It’s funny how you don’t really believe it when they tell you, “It will fly by”. Those very words don’t describe how fast time is flying by. I’m currently sitting on the balcony of my host grandparent’s house, listening to my favorite song and I can only wish you could see what I’m seeing.
It's 40 degree weather but this view makes it all worthwhile. It's moments like these when you are alone that you look out at your panorama and you appreciate every breath you’ve taken. Pictures can grasp so much, but the eye grasps the beauty a picture can’t show. I post a lot of beautiful pictures, or so I’ve been told, but if you agree to that than you can only imagine how more beautiful is it to be in them. I am living on a mountain, something I’m not used to since back home we don’t even have them.
I live in a beautiful Italian home, with a beautiful Italian family. Next to us live the grandparents in a mind-blowing big house, and on the other side live the uncle and aunt along with their daughter. There is also the other side of the family, grandparents and relatives that I can’t keep count of. These people, these strangers have become family. That’s the beauty of it, how a group of people you spend half a year with become a group of people that you’ll carry in your heart forever. Without them I wouldn’t have seen what I’ve seen and learned what I’ve learned. Oh, let me tell you the Italian family culture is quite a handful to integrate with, but let me tell you something else, I love them. At the end of all the differences between cultures you encounter con or pro you learn to accept that every culture is different but so beautiful. One culture isn’t better than the other, it’s just different, and one wouldn’t understand that until one has lived through it.
It’s also funny how when I boarded the plane to begin this crazy adventure, I thought I knew what I was getting into. I’m not going to say it’s been all smiles but then again how can one smile if one has never frowned? How can only truly know the difference if they haven’t experienced both? The first month went by like a honeymoon stage. I was traveling and seeing and meeting and learning and it was all so exciting. However, school started and as I kept arriving to the same house, to the same bedroom it hit me: this isn’t vacation, this is now home.
It was overwhelming and I wasn’t very happy with that. After everything started to become a daily routine, I began to ask myself why I came. The reality of it was that I missed my life in America. I missed my own routine. Those very words I heard at my last orientation before coming from a previous exchange student, “I wished they knew me in English” became so real. It was true, I felt alone. I didn’t really have friends because at the end they all really wanted to know who I was but I failed to show them that because I didn’t know how to express who I was in this new language. I was too afraid to try and fail so I didn’t even try.
The society and the people didn’t appeal to me because they were different than the ones at home, I was too full of my pride for America. I could only think of how many months I had left and how things would be if I were home. As an early graduate, I thought how much more I could have accomplish academically and how much I wouldn’t miss if I had stayed. The transportation was a hassle, being a driver back home every single day, and not being able to drive here was tough. Hobbies I did back home were too expensive to do here. I began to think of it as a mistake, everything was different for me and I didn’t like that.
Who could I speak to? An Italian who’s going to think I’m an ungrateful, spoiled American girl, or someone from home who wouldn’t understand me because they weren’t experiencing it? Another problem was my faith, living in the catholic capital of the world and not being catholic was nothing but difficult. Being someone who is very deep in her faith as a Christian, being so involved in her church back home, and being surrounded by so much of what she doesn’t agree with was hard. People would ask me about my religion and I would openly and happily speak about it, but only to find out it was being laughed at behind my back or taken as “wrong” broke me.
I was upset and thought, “I wish they understood. I wish they knew what I’ve experienced so they could know the truth. I wish that they could see it through my eyes”. Not being able to attend a church, or have anything to help me build my faith further was causing my faith to fall. I kept looking back at my Rotary interview when they asked me, “How is a girl like you, so attached to her family and her faith going to survive in a place where she won’t have either?”. I began thinking, “They were right. What am I doing?” I was ready to jump on a plane and go home.
One day I found a letter that I had written for this year, and two things grabbed my attention. One of them was a goal I wrote: to come back as a new person, a better person, someone with a new outlook on life. I have a saying I learned a while back and it is that everything happens for a reason, and that reason is never bad. The second thing was that, to discover why God had put this trip in my life and for what purpose it would serve my life for the better.
I woke up. I thought about my entire experience so far in those two months and I felt disgusted with myself. . .I thought I came prepared but in fact as every day passed by and as new obstacles hit me in the face it made me weaker. I wasn’t doing my part, I had let go of my strength and forgotten how to fight through the bad. The country, the exchange in whole wasn’t the problem... it was me.
I looked back at that very question I was asked at my Rotary interview and realized I only had been focusing on the question and not the answer I gave them. “I love my family, but I’ve been far from them before for a long period of time, I am very independent here and that independence will help me. I also am very involved in my faith, but my faith isn’t focused on a location it’s focused on a relationship. My faith doesn’t stay behind, it goes with me”. The words that had come out of my mouth, the girl who spoke them, that girl was me so what was the problem? Why wasn’t I living them?
Everything from that point became better. Not because everything changed, but because I changed. I started looking at this exchange with a different perspective. I was going to go home and I was going to have those two things accomplished. I would make sure of it. I opened my eyes to this new culture, and it wasn’t inferior anymore, it was different but beautiful. I let go of home, and a found a new one here. I tried new things, I started talking and trying no matter how many times I’d fail, I pushed myself to make friends, I pushed myself to become a part of this culture. I started taking control of my exchange. I jumped out of my comfort zone, and let me tell you something? It worked. I was happy.
Everything happens for a reason, everything happens for a reason. It all made sense. The problem was that I wasn't striving to live my exchange to its fullest because of the failure to overcome the obstacles it brought. You have to accept the challenges and keep going, you have to fail and get back up, you have to let it make you into the person you are meant to be, into a better person with an experience that you can say has changed your life. I was failing to do that, but I changed.
I couldn’t drive but I learned to walk, and to bike, and to appreciate it. I was encountered with something driving blocked: the beauty of meeting and seeing what is outside. When you drive you pass by so much, when you walk or bike you encounter it. I couldn’t do the hobbies I did back home, but I found new ones. I started going to the gym a lot, and I started teaching English to a bunch of kids for some pocket cash I could use to travel more. I walked up to people at school, I invited them for coffee and friendships evolved.
I didn’t have a church, but I still had God. I missed it so much, when it was always next to me. I continued to build my faith. I learned that to really build that strong connection and relationship with God I had to be completely away from all the distractions that keep you from a spiritual growth, a lot of which I had at home. It took to being completely alone to realize that I need more of Him. I needed this exchange.
This exchange is doing more than changing me, it’s showing me what I lacked and giving me it. An exchange is when you open yourself to a new world and you take a part of it. It’s when you learn to do things you never thought you would do. It’s when you fall in love with things you never thought you would fall in love with. It’s an experience that changes you, that fills you with a new wisdom and a new happiness. I have learned that for an exchange to be successful you have to do just that, change. It’s in the word itself for a reason. You come in thinking you know who you are, but you leave as the person who you are really meant to be.
It’s been 5 months since I let go of my life in America and began a new one in Italy. The things I’ve been though are countless... The bonds I’ve created here are forever, and at this point I don’t know if I want it to go by too quickly. I’m half way through this experience and I’ve grown so much, as a person. My characteristics are bolder. That’s the reason I came here, to change. To be confronted with my flaws and become a better person. To impact people and for people to impact me. To become prepared for my future. I miss my family, and of course there will never be someplace like home, but it doesn’t feel so far like it used to. I don’t get homesick, I think of home and I smile I don’t cry.
I have so much to say about what I’ve done and who I’ve meet these past five months in this beautiful country, but I wanted this first post to be a personal reflection. I still have a lot to learn and grow and change and I still have so many exciting things to do before I hit that plane to go back home. I am so happy and so excited for all of it. I wasn't prepared to fight and win obstacles, and I forgot that I have a God who already has.
I can't expect a life without struggle, but I can expect a life with stories of overcoming them. Without obstacles, there is no growth or change, there is nothing to mold you into the person you are meant to be. Living so far and so differently isn't easy, but when things aren't easy they have a purpose of molding you into someone wiser, stronger, better, and with a hell of a story to tell.
If you are planning on being an exchange student, do it. I am not promising it will be easy, it's not but it will change your life. If it doesn’t, you did it wrong. An exchange is in the hands of the exchange student, and if you don't take control and get the best out of it, it’s going to get the best out of you and leave you with nothing. I’m a proud witness and testimony of that.
Prepare yourself, because the next post will be rich. Prepare yourself to enter my word, my experiences, my happiness, my exchange.