From the Archives: “A Sojourner’s Semester in Italy”

For my first post on here I thought I’d bring back a story from my first experience living abroad in 2009. I was 20 years old and a junior in college and thought I knew everything. But of all the lessons I learned that semester, perhaps the most important was that I really didn’t know as much as I thought I did. That semester taught me humility more profoundly than anything. When I returned, I wrote this about my experience:    

The crowd around the carousel was massive; it felt like I would never find my bags. As I stood, surrounded by strangers, I couldn’t believe that just 10 hours before I had been standing in line at Dunkin’ Donuts, completely comfortable with the mundane existence that was my life. Now here I was, bright-eyed and eager, with no idea what I was doing. Announcements came over the loudspeakers; they sounded important, but of course I had no idea. I finally found my bags, and as I began toting them through the airport, I found myself wishing I knew more Italian than “ciao.”

I was born the daughter of an American man and an Irish woman. And while my childhood involved a lot of traveling to Ireland, I was not as culturally savvy as I would have liked. Ireland, although different from the United States, is no Italy, and experience with one can’t prepare you for the other. So while I thought I was a well-seasoned traveler, I was struck by humility as I wandered through the airport that day.
My semester abroad taught me many lessons. Because of these lessons, I’ve returned to America a different person from when I left. Here are two of the most memorable ones:

Lesson #1: Don’t eat bread and olive oil before a meal.

During the first month of our stay in Orvieto, we were introduced to innumerable new experiences, people, places, and customs. One element of this transition into Italy was the cuisine. Mangiare – “to eat” – is one part of Italian culture we quickly caught onto. Each day, upon our arrival to the restaurant where we ate, we were met with baskets of delicious Italian bread and bottles of olio—olive oil. We discovered early on that the combination of these two foods, with the addition of salt, became a delectable appetizer to tide us over until our meal arrived. It was with gusto that we gobbled up our olio soaked loaves, admiring the exquisite tastes Orvietani dining had to offer us. We did so until one day when were given an announcement during our daily meeting. You shouldn’t eat bread with olive oil before the meal.”
While not quite as taboo as getting drunk on the weekends (a problem faced by so many colleges), what we had done was nonetheless unacceptable. It may seem ridiculous to you—as it did to us—but it was actually seen as offensive. For quite a while, we students saw this new rule as outrageous; who would dare take away our right to delectable dining?

But what I soon came to realize was this: I was a stereotypical American tourist. Had I taken the time to understand the traditions and customs of Italian culture, I may have realized what I was doing to offend them. It wasn’t until after that seemingly outrageous lecture that I realized what it meant to be culturally aware. I was a guest in their country…why was I acting like I owned it?

Lesson #2: “Fa piano, bambina…piano”

One Sunday, several weeks into my idyllic stay in Orvieto, I took part in Mass at the Duomo (the huge cathedral in the center of town). The entire service was in Italian, and though I hate to admit it, during the weeks previous I had spent a great deal more time eating gelato than practicing my Italian, so I understood very little. Despite fulfilling the American stereotype through my ignorance, I thoroughly enjoyed the service in all its liturgical beauty. As voices filled the magnificent hall, I felt like I understood why Italian is called a romance language. It would be impossible to hear chants of “Padre nostro, e se ne cieli” (“our Father who art in heaven”) and not fall in love with the sound.

And yet, despite the overpowering magnificence of the Duomo and the deep admiration I had for their tradition, it was not solely an appreciation of the worship service that I came away with that day. In fact, it was not something awe-inspiring or grand at all that stuck with me most from my involvement in Mass. It was the voice of a mother chiding her young daughter as she ran into the cathedral. “Piano, bambina, piano!” One simple word: Piano.

Though I was hardly fluent in the language of the country, I’d known that word for years. I was first taught it at age eight during, incidentally, a piano lesson. “Piano” on sheet music means the same as it does when spoken to a child in Italy: “quiet.”

For three and a half months, I lived in a convent: Monastero San Paolo. Taken from the chaos of apartment living in busy Chicago, I learned quickly to appreciate the quiet of my new residence. It wasn’t that the twenty-two students living in San Paolo had become monks and nuns and spent their time meditating; it was a different kind of quiet. Piano in Italian can also mean something else: “slow down.”

It was this idea of piano that governed my life in Orvieto. Piano was waking up to the sun rising through the fog-filled valley with no one else around. It was spending the evening listening to John play the guitar instead of watching TV or going to a club. It was walking—not running—and taking the time to soak up my surroundings. It’s not that I wasn’t busy in Orvieto…the work load was impressively difficult at times. What piano meant to me was that despite having a lot to do, I could still take the time to appreciate where I was.

As I returned to the United States, I was met with six-lane highways, strip malls, fast food, and skyscrapers. People were always in a rush to get somewhere, and they usually got there at sixty miles per hour. A few weeks after returning “home,” I woke up early one morning and walked to the window of our third floor apartment. As I watched the sun rise over Lake Michigan, I was reminded of my semester living the quiet life, and remembered the wisdom of a mother’s voice: Piano.

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