In my 28.5 years of life so far, I think one of the best decisions I’ve ever made (besides marrying my husband – which wouldn’t have happened anyways without the other decision I’m about to tell you about) was deciding to study abroad during college. I spent the spring semester of my junior year in Rome and it absolutely changed my life.
I grew up in a tiny town, where I went to preschool through 12th grade with the same people. I was a pretty shy kid and you could
probably definitely say I was a bit of a scaredy cat. I was NOT a risk taker. I was always hesitant to try new things. I was scared of a lot of stuff – thunderstorms, rodents, the bad guys from Home Alone, monkey bars, “big kids”, seaweed, loud noises, the tunnels at the McDonald’s play place… I could go on. I wouldn’t change anything about my childhood, but admittedly it was pretty sheltered. As I got older, I got over most of those fears (I’m still terrified of rodents, and I don’t love seaweed…), developed new ones, grew up (a little) during high school, and then I went to college just two hours away – allowing me to see family and old friends all the time. This was wonderful, and exactly the right decision at that time in my life. But all of this is to say – deciding to leave Minnesota to go to Italy all alone for 4 months was a biiiiiig step outside of my comfort zone. Once the papers were signed, deposits paid, visa obtained and ticket booked I had more than a few moments of “am I really doing this??” It was exhilarating and terrifying.
On the first day of my trip, waiting for my flight in Minneapolis (with an absurd amount of luggage) I met a hilarious, sassy, gorgeous Wisconsinite named Mandy, also headed to Rome for the same study abroad program. She was from an even smaller town than me, we clicked instantly, and I knew from that moment it was going to be alright. When we got to the airport in Rome, we were herded together by the program organizers and sat around waiting to be assigned housing. I spied a cool looking blond in a red jacket who had a no-nonsense look on her face and was eating peanut M&M’s. When I was assigned to an apartment with Mandy and Red Jacket Girl, I knew it was going to be better than alright. I ended up sharing a (comically small) bedroom with Red Jacket Girl, whose real name is Kara, and it was perfect. Both Mandy and Kara have become the type of lifelong friends that you might not see or talk to every day/week/month but when you do, its like no time has passed. I am seriously thankful that our passed crossed in Rome – and not only because less than a year later Kara introduced me to my now-husband when I came to visit her in Maryland!
That semester was incredible – I made so many new friends from all over the world; got the chance to experience one of the world’s greatest cities as more than just a tourist; celebrated my 21st birthday; learned about ancient history; went dancing in Italian (and French, and Spanish) clubs; drank delicious (and terrible) wine; had so much amazing food and still lost weight because we walked miles every day; took interesting classes that I wouldn’t have had the chance to take at home; and so much more.
I was also able to travel around Europe on the weekends and spring break, and I saw more of the world in those four months than I had my entire life to that point. I was lucky enough to travel a lot with my family as a kid, and will be eternally grateful that my parents instilled the value of travel and exploration in me. But I had never been to Europe, and it was incredible to me that we could just get on a train (!!) and go to another country (!!) for the weekend. Whole new worlds opened up to me when I visited Paris; Florence; Venice; Madrid; etc. These weren’t earth shattering trips in and of themselves – they were short, done without much planning and on a shoestring budget. We saw the key sights in each place and then spent most of our time wandering. But it’s the act of taking these trips – being independent and figuring it out – that mattered so much more than the actual sights seen. These weekend trips, and exploring and learning how to live in and navigate a huge, complex, confusing city like Rome, stretched me so much.
There were definitely bumps in the road. I spoke absolutely no Italian. My debit card stopped working on day 1 and I spent multiple hours on the pay phone down the street (this was before international cell phones were a “thing” – at least not in my budget) with the bank and my dad to get it sorted out. I have no idea how many times I got very lost (again, the little prepaid phones we all ended up with definitely didn’t have google maps) but I know it was way more than I could count on two hands. Inevitably, there were many issues with transportation – booking tickets in another language, navigating unfamiliar train stations and airports and public transit systems. Homesickness came and went, as did cravings for a few choice American foods (peanut butter!) I overpacked for every trip and ended up uncomfortably lugging my stuff through strange cities. Oh, and my roommates and I washed our clothes with fabric softener (no soap) for at least a month due to a language misunderstanding.
I’m sure there were way more bumps and disasters and near disasters – but honestly, I can’t remember them. Those things don’t matter one bit now. What I do remember is long walks around historic cities, breathtaking villas, narrow cobblestone streets and ancient ruins, chatting about life and love and loss. I remember the hours spent at sidewalk cafes with tiny macchiatos and water (frizzante, always) and a good book. I remember sitting on the tiny Ikea couch in our apartment kitchen (since we had no living room) and laughing along with whomever was trying to cook a meal on our play-kitchen worthy appliances. I remember the pizza place across the street from our school, and how it was more of a social center than anywhere on school grounds. Kitchen dance parties. Celebrating roommate birthdays with silly homemade signs and cards. Celebrating Cinco de Mayo with terrible food and perfect sangria in possibly the only Mexican restaurant in Rome. Squeezing four girls onto our little balcony in the springtime sun. Taking a very crowded, sweaty train ride to the beach as soon as it was hot enough, and it being worth every second. Buying the most amazing fresh vegetables and fruit and bread from the outdoor market down the street, and attempting to converse with the sweet little old vendors. Long meals of pasta and house wine at hole in the wall trattorias in Trastevere – followed by gelato on the walk home.
These are the the things I remember most – the beautiful things that made up this little chapter of my life. It was just four months, but I know it made all the difference.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s a really really good idea to push yourself outside of your comfort zone now and then. You never know how an experience will manifest in your life, how it will change you and make you grow.