Caneel, outbound to Italy

When my host parents tell me that we are going somewhere, there is still a lot of confusion on my end of where that place actually is. This is how I came up with the name of this journal/ the book of my life here in Italy: “How I went to find a friend and instead found Gesù Cristo: and other stories of exchange”. I had thought that my parents had said we were going to meet some of their friends and get a gelato, but in actuality we went to church and got communion bread instead.

The morning after I got here I woke up in a panic. I couldn't speak English for an entire year and barely knew any Italian (my first few days were almost entirely Spanish, hoping the words were the same [they aren’t]). As my time here lengthened however, I realized that I’d started to dread hearing English because it meant that I was failing to do what I had come here for, to learn and speak Italian.

A bio I used for myself on social media when I first arrived was, “I smile a lot and pretend to know what you’re saying”. I found this fitting because so often people would be talking to me, full of passion and animation (OK, Italians saying anything), but I would be completely lost. I really came to appreciate the people who would talk slowly to me, because, as I learned from my English class, speaking slowly in your native tongue can be quite difficult and it requires continuous thought.

Like I learned to speak slowly, I have also learned to listen here; to hear the sounds of people’s voices and use that to my advantage. When I first arrived I dreaded the sound of a voice turning up at the end (having an upward inflection), because that meant someone was asking me a question when A) I had not been listening or B) I had in fact been listening, but was still clueless about what was being talked about. Option B was my life.

The best way that I have found to show that I am listening is to rely on social cues, when to nod my head in agreement or shake it in disbelief. Basically anything other than the deer in the headlights look that my host family must have thought was my natural, resting face when I first came since I used it so much. Finding other ways of expressing myself like using grand hand motions and smiling, have been instrumental in my adaptation because if you can't portray or say anything else, you can always smile to get your point across or tell how you are feeling.

I’ve truly found happiness in Italy. That’s not saying I don’t have challenging days, but I don’t think I’ve ever laughed this often. I find myself laughing at funny shirts written in broken English, my own language blunders, and the sheer irony of situations. An example of this was when I went out for pizza one night with my host sisters and exchange counselor. We were amused by the group of loud English speakers sitting behind us that were clearly tourists, so we started comparing some of the differences between the Italian culture and theirs. 1) You don’t normally eat the bread given to you when you first sit down, but instead use it for during, or after the meal to literally clean your plate (real Italian places seem to offer you a few types of packaged bread/sticks you can eat too). 2) To-go boxes are not used to take whatever’s left on your plate home with you because they literally do not exist here. Even containers for leftover food at home aren’t that popular because the meals prepared are expected to be finished. This means that when it comes down to, “Who’s going to eat the last chicken leg? Caneel, you’ve only eaten five, you might as well make it even and finish it”, that’s exactly what you do, finish it. 3) Never count on any course being your last because you never truly know how many more are coming- are we having cheese and marmalade for dessert now? Oh wait, we still have two more regular courses to go.. I used to wonder where everyone was putting all of this food, but then came to realize that it is very similar to the Mary Poppins magic bag; there is no bottom to their stomachs. To put it simply in Calculus terms, the limit does not exist; a perfect description of the seemingly infinite amount of courses capable of being consumed. Even when my sisters say, “Basta! (Enough!)” after finishing a plate, that doesn’t mean they are done eating for good, just with that course. At the end of the night as we were leaving the restaurant I was struck with amazement. For once I was no longer the English tourist. No, here I had just spent the entire evening speaking Italian with the natives. How blessed I am.

It’s little things that make me feel like I belong, like going to school every morning and seeing the same people on my way. There is the man walking his little lap dog, the other student who always uses a mysterious shortcut that gets him to school faster (side note: I finally figured it out after trying to inconspicuously stalk him for a week, then giving up on not being seen and flat out running to see the different turns he makes), and the pack of three girls who never seem to be in a rush to get to school, yet always make it on time. These things have become like clockwork and I find myself basing my route and walking speed off of where they are. The three girls are just meeting up to start on their way, today can be a leisurely speed walk, the 7:45 bus passed me before I even left my street, I’m running late. Although like most things in Italy, school doesn’t actually start at 8. Sometimes the students come in a few minutes late and sometimes the teacher will come in a few minutes after the late students. If not, just blame the bus (it’s like blaming the dog). Every Sunday when we go to church, I would say half the congregation (including my family) walks in as the bells are ringing signaling that the service is in full swing already and that you are now late, but you just go with it. It’s all part of the culture.

Italy is a place where Fiat's fit in, smart cars are well, actually smart, and when you have a bumper sticker of “Bimbo in car”, it’s not talking about a dumb person or airhead, but your very own child. Things like being the only one to buckle my seatbelt in the backseat, or using the squat toilets at school/ other public places have become my new normal. Other things that have become routine are seeing shrines on every corner dedicated to La Madonna and/or Gesù Cristo (so common that I often don’t even notice them anymore). Something else I have learned here is that no one hangs flags outside their homes. The only places that have the Italian flag are government buildings or for tourists, so if you are a local, you tend to avoid those places. There are also gates for every house/complex here. When I showed my host cousins a picture of my house in the US, they were shocked to see that there was no gate around my front yard separating the property from the street. I, on the other hand, was so unaccustomed to having a gate that I never remembered my keys to unlock it, so I always used to hop mine (until my sisters taught me how to jimmy the gate open with my pinky finger). Windows are actually used here too. They are opened to let in the fresh air at school and there are window covers at night so you have something even better than blackout curtains (no crack of light in the middle with these) for the morning when you wake up. One aspect that I haven’t been mastered yet is the hand motions, although I study how/when/in what context they are used religiously so that one day I will be able to use them and look nonchalant and normal about it. Already I’m finding myself talking more with my hands, it’s just easier to get your point across!

Elevators are not common here because there are no skyscrapers or buildings over six stories here (the tallest building in my town is the church, anything higher would be the surrounding mountains). This isn’t a problem for my families apartment building because there are only three floors, but I was amazed by how my Nonni’s apartment, which is six floors, has only stairs as well. They are in their 70’s and live on the top floor, but seem to have no problem walking up and down the flights of stairs multiple times every day, sometimes with loads of groceries. Me, on the other hand, I’m a little winded each day going to their apartment; dragging my backpack up behind me as I crawl up each flight, just trying to make it to lunch so I can refill my empty stomach.

I have found, at least in my area, that doing organized sports (other than volleyball) is not popular for high school aged girls. You either do volleyball (which is very competitive), or you do nothing. Coming from a high school where I played on four different varsity sports teams, volleyball unfortunately not being one of them, I was a little lost on what to do to get exercise. My family then showed me the gym/pool which is strategically located right next to my Nonna’s apartment. Everyday when I leave her house after lunch, still reminiscing over that tasty risotto I just ate, I have to walk right by the gym to get home. This means that I am going in most days of the week. I actually met one of my friends from school this way; we both were at the gym and then realized that we went to the same school. You never know where or how you will find friends, so keeping an open mind and following the Rotary guideline of never saying no to new opportunities, can only help.

I have already gotten to meet and hang out with the other exchange students both in my district, and from across Italy a few times so far and it has really been incredible. Something about us all being in the exact same position of being lost and clueless about what’s going on made us all really close over a very short amount of time. Whether it be swapping host family stories, the difficulty of making good friends in another language, or planning our next adventure, we never seem to run out of things to talk about. I think Rotary does a great job of selecting wonderful, kind, genuine people to go on exchange. Everyone who I have met so far is open to new experiences and truly grateful to be here.

The style here is very uniform in that everyone wears very similar things. The unofficial dress code I made up based off my observations at school, theme parks, and just out on the town is as followed: a variation of an American flag t-shirt, something with an English saying on it (about 3/4 of which actually make sense), or a hard-rock Caffè t-shirt. If you are not wearing one of the above mentioned, you are not wearing anything. You would literally be naked (you definitely won’t see workout clothes or my old normal style of track shorts and a t-shirt). When I went shopping for winter coats it was the same. There are two styles that everyone gets, all you need to do is pick out the color you like. Here, I normally dress for the weather, so I always seem to be warm, while my more stylish sisters are often caught saying, "Fa freddo!", which means, "It's cold!"

Exchange is the thrill of going into a shop and only speaking Italian, dispelling any idea the shopkeeper originally might have of me being just another tourist. It’s walking around your town for hours, losing yourself in the history and finding all these little cracks leading to different worlds, or even better, a free women's bathroom (akin to gold here- literally since you need to pay for public restrooms). I stumbled upon one down a long alleyway and through a building's courtyard past a free book cart and in a dark corner.. Sketchy, but functional- I’ll take it!

You never really know how fast you go through something till it’s not available for you to get more of. That was definitely the case for me and peanut butter, my one true love. I wasn’t missing my friends or family, ok maybe my dog a little, but peanut butter??? It was killing me. I needed it back in my life. I had limited myself to only bringing one jar on the plane with me because A) my luggage was already 5 pounds over and the airport employee was kindly already looking the other way (I attribute wearing my Rotary blazer in the airport for allowing me to go over on the weight of my bags and getting me a free plane ticket upgrade on my nine hour flight) and B) peanut butter is a fail-proof way to get your bag inspected since it has the same consistency as a bomb, and I really didn’t need any extra troubles on my international flight. That jar lasted a week and a half, and that was me rationing it out.

When my grandmother sent me a jar, hearing my cries of pain from across the Atlantic, it cost her $30 to send. Once it arrived, my family here in Italy had to pay $20 to go pick it up. That is some EXPENSIVE peanut butter. My host mom knew that this wasn’t going to work out, so she nicely bought me the only peanut butter that they sell in the supermarket here. It comes in a tiny jar and is basically sugar with some peanut flavoring, but I was not about to start getting picky. I’ll take it in any form I can get it. After that jar had a good dent in it, my host family then had the idea of making peanut butter together from scratch. We bought a big bag of peanuts and then made a party out of it, unshelling and peeling them to then mix together in the blender. This is how my Italian families homemade peanut butter recipe came to be my new favorite type. It left both of my families happy and saving a large sum of money. Now I can whip it up myself whenever my supply is depleted (I have already made it three more times).

Both of my host sisters are in the process of applying to go on exchange next year with Rotary. When I saw that they had ranked Canada and Australia above the U.S. for their top English speaking country picks, I was curious. Was I not doing a good job of representing my country to them? My American pride was a little hurt, but they then assured me that they liked the States. So what was the reason? Turns out they took my crazy love for peanut butter and associated it with every American’s relationship with the heavenly substance. They didn’t want to be seen as outcasts because they weren’t fans. This goes to show that you never really know what people will choose to identify a country with because of you. Not your kind, loving nature, but instead your peanut butter addiction.

My school decided to switch a few of my classes, which is normal in the U.S., but very different here in Italy since we don’t normally leave our classroom during the day. This meant that now, instead of Latin, I take more Italian classes, and have substituted some of my philosophy and religion classes to take more physics and help teach some English classes (Lord of the Flies, anyone?). I am the only exchange student in my school, so people are always interested to learn about me. Now that I have been here for a while, when the other students ask me questions about myself, they tend to be pretty surprised when I can answer in Italian (no, I am not German, but thank you for the compliment!).

Now that it is getting colder, the mountains surrounding my town have snow covering their tops, making the area even more picturesque. A feat I had deemed impossible, with the swans swimming gracefully in the lake and the roads looking just like Italian streets are photographed. I still can’t believe that I get to call this beautiful place my home and that I have already been here two months! I am truly grateful and could not be happier here. Grazie per tutto, Rotray e tutte le altre persone che aiutano con questo programma.

Update about kissing on the cheeks: it’s actually the right cheek first, but honestly, just go for whatever side is offered to you


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