Personal Essay: A Temporary Italian

Everyday Adjustments to Life in a Foreign Country

As I stepped onto solid ground for the first time in 12 hours, I looked around at the foreign airport and sea of strange faces speaking in Italian. In a daze, I walked over to the baggage claim to retrieve the only piece of home I brought with me –-my own suitcase. I had met a few friends on the airplane, and with the unfamiliar nervousness of being in a new city for the first time, we latched on to each other immediately. Each of my friends jumped up when they saw their own bag pass by on the carousel, but mine never showed.

After filing a lost luggage report with the airport, and with the promise of my suitcase arriving in a few days, I walked out into the unknown city and decided my experience studying abroad in Rome for the summer could only go up from there. I hopped into a taxi and in the next few moments I looked out the window and put aside the grief of my suitcase, captivated by the scene outside — the dense splendor of Rome’s ancient buildings and churches and lively shops and cafes, all so grand and ornate. When I arrived at my home for the semester and remembered my bag, the elation passed. I felt homesick.

The next few days were filled with frustration, learning, and my first deep breath when my lost suitcase finally arrived at my apartment. It’s amazing how much more at home you can feel after having all of your belongings with you and organized in your tiny closet. On our first day of classes, our teacher took us all to an alimentari, or sandwich shop, and taught us how to order our food in Italian. In broken Italian, I ordered my first sandwich on thick bread with delicious meats and cheeses, but I still gave myself a pat on the back and enjoyed the best carbs I’ve ever tasted. Next was learning the metro system. Considering our school building was a 45-minute walk from our apartment building, we needed to know how to get around the city on our own. Our whole class pushed through the crowded terminal and onto the subway car like a pack of sardines, listening to every stop over the speaker in Italian: BarberiniOttavianoLepantoSpagna, and our stop: Cipro. After that day, we were on our own. Everyday for class, our teachers would tell us a landmark or certain section of the city to meet them at, and it would be our responsibility to get ourselves there.

The first time I went to the local market to buy groceries, I felt so frustrated I wanted to cry. I could not read a single label and I found myself wishing I was back in a cheap supermarket in Philly where I knew exactly what I was buying. I ended up leaving with a can of Pringles and a pack of Dannon yogurt, the only brands I recognized. The next day, I went back more prepared and brought along my Italian-English dictionary. I left with four bags full of groceries for every meal and felt very accomplished.

While my confidence was up I decided to go to the local gym, where they didn’t speak a lick of English, and purchase a one-month membership. With my euros in hand, I managed to communicate with the lady at the front desk by pointing to a calendar and sputtering a few words in Italian to pay for my membership. I walked into the fitness area, looking forward to going for a long run on the treadmill and burning off some of the immense amounts of bread, wine, and cheese I had consumed over the past few weeks. I was met with lingering stares by everyone I walked past, and started to wonder if I was doing something wrong. By that point I was getting used to being stared at constantly when I walked down the street –- apparently Americans stood out to the local people and they felt the need to stare –- but this was worse than usual. I stepped onto a treadmill and looked down at myself, right where an old Italian man was staring, and realized I was the only person in the gym wearing shorts. Despite the 90-degree weather, I quickly learned that the only people with their legs exposed on the street were tourists, but I had assumed it would be more acceptable attire in a gym. Apparently I was wrong, because I was being stared at like I had four heads.

Through all of these daily activities, I started to get used to this place I was supposed to call home. I learned to use a map for the first time in my life, strolled through the Piazza de Espana shopping area, and even learned how to send postcards to my family at the neighborhood Tabacchi. When the temperature hit 95-degrees I decided to wear my shorts out and get used to the judgmental stares, because I couldn’t bear to wear long pants just to blend in anymore.

A few weeks into the semester, our photography teacher told us to meet her at the Colosseum to take photos for class. I walked to the downstairs lobby of our apartment building to meet the other students from my class, only to find that I was a few minutes late and they had left without me. It wasn’t until I was sitting on the crowded metro alone, with a small donut and cappuccino that I had grabbed from the local pastry shop in hand, that I realized I was finally comfortable there. Dressed in shorts and a tank top, I heard Colosseo over the speaker and stepped off the subway in the middle of a pack of standoffish Italians, proudly owning my “American” look.

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