How often do we realize that our whole lives are changing right before our eyes? Not often, but lucky for me a summer in Italy changed all that. For most of my life I had dreamed of going to Italy. In case you were wondering, it did all start with pizza. A particular pizza place, not necessarily the food itself (actually, yes the food too). So when a foreign exchange representative from AFS-USA came to my high school freshman year, I became consumed.
When I told my parents I wanted to do it, my dad wasn’t on board, mainly because he questioned my commitment. Admittedly, in the past I had given up on hobbies and activities rather easily, but this time was different. I babysat two kids the entire summer between my sophomore and junior years. When school started back up, I got a part-time job with my mom, which meant I was working every shift possible. AFS offered students fundraising opportunities, and at that point I had earned most of the money myself. The rest came basically all at once: AFS gave me a partial program scholarship and my dad covered the rest. He was so impressed by my level of commitment to this opportunity that he couldn’t not help if he was able to. I’m not sure if I ever thanked him enough for that, but I hope he knows.
I met my host family on July 4th, 2009 in Ancona, Italy.
I only found out who my host family would be a couple days prior, so it was still a surprise when I arrived at the train station. My host family consisted of Andrea (dad), Roberta (mother), Chiara (sister), and Lidiana (grandmother). We stayed in a condo in Marcelli, a beautiful and quaint town along the Riviera del Conero.
It was kind of strange, I met my new family and three days later they gave me a special birthday dinner. I still have the bracelet they got me and I still love it. A couple of the guests they invited also got me gifts, despite never having met any of them before. But that is pretty much the essence of Italians – they love any reason to celebrate and making sure you’re enjoying life. And making sure you’re eating enough.
What stuck out the most for me was how simply Italians live.
Especially during the summer. They don’t just mindlessly grocery shop – they go to individual shops to get their bread for the day. Italians truly appreciate the food they eat (and they eat a lot of it) while turning meals into giant social events. Sometimes the most fun nights with friends are just sitting around a table talking and joking around. Or walking up and down the same street for hours (with the right people, it can be much more fun than it sounds). Our day-to-day activities over the summer were definitely simple:
- Wake up, eat cookies for breakfast
- Go to the beach with friends
- Home for lunch with family
- Back to the beach with friends
- Return home for dinner with family
- Out for the night with friends
If you can’t tell, Italians are extremely social beings.
Chiara is only a year older than me, so age-wise I slid right in with her group of friends. Of course at that point in my life, I knew very little Italian – really only a couple words and whatever Italian and Latin have in common. Thankfully for me, most of them knew a little English, so we did manage our version of “Italish”. I was not very brave when it came to speaking any sort of Italian out loud. We all got along great, although I’m sure everyone got annoyed with how many pictures I took all summer. Most nights were spent doing much of the same things, but I loved every second. I was front and center in observing just how similar and how different teenagers in another country live.
My summer in Marcelli was such a unique experience.
None of my travels through Italy since have really quite compared. Spending my summer as an honorary Italian teenager gave me an appreciation for the Italian culture that I don’t think I could’ve gotten just touring the country. I have been an avid observer of people since this trip, and it is the reason I have had the courage to travel solo in the years since. I was utterly out of my comfort zone. And I am beyond grateful that I had this experience.
If you’re still in school, I urge you to sign up for a foreign exchange or study abroad (looking at you, little sister). And if you’re not, I urge you just to travel.
PSA: Think before you decide to go from blonde to pomegranate red. You may not get your original color back for 8 years.