We’ve all heard the cliche phrase, “Europe changed me,” in the face of playfully making fun of those who left home for a mere 3 months during their college experience. We get it. You got to live in Spain… or Greece… or Italy.
What many people neglect to see, though, is the amount of personal growth that living somewhere 4,000 miles away from home provides. It’s not all about the bars and food and parties and traveling and seeing cool things that all your friends are surely jealous of.
As someone who was quite frankly terrified to go abroad, I can’t emphasize enough how much I will forever promote the experience. Hence, this post: Here’s my story.
It’s about the independence.
My solo experiences while living in Italy were some of my dearest ones. One particular day comes to mind.
It was a Wednesday in late March of 2021.
I had just gotten out of painting class at 11:45. I pinned up my canvas to dry, grabbed my backpack and headed out the door. I began my 25 minute walk back to my apartment – the longest walk I had to endure. When strolling through the emptier streets of the city district, I took note of all the little things that usually accompanied me during these long walks.
The man still sat on the same corner I noticed he was sitting on at 8:50 that morning. He was drinking another hot coffee.
I saw several small dogs. They would all walk directly next to their owner without the tension of a leash. They were all much better trained than most dogs in America.
Once I reached the wide, cobblestone streets near the Duomo, the streets were noticeably more flooded with people. Keep in mind, though, that this was in the midst of the pandemic. No foreign travelers, especially Americans, were allowed to enter the country without a school or work visa. That meant I could recognize most of the Americans, which all went to my school that only carried only about 150 people during this time. 14 of which came from my home university, Endicott College.
I reached the Piazza del Duomo, the square that is surrounded by souvenir shops, restaurants and countless clothing stores. The beautiful cathedral lies right in the center, at 376 feet tall (which is much taller than that sounds, especially when you’re standing right at the foot of the white, marble stairs).
It was just about lunch time, and I wanted to try a new sandwich shop I hadn’t gone in before. The sign outside of Il Cernacchino caught my eye, so I stepped into the little, red shop. There were music records lining the walls as decorations. I was immediately greeted by the workers with a smile and a “ciao, bella!” They were all a part of the same family, which is so common for small restaurants in Florence. They called me the “Boston girl,” then told me that it was the best city in America, and said that they were so glad I still got to study here despite COVID. And did I mention the sandwich was AMAZING?
They really told me, “I’m happy to see you.” How cute is that?
I wandered closer to my apartment and sat on the curb outside of a leather shop. I people-watched, as dozens stood in line for All’Antico Vinaio, one of the world’s most famous sandwich shops. The gray pigeons danced and fought over crumbs at my feet.
After finishing my sandwich, I went into some shops, bought a few knick-knacks and got a cute reusable bag to store my art supplies in. By the time I got back to my apartment, it was closer to dinner time and I did some homework. It was such a simple day, but it brought me so much joy. I felt like I could navigate the city with ease, I felt safe doing so, and I enjoyed my time with myself.
It felt like self care.
Another day, I decided to hop on an electric scooter, a Bird. I scootered down to the eastern end of Florence, outside of the city district that I knew so well. I could tell it was a less-developed area from the look of the buildings and the stores. The city center is so touristy, beautiful and filled world-famous Renaissance art. I hadn’t realized that if you step just a few miles out of the way, you’re in what feels like an entirely different city.
I stayed on the main streets and didn’t travel in any areas that felt uncomfortable. Yet I still wanted to explore and see a “new” Florence. Seeing a different side of the culture that I had come to know for the past 2 months was so interesting and beneficial for me, coming from a uniquely different home culture as well.
Once I rode back to Florence, past the entire coast of the Arno River that parallels the city border of Florence, I felt proud that I could navigate myself. I took beautiful pictures, saw historical landmarks, and did it all before my friends in America had even woken up for the day.
The 6 hour time difference really had an effect.
That’s another thing. No one really tells you how significant that time difference really is. When I wake up at 8am, it’s 2am back at home. It wasn’t until almost 2pm in Italy that my friends would wake up for their 8am class, and if not, even later.
It made it difficult to keep up with friends, but it also gave me a little bit of a break from a few things: drama, social media and staring at that blue-light screen.
It was difficult to set up FaceTime calls, but I made it work as best I could. It would have to be morning or afternoon in America and night time for me, because that’s how the clocks aligned. For the people that care and put in an effort, this worked just fine.
This just meant that I had to enjoy my mornings and afternoons by myself or with my friends on the trip with me. While I could say some mornings were a little lonely, it also helped me to embrace the place I was in.
Mornings were phone-less, which was nice. I tried my best to stay off social media, too. Of course, besides when I wanted to post some stunning pictures to my feed or send photos to my family.
I barely used my phone. I loved it.
That was honestly one of the best things. At home, I feel so attached to so many social media platforms. From Instagram and Facebook to Snapchat and TikTok, they consume my time every day. I will say, I still have a 30 minute limit on my phone for all of these except Snapchat, which I use to communicate with a lot of friends.
When I was in Italy, going on adventures and learning so much, I barely looked at any of these things. I spent my time outside, in shops, or on the train to a new place. This was so beneficial for me, and I think I was one of the happiest versions of myself when I was not staring at my phone for about fifty percent of my day.
What does that say to you about the impact of social media on our mental health?
Returning to Endicott felt different.
I was so happy to be back on campus, with fewer COVID restrictions, and almost all my friends to come home to. It was such a joy, and I can’t begin to explain how much I missed my people.
While walking around campus, over the bridges, through the science center and even to the beach across the road, I felt as if I was breathing in new air. Is that dramatic?
Sometimes I do miss the times I would stroll over the wooden bridge to the freshman quad on the other end off campus. I really do. Still, I feel like I walk with a new sense of gratuity and independence than I held then.
Now, I’m currently sitting in my school’s dining hall by myself as a “Begin Again” by Taylor Swift plays on the speakers.
No joke. This is not supposed to be cheesy or cliche or anything else that ruins the authenticity of this post. But – this song reminds me of my 12 year old self who loved Taylor Swift. I think it suits this moment well.
I sit by myself, as every other table in the Callahan Center is filled. It’s the lunch rush. And I feel no shame in sitting alone. I feel the most myself when I’m alone, and that’s not supposed to be saddening. I’ve reached that point of independence where I find joy in the moments I can share with myself.
After all, that is the only person you have to spend the rest of your life with.
I can’t pinpoint one exact moment where I thought, “Wow. This is growth. I’m a new person.” But I one hundred and twenty percent believe that the person who flew to Florence, Italy was just a little bit different than the one who flew back home.
She’s louder. She’s vulnerable. She’s not afraid or embarassed to sit alone or walk by herself. She gets excited when no one can join her on an adventure or an errand run, and not because she’s introverted, but because she knows that she enjoys her own presence. She’s grown.
It also inspired this – my blog.
This is one of the most vulnerable posts I’ve written on here, and one of the few that is structured as a story. I guess my last thought will be this: If you have a chance to go somewhere new, do it. If someone asks you to lunch that you usually don’t hang out with and you’re nervous, go anyways. All of these connections and places and people will shape you into the person that you are.
You don’t have to go around the world to find your independence. You simply have to see that it’s been there the whole time and embrace its growth.
Want to hear more about my experience? Check out this post:
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