Meagan, outbound to Italy

So, to any future outbounds reading this, I want to start my journal off by giving you advice: Don't wait to write a journal. Even if you've only been in your country for few weeks, write something. Before you know it, it's going to be March and you'll have so much to say that you won't even know where to start.

Well, I guess the beginning would be the best place. Before I came to Italy, I had never had a bad flight, so I figured that it wouldn't be too awful. I knew how airports worked and I was familiar with JFK (where my layover was) so I thought it'd be a breeze. Wrong. So wrong. Delays, missed flights, lost luggage, dead phone; I had it all. But the moment that really punched me in the gut was when I boarded the airplane and couldn't understand a word.

Since I had missed my original flight, I had been switched to fly with a company called Alitalia. Believe it or not, it was an Italian airplane. Native Italians were onboard this flight, while the tourist Americans were on my missed Delta flight. I was terrified. How was I going to live in a country where I couldn't understand anything? A note to future outbounds: Grammar won't help you understand people, vocabulary will. I made that mistake. I could conjugate a verb, but that's useless if I didn't know what the verb meant. After trying and failing to fall asleep for eight hours, I finally arrived in Italy.

I’m not really sure what I expected, but being in a foreign country is so surreal to me. Everything here is different, even if it’s only slightly. For lack of a better word, everything is just so…Italian. Even all of the animals here look different. It’s difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it, but I think Pocahontas put it best when she said "you learn things you never knew you never knew."

From my personal experience, many Italian stereotypes are actually true. They are very loud, especially when mad. When I first arrived in Italy, I thought something was very wrong in my family. My host dad and my younger host brother would yell at each other on a daily basis. After a while, I realized this was just normal. Even the neighbors would wake me up with their shouts! Italians are just a very expressive people. They are still extremely welcoming and friendly, however. In fact, Italians are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. No matter who it is, whether it be family, friends, family friends, or a friend’s family, they will all welcome you like one of their own and try to feed you too much food.

Speaking of food, the whole “Italians eat pasta everyday” stereotype is absolutely, positively true. I can’t remember a day I went without having some kind of pasta as part of a meal. They don’t typically have just pasta as the entire meal, though. Italians know how to eat. They usually have a two course meal at home, and the first one, more often than not, is pasta. It never gets old because there are just so many different types of pasta. You could have pasta every day for two weeks (which I have done) and still not have the same type twice.

Italian food is much higher quality than American food, in my opinion. In Italy, food is produced for the taste, rather than for how it looks. I try everything here, even things I’ve had in the States and didn’t like. For example, in the States I hated tomatoes and coffee, but here, I love them. I’m a “coffee every afternoon” kind of person now, and sliced tomatoes with salt and mozzarella is one of my favorite snacks.

I haven’t had any really strange food here (although I have been promised sheep brain); the weirdest food was either raw baby squid in a salad on Christmas Eve or a cow intestine soup. But because the food here is more tasty than pretty, some foods do look very “interesting”, as us exchange students have been trained to say. Regardless, I still try it. “Don’t ask, just eat!” is the motto. The most different thing I’ve had here after not knowing what it was was liver, but even that isn’t too bad. It just had a bad aftertaste. Before I ate the cow intestines, another exchange student told me what it was. I almost tried it, thinking it was a kind of chicken. After she had told me, I still tried it, but all the appeal was gone and I had to chase it with a lot of water. The flavor wasn't actually too bad, but it was more of the idea of what it was that grossed me out.

School in Italy is very different than school in the United States. I’ve written over 1000 words speaking about my experience in school here, but I’ll try to keep it simple. I’m in the fourth year of Italian high school, but there are actually five years total. During the day, the students stay in the same classroom while the teachers move from class to class. There’s no lunch during the day, but there are two ten minute breaks where people can bring food from home or buy a snack from the snack bar.

In most of Italy, the school week is six days long, Monday through Saturday. However, I lucked out with a five day school week. Italian high schools are specialized, meaning that teenagers choose their school based on their interests and what they want to do with their life. There are many different types of schools, including, scientific, linguistic, and artistic. No matter what school you go to, you’ll still have the same basic classes as another school, but the time spent in those classes fluctuates.

I attend a linguistic school, and the classes I have each week are math, philosophy, English, chemistry, Italian, art history, physical education, Spanish, French, physics, history, and religion. I have six classes a day, and every day of the week has a different order and selection of classes. I have more language classes than someone at a different type of school would, with half of the day taken up by those classes, while I have only a few math/science classes a week.

Unfortunately, the Italian government doesn’t give a lot of money to the schools here. As a result, the school buildings look very different than they do in the States. My school is covered in graffiti, both inside and out. Students stay in the same classroom all year, so typically they tend to leave their mark at some point. The walls are devoid of any kind of poster, and the only supplies in the room are a chalkboard and an old computer for taking attendance. Occasionally, a teacher will bring in her own laptop and projector for a lesson. In addition to being in the same classroom all year, Italians stay with their classmates for all of high school. This means that they’ll be in the same class for five years, and, as a result, they become incredibly close.

One of the aspects of Italians culture that I admire and appreciate the most is the value that they place on their friends. My first host family was in their late forties, and they still met up with their high school friends almost every weekend. People also tend to live close to their family, so it’s easier to keep in touch with everyone from your past. It could be because of how much smaller Italy is than the United States that people stay closer to home, but I think it’s also a part of the culture. It’s perfectly common and accepted for people to live with their parents until they are married, so it could be well into their twenties before they move out.

Now, to get more specific about my exchange, I’m living in Rome! Rome is an absolutely amazing city. Some people say that all big cities are the same, and that you miss out on the culture of that country, but it’s not true. Sure, it may be different from the countryside, but there’s still a culture that is unique to Rome and to Italy. Walking around the center of the city just fills me with a sense of awe. Being surrounded by buildings and statues that are thousands of years old is just incredible. I’ve always been interested in Italian history, so seeing what I’ve learned about in school right in front of me is pretty much indescribable.

I’ve fallen in love with this city, and my favorite activity is just walking around the city center, casually viewing monuments (like the Coliseum and the Pantheon) whenever I want, and discovering all that this city has to offer. That’s the great thing about Europe; the public transportation system is much more reliable. The buses in Rome aren’t that great, and I’m late almost everywhere because of it, but a person can still get to anywhere they want by using public transit. I can do things like attend mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world, just because I want to. It’s an incredible feeling of independence that I was never able to obtain in the United States.

Time flies faster than you think it does. In less than fifty days, I'll be on a plane to go back to Florida. This year has been the most difficult, frustrating, trying year that I've ever experienced, but it has also been the most rewarding. I know that I've changed, I feel it, but I don't know how. My surroundings have evolved, and so I have too. I think I'll only really comprehend my difference when I go back to where I was before this year, when I go back into the box that I no longer believe I fit in.