I didn’t know what to expect when I told my friends and family back home that I was going abroad. Everyone was surprised and encouraging and now I understand why. Going to a different country and going to Europe for the first time— is a really, really (really) big thing. I seemed to convince myself that there would be familiarities to home that I could rely on and everything new would slowly sink in. Haha~
I was scheduled to leave early in the afternoon and connect in Detroit to Rome. When I got to the airport I had to print off my plane tickets and confirm my seat by scanning my passport. Of course, I had difficulties with the check-in machine and a Delta official came by to help. Looking at my passport he tried to scan it, but pulled it back out again. He turned to me, passport in hand, and said in a straight face, “We have a problem. You have an invalid passport.” A large part of me died inside and I could see my trip to Rome crumbling before I got the chance to weigh my luggage (which weighed exactly 50 pounds— the allowed limit for a free suitcase.) I stood, probably with my mouth gaping wide open, my heart now in my stomach, and thought this meant my passport was a fake made in some factory looking to con people for money. “You need to sign your passport,” the Delta man said two minutes later (probably seconds— but so much shock at one place, who’s counting anyways.) I chuckled nervously for another good two minutes while my family burst out laughing.
Saying goodbye to my sister and the rest of my family was very hard. Thankfully, the tears didn’t come until we hugged and parted ways. It’s nice knowing the separation isn’t permanent.
Even from the moment (moments being around 12 hours long) on the plane I imagined Italy a blank slate of land that would gradually fill in as I discovered it. And boy that blank slate filled in quickly. I had no expectations except bracing for impact as the plane finally landed in Rome. Either I wasn’t paying attention or everyone was excited to be home, right when we touched down in Italy everyone began to speak in a foreign language.
Everything felt different and difficult. We rushed through customs. Tried to find an SAI representative to get directions for a quick orientation and collect our room keys. Settled into our apartment. Unpacked. Walked around to sightsee. Found some dinner. And didn’t sleep for 36 hours. The first couple of days were hectic, but SAI and JCU really did their best to make orientation go smoothly and swiftly. Throughout the week we learned how to use the bus and train system, visited the Ostia Antica ruins for the day, had a three course Italian meal on a villa/farm, and I took an Italian crash course!
It’s been hard to adjust to everything while trying not to offend the locals and overcome jet lag simultaneously. The first five days I felt petrified and frozen and it was hard to find that outgoing confidence I needed to make new friends and interact with locals. I needed to concentrate on taking everything in at my own pace. As much as I’ve tried to fit in, Italians can clearly pick out the foreigners in a crowd. Tourists can easily be spotted by the classic white tennis shoes (as supportive as they are, Italians don’t wear walking shoes everyday despite the grueling cobblestone), shorts are also considered disrespectful in public (even though the temperature has been in the 90s this whole week), and large camera bags and maps attract attention. I’ve tried wearing sunglasses as long as I can to break eye contact or wear dresses to blend in with the Roman girls, but I’m still picked out as the foreigner. So expect to be noticed when you travel overseas.
When my roommate, Emily, and I were dropped off by the SAI shuttle taxi and lugged our suitcases up to the apartment elevator we came upon a maintenance lady mopping the floor in front of the elevator. Wheeling right through the clean floor, our luggage left a lovely trail of dirt and we clumsily struggled to open the elevator door. She watched us for a moment and mumbled some Italian and came to help. We didn’t know that a small key was used to unlock the outside elevator door, which led to two smaller folding doors. Of course, I tried to open the folding doors the wrong way and the lady laughed like we’d never seen an elevator before. When we came upon our apartment door, we had no idea how to open it, especially when that key is almost the size of my hand. After about 20 minutes of turning the key every which way and banging the door back and forth in the frame, an older Italian lady neighbor came out looking upset, but gladly helped us once she saw we were having trouble.
Thankfully, I haven’t had any experiences with pickpockets yet, knock on wood, but I’ve heard a few stories already from some other SAI kids. The Italian men are also very— frisky, but nothing aggressive, only whistles and calling after you in Italian as you walk by.
I’ve been a walking zombie the last week, but I’ve been a happy zombie. Everything is so beautifully detailed and there’s so much to look at. The buildings here are so elegant and every kind of store seems to be tucked into the smallest of corners. I will also say that whatever space is available on the street and sidewalk is fair game for scooters, Vespas, cars, and parking space, so look both ways even if it’s a one-way street, curb or some sort of pavement. Italian drivers are crazy and they have no worries when it comes to parking. If the car or scooter fits, it parks. And road lines, what road lines? Just drive straight and you’ll be fine.
When I was walking with my roommate for gelato, a lady was parked right in front of us trying to get out of her parking space even when there were cars parked 4-5 inches in front and behind her. Without even looking she reversed her car and bumped the car behind with quite a bit of force, shaking it in place and didn’t even care. After a few more hilarious tries she left like it was no big deal. (I also have a secret fear of accidentally bumping into a chain of scooters and motorcycles only to watch them all fall.)
While lots of people zoom by on their scooters, I’ve walked about 9-10 miles a day. One ankle and foot decided to protest and swell for several days after I twisted it on some uneven cobblestone. I was forced to wear boots, as they were the only shoes they’d fit in. I also seemed to forget shorts while I was packing, so I wore pants the first few days and desperately went on several shopping trips to find a pair even though the sizing system was so strange.
Despite everything, I’m still in awe with how much history Rome has, even the simplest of things look aged. I feel like I could be trekking through an endless museum and I don’t even recognize the memories that happened thousands of years ago in that very spot. Rome has been amazing and I’m glad I’ve had the experiences I’ve had so far, the fun and the challenging. Now onto the real challenge— class.
Allison is a current student at St. Norbert College studying at John Cabot University during the Fall 2015 term.