Brooke, outbound to Italy

You would guess I eat spaghetti and meatballs every day. Yes, some form of pasta is served each day, but it’s not your classic “Nonna’s Italian red sauce, with meatballs, and long stringy pasta” kind of dish. Most of the pastas are actually short or small. The sauces vary from a toping of veggies, pesto, or maybe some simple broth. Yes, I have come across red sauce in my home cooked meals here, but never have there been meatballs in it. I learned recently this is because of the region of Italy I am in. Red sauce with long spaghetti is the classic dish of Rome. The north has polenta and the south has its couscous.

Continuing along with everything is not as it seems, I have been traveling a little. For Carnival, my third host family sent me, and my twin host sisters to Venice, and Verona. We flew up February 13-17 for a very long weekend. My sisters and I stayed with their aunt, uncle, and son. I absolutely loved the family. The aunt is an English teacher. She found me interesting, and apparently, every year, the uncle decides the family will start speaking English at home. He thought I was the perfect launch off point for this year. Dinner became an outlet of practicing English, and Italian for me. I actually learned a lot in the short time I was there. I simply adored the family, and felt extremely welcome and well cared for. Experiences like this; there is no possible way to fully thank someone properly for. I did my best, and gave them a piece of my artwork in the form of a thank you card.

While on this trip, we were to visit Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet, and Venice, the city of canals. I need to talk about Juliet’s balcony first and foremost. I watched Letters to Juliet a few years ago, and fell in love with the movie. The fact that there were ladies in the quaint little town of Verona replying to letters seemed magical. Love letters would get an answer from Juliet. In the movie, the balcony was nestled mysteriously in a side street. There were only true lovers, or the broken hearted there. You could stick your envelope in between the stones of the wall, where later a lady with a basket would come to collect them.

Everything was a completely different from the movie. The movie fully glorifies the humbleness of the whole place. First off, the real Juliet’s Balcony is not down some cobble-stoned street tucked away from the city. It’s next to a big shopping district, and Juliet’s balcony is a tourist trap. There is gum, and torn notes stuck on the walls. Scraps of paper with written names are the validation of some Italian couple. If you have an actual letter to Juliet, you give it to some lady behind a counter in the gift shop. Her sole purpose is to make sure the Chinese tourists don’t go up to the balcony without buying a ticket. The whole ordeal was a mess of confusion. The crowd of tourists and cluster of over priced gift shops, swindled what could have been an amazing atmosphere. What I expected, from what I saw, were two sides of the moon.

That’s what I get for having expectations from a movie. Verona is still an amazing city. Juliet’s Balcony was really the only surprise I would file under a sad tourist trap. The rest is what you would expect from the City of Love. Quiets streets, high-end shopping, and café (coffee) bars everywhere. I still had the canal city Venice to visit on my vacation. However, Venice was all for the tourists too.

I assumed there would be some people who actually lived on the island. Some local boater, or maybe even the gondola steersmen would. I didn’t see anyone who looked like they lived on the island. As far as the eyes could see were street venders, and tourists being herded around. I’m not kidding when I say herded. Everyone stayed on the same path going to and from St. Mark’s square. Imagine a jam-packed highway, but instead of cars, you have people.

To get to the island you had to take a train. My boxcar was full of people. The boarding flats on the train were full, and it was standing room only available when I got on with my family. This was expected; I went around the time of Carnival. All of these tourists made me really appreciate Siracusa. Carnival in Italy isn’t as big or extravagant as it is in Brazil, but it’s still a pretty big deal in Venice. All of these tourists made me really appreciate Siracusa. It’s celebrated with costumes, festivals, and extravagant parties. Venice is the place to go to if you want a true Italian carnival mask, also. They have amazing hand crafted masks, and specialty mask makers. So of course, I had to buy one for a souvenir. I ended up picking out a Doctor mask, because of its unique shape. It’s currently one of my favorite possessions. The mask is of high quality, and has false gold embellishment. My host sister’s aunt and uncle thought I would have difficulty packing it on the return flight home, but the nose is hollow. I stuffed sox and tee shirts into the thing, and it successfully survived the trip.

Back home, the weather in Sicily has been brutal. I haven’t been doing much outside, because of it. The island of Ortigia somehow has perfect ventilation. The small narrow streets create a flawless funnel for the wind. My second host family’s house is located there. At the beginning of living in Ortigia, I would go running in the mornings and have café’ (coffee) outside in the afternoons. Seeing the historic city in the morning was the most beautiful thing. I really enjoyed my morning jogs, but had to stop because it started raining periodically. Everyday since Christmas, in fact. Besides that the skies are cloudy and gray. I’m hoping this period of wind and clouds will be over soon. The island of Ortigia is the place to be, especially in the sun.

One of the few things to do in the cold is to go to the cinemas. My second host family and I have gotten into the habit of going every Tuesday night. The theater has a special in showing English movies. There are sub titles in Italian for those who don’t understand. I read them, as practice for Italian. Going to see the movies is probably one of my favorite things to do with my family. It’s a whole experience. My host mom picks me up after taking the younger daughter to studies. We eat in the car, usually having a Panini and Coca-Cola. All three of us joke that this way is the true way to eat like an American. Italians don’t eat in their cars. Take away is usually brought home, and I only know of one drive through here.

When we arrive at the theater we sneak in our half eaten sandwiches and drinks. Somehow that’s become a really fun part of the night for me. People in Italy don’t care if you bring some thing in to the theater or not. It's just not preferred. By this time my older host sister and host dad meet us at the theater. My sisters have their purses to stick their commodities in. I however have a big coat, with large pockets. One pocket gets the sandwich, and the other gets the drink. I have to make sure to keep my hands in my pockets to seem normal. This whole ordeal leaves us girls giggling till the theater goes dark, and we can pull out our delicious smuggled goods.

Everything still seems to mesh together. Even going on trips, and normal days seem to merge together into one memory. My friend back home asked me if it feels crazy to have lived here for over half a year. My response was “Nope, it feels like life”. Her response actually shocked me “That’s a beautiful way to think about it.” A beautiful way to think about it? That’s not what I think about it! That’s what it feels like, that’s what it is!! Living here has become my normal, everyday life. I have a day-to-day, this is what I do, routine. “A normal life”, I’ve been chewing over this fact in my mind for several days. I can’t get over the fact that some people don’t understand what that is. Exchange becomes your life. It becomes your every day. It is my normal to wake up every day and expect to eat pasta and speak Italian. Realizing there is this difference in people, who have and haven’t gone on exchange or experience similar things, shows me how special we “exchangers” are. We stop seeing countries as places to visit, but places to live.

Being 2/3 of the way through with my exchange seems surreal. The thought of moving houses every three months, Italian art school, and traveling in Italy has become my normal life. Walking to and from Italian lessons, seeing a bay out my kitchen window, and going on foot through Ortigia is what I have come to know day-to-day. When I booked my return flight date, the realization hit me. My time here set. There is a day when I will leave this place. If I ever return, it will never be the same. There is no security blanket of Rotary, not like I’ve had it. Of course, I feel I will always be welcome here with open arms and a smile. My experience of being an exchange student will end once I step foot in America. I can’t thank Rotary and all the Rotary volunteers on all the work in providing me with this experience.