I had been extremely excited to leave for my study abroad trip since the day I received my acceptance. So excited, in fact, that I had forgotten to be nervous. The nervousness hit full throttle during my last week in America when all of my friends began class, work, and all sorts of other young adult responsibilities. I began thinking of every possible thing that could go wrong; double-checking that received my visa, making sure that I hadn’t accidentally packed a hand grenade in my carry-on, etc. After one last restless night in my own bed, I smothered my cat and dog in kisses and was off to the Waco Municipal Airport (aka the smallest airport in the world) for the first leg of my very long trip.
After nearly 24 hours of travel, I arrived in Pisa, Italy around noon on Wednesday, September 3rd. I reeked of airplane food and an entire day’s worth of sweat, and I was sporting the kind of bedhead that makes Tim Burton look well groomed. But, nevertheless, I had made it to Italy. When I exited the plane, I was expecting a “Chives”-type to be waiting for me with a sign that read ”Karisa,” but instead I found a group of like-dressed, sweaty, confused Americans. I had made it.
My new comrades and I waited patiently for what seemed like 10 hours in the quaint Pisa airport for the rest of our group to arrive and retrieve their luggage. After what was only about 2 hours, we departed for Siena to meet our new families.
On the bus, I was so nervous about what my new family would be like, that I forgot to socialize with the other students around me. I tried to be as open as possible and find comfort in the fact that all of the families have to pass extensive background checks to participate in this program, but I couldn’t help still finding myself in a panic. After all, Patrick Bateman seemed like an upstanding citizen in society too.
We finally arrived at a soccer field (of course) where dozens of Italians, young and old, waited patiently. I searched the crowd, hopeful that my new family was among the kind, non-serial-killer-looking faces. Then, I saw a dog.
Our names were called off one by one to exit the bus and meet our families, and one by one my new American peers disappeared Under the Tuscan Sun (2003).
I watched through the charter bus window as Italians and Americans became one, and crossed my fingers that I would get to go home with the dog. He was so cute; brown and black, with little white paws, scruffy as all heck. I needed him. With only 3 families remaining, my named was finally called. Mike, who was assigning the families, directed me toward a nice looking woman who I hadn’t noticed before. I looked her up and down and notice something rope-like connected to her hand. At the end of the rope-thing was the scruffy little dog that I had longed for! It was all so clear to me! I got the family with the dog! My previous fears of a family of cannibals had left me, and I was ready to begin my life among Italians.
In about a 2-minute drive we arrived at my new home. The apartment is outside of the city walls; Siena is a medieval city, cobblestone roads and all, so the central part of the city, its “downtown,” is enclosed by an actual wall. Although most students would prefer to live inside of the city walls because of its nearness to our school and the only nightlife in this city, I long for my 20 minute morning bus rides to school because the view of the Tuscan countryside is simply breathtaking.
My host family’s home is quaint by American standards, but plenty large enough for my host parents, host brother, and even an extra room and bathroom for the students that they host. When I first entered my bedroom, it smelled of lavender and was incredibly tidy. My family usually hosts two students at a time, so my room has two beds, two armoires, a desk that seats two, and a shelf stacked with dictionaries and Rick Steves travel books. After a tour of the apartment, and a lesson on how to unlock the front door (which proved to be a lot more difficult than my host dad, Renato, let on), my host mom, Alessandra, told me that I could shower and sleep until dinner was ready.
Dinner was extravagant! For our first plate, or “primo piatto,” we had lasagna, and I quickly learned the difference between authentic Italian food and Americanized “Italian” junk. For our second plate, “secondo piatto,” we had quite possibly the best pork loin I have ever eaten, salad WITHOUT a thick creamy dressing, and bread. So much bread. We ended dinner with homemade tiramisu, aka my breakfast for the next two days, because why not?
At dinner I practiced my language skills with my family. Although they have hosted Americans for 14 years, the program does not require my host family to speak any English. With that said, my host parents know a small amount of English that they have picked up over the years, and my host brother, Edoardo, could easily get around the States with what he knows. However, we speak Italian 95% of the time at my house and my speaking skills have greatly improved as a result.
That night, as I lay in my bed, I had a feeling of complete satisfaction. I no longer worried about my decision to come to Italy or feared my competence in the language. This was only after the first day. After nearly two weeks of living in Siena, I can say with certainty that this is best thing I have ever done for myself. Every day that I am here, I see something even more beautiful than the day before; whether it be the conservation of the rich Sienese culture, the strength of the family unit, or the physical beauty of the Tuscan sunset. I am so fortunate to be a part of a full-immersion program like Siena Italian Studies because I will take back something much greater than the taste of real gelato or a picture of the coliseum; I will gain an understanding of a world outside of my own and an appreciation for people that are unlike myself. I am so excited to see myself grow over these next 4 months.
Karisa is a current student at Baylor University studying at Siena Italian Studies in Italy during the Fall 2014 term.