A STUDY ABROAD’S PERSPECTIVE
Written by Arleigh Rodgers
During my freshman year of college, the walk from the door of my residence hall to the farthest building on Ithaca College’s campus took about 10 minutes. I was always accompanied by Ithaca’s impenetrable grey clouds and my heavy backpack. This was sometimes filled with books I hadn’t read or was meaning to read, usually unfinished homework, my laptop, and a water bottle.
When temperatures drop below freezing, careful navigation atop the ice-encrusted pavement with a jacket zipped up to my nose, is my only option during Ithaca’s winters. And the spring is no more than an unfulfilled, fleeting hope for warmth, even though every student knows the sun doesn’t consistently show its face until the end of April. When the frigid wind forces us to keep our eyes locked on the pavement and secure our hands deep inside our pockets, we greet only those friends we recognize and professors who recognize us, and sometimes not even them. We encase ourselves in the hoods of our jackets and hope to meet someone for lunch. We trek to the library at 10 p.m. and stay until 3 a.m.
The stretch of road from Prati (where I’ll live for this semester) to John Cabot University’s Guarini campus, takes about thirty minutes. Graffiti grows on the walls encasing the river, like colorful mold blossoming from the tip of a spray can. Emblematic shards of green and brown glass, which sometimes appear as wine or beer bottles, pile in the cracks of the cobblestones. Slow wanderers pace unevenly with their electronic maps in hand, musicians take turns playing their guitars outside Hadrian’s Tomb, and women with long scarves take pictures on the bridges, usually an umbrella in their right hand, and they wonder which angle is best to capture the marrow of the Eternal City.
When I first arrived to school in August 2017, I was the resident of a town approximately four hours away from Ithaca. The two cities were in so many ways familiar to me and the lifestyle I had lived for eighteen years. But when I arrived in Rome, even before I approached the locals who knew to begin speaking English with me, I realised how immediately I stood out with the vacationers and tourists. I was the American who studied abroad so I could legally drink five nights a week. I was the daughter of a privileged family, who funded her cheap weekend trips to Paris or London or Greece. I had shoes every local expected me to step into.
I waited for the weather to slide into a colder atmosphere so I could bury my face in the front of my jacket again. Shrouding my red hair and fair skin would let people assume I was Italian, that I spoke their language, and understood their culture. For portions of my time here I was lost in a city I felt like I should have known. I wanted to hide behind their expectations and learn from the shadows.
But this campus, I thought, is where I know I can almost fit in. I can greet and thank the guards who accept my student ID and allow me into the buildings. I choose and take classes like I do at Ithaca. I can go to the library, even though I’m not accompanied by as many peers in the same room, or stay to study as late as I do in Ithaca. I have access to a gym and a writing center and a whole other town. Shops and cinemas and bars and museums sit waiting for my discovery.
Slowly and incredibly surely, did my chest swell when I began to understand any aspect of Italian culture. Though perhaps a small and insignificant detail, my first introduction to the cafè in the Tiber Campus dining hall taught me the importance of a superior coffee in the mornings. On Ithaca’s campus I bought a cup of Starbucks coffee quickly between classes, only to be disappointed, my expectations already low, by the acrid tangs of burnt coffee beans mixed with dull Soy milk. But coffee at Tiber was for enjoyment, not another thing to sip hurriedly while I booked it between my English and Anthropology classes.
It was because the distance from Prati to Trastevere is less than thirty minutes walking that I chose to avoid transport by buses or metro, and start my Monday and Wednesday mornings with a stroll along the river. It was also because of this walk that I began to notice the graffiti and the emblematic bottles of wine, the slow wanderers, the musicians, and the women with their long scarves. The pace at which I walked to class slowly emptied my fear that I was on the outside of a culture, and soon I wished to explore the idea that perhaps my status in Rome would never change. I perceived the way Italians dressed, acted, and spoke through my own lens as they observed me and the black jacket I bought in December, because I thought it would help me blend in while abroad. Looking like a local wasn’t the final step in assimilating with Italian culture. I learned I needed to live it too.