The check, please”). If you don’t ask for the check, the waiter will let you sit there all day. Does your American self bristle at the thought? Well, don’t, because Italians think it’s rude to bring you a check before you have finished relaxing. (I now bristle when American waiters shoo me away from their table with an early check. I mean, I felt that way before kids. Now I don’t really go to restaurants.)
Next, I learned that pasta is just a first course. And it’s not a big portion at all- maybe just a few bites of homemade noodles. Do you think those Italians stay slim with an Olive-Garden-situation? I don’t think so. Same with bread. I never saw a single breadbasket in all of Italy. If we got any bread at all, it would be a tiny hard-as-a-rock little thing sitting beside your plate.
Oh, and then there’s the fruit. If you reach for a peach at the corner fruit stand, the grocer might actually smack your hand away. Only the seller selects and hands you your fruit. “Why would I want to sell dirty fruit?” Also, they only sell things in season, so you don’t need to worry about picking over the selection to be sure you get something ripe.
I also learned that Italians don’t drink. Water. Italians don’t drink water. We were always so thirsty – and everyone, from the shopkeeper to the homestay mama to the waiter, snickered and giggled about the amount of water we consumed. You don’t really see Italians carrying around a water bottle. And, if you don’t want sparkling water, you better be sure you specify that you want ”still” water. We thought we were in heaven when we found 1-liter bottles of “still” water in the grocery store, but we looked ridiculous carrying them around Italy. (They were maybe the size of a Big Gulp from home, so it didn’t seem weird to us.)
So, not only was I thirsty, but I was starving. I was starving in Italy! I was in one of the world’s most beloved culinary meccas, and I was starving all the time. I was used to big, American portions. I was used to a lot of fat and a lot of calories. I was a meat and potatoes girl who was completely out of her element in the world of fresh food. Besides, I was walking over eight miles a day to and from class and meals (and clubs), and burning more calories than I ever had. I lost quite a bit of weight that wasn’t mine to lose.
I was constantly in awe of the beauty of the colors, the food, the people, and the art. I felt alive with all that beauty. But I surprised myself by feeling a little deadened inside from being away from all that was familiar, and being away from the people who loved me. I realized that I was indeed an introvert. I was an introverted country girl in a big city in another country where no one knew me, and everything was so beautiful it hurt. My heart hurt to see all these beautiful things without the mother who used to tell me that “You’re my piece of blue Italian sky” because she never got to travel… and my heart hurt to see all those beautiful things without the man I was to marry. I wanted to go home, and come back with the people I loved.
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I will scare you with: I Studied Abroad in Italy to Get Back at my Boyfriend, Part 2 (Culture Shock: Men).