Starting my high school journey abroad in Italy, I tried to have as few strong expectations as possible. I had a some general ideas of what I would like to experience, but overall I began my study abroad experience with an open mind and heart. But, being the curious person I am, I came up with a few things that I thought might happen.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: the language. Quite the hassle. I remember being very nervous because I had not studied Italian as much as I had liked to. I started out my exchange program only knowing a few simple phrases, so I felt quite unprepared yet apprehensive to learn more. I figured that I would just pick it up. And so far, I have!
Now, this is much easier said than done. The past two months have been a tsunami of new information. At first I was drowning, but I have learned to soak it all in. Think sponge, Bethany. This includes Italian music, television, friends, host family, and school. Week one was very awkward… Even the ABCs hurt my head.
But, after I learned the basics of grammar and structure of the language (thanks to my 12 year-old host-sister) things became much easier. It is easy to read Italian with a basic knowledge of vocabulary. My reality is simply a learning process. Every day is an opportunity to learn!
As for the culture of Italy, I had already known a few things from my previous visits. I knew that in general, Italy was a very family-oriented country and full of large, immense Catholic churches. I also knew that many Italians were proclaimed Catholics, but not practicing.
I have learned that my family is just like this, and that finding a practicing person of any religion has been a bit difficult. Being an only child, I expected to grow close to my family here and try to immerse myself as much as possible. After a single day in my new host community of Perugia, I found out that family is everything here.
My four siblings will gladly help one another but bicker while doing so. Things such as studying and watching movies I would normally do on my own they all do together. Although they have hours of studying to do, they make time to visit their grandmother and cousins every day. They are spontaneous yet organized – and the epitome of fashionably late. It is beautifully chaotic and I am humbled to be part of this family.
Separately, I had expected to eat heaps of pasta. And this expectation has been blown out of the water. We eat heaps upon heaps. It is normal to have pasta even twice a day!
At home in the United States, my mom usually makes my family dinner (love you, mom). In Perugia, everyone crowds the kitchen to prepare lunch and dinner. Sometimes I feel like there is no room for me to help out in the kitchen, but I have learned that there is no such thing as personal space here, and that even my attempts to help are worth more than simply not trying at all.
On another note, I did not expect that I would use public transportation as much as I do! For example, today I am taking the auto-bus to the train station, and then a train to meet with a friend for dinner! Everyday I take the bus to school and the “minimetro” railway to athletics practice.
In Tennessee, no one takes public transport because it is not practical. You either drive yourself places or catch a ride with someone. I can definitely say that I have been pleasantly surprised by the cultural differences.
While on a high school exchange program you will meet a multitude of people: family, family friends, friends, families of friends, classmates, friends of classmates, teammates, teachers, the barista at the bar down the street, etc. I expected it to always be fun, but I personally feel like I go through stages of meeting people:
At first, I wasn’t apprehensive to meet anyone… I mean, I am on an exchange! When the time rolled around I would suddenly become nervous. Would I say the right thing? Would they judge my level of Italian? Would I be the only one wearing a sweatshirt… Again?!
But, these silly questions in my head were just that: silly.
The Italian people are beautiful inside and out. Their kind hearts are so big and their warm welcomes are simply through the roof. For example, last week was my 17th birthday. I suggested going to dinner with a couple of close friends, but none of them could make it. I shrugged it off because I know plans are always loose around here and knew that we would probably just have dinner as a family at home. But boy, was I completely wrong.
I came home that night to a surprise party! I do not know how my host sister did it, but my friends from my school, another school, and from the family were all there. I could not believe my eyes! My host family is amazing! About twenty of us had dinner that night. They really made my birthday feel extra special when I thought it would only be a family celebration. All in all, meeting new people is exhilarating and overwhelming, but worth your while.
In terms of school, I was very nervous the first day. I was nervous that it would be very hard to settle into the school. I feared I wouldn’t be accepted by the other girls. I expected I would spend the entire day understanding hardly anything, and then spend most of my nights translating my school work. I was afraid of the unknown.
Well, I must say that I shouldn’t have been so nervous. Like the language, you really get out what you put in. My whole class welcomed me with the biggest open arms! During the school breaks, they bury me neck-deep with questions about anything and everything. They are all willing to help me when I don’t understand something in class, and in return I help them in English class.
Speaking of class, I can understand the lectures most of the time! I’ve picked up the language fairly quickly thanks to their passionate speech and multitude of hand gestures. I may miss some little details here and there, but I can comprehend main concepts and use context clues to figure out the rest.
If I happen to understand hardly anything (like philosophy), I translate my lectures at home. Even so, I love school here. The headmaster of the school knows my situation and that I need to meet certain requirements for my school at home. My teachers and classmates are very interested and supportive of my exchange experience. My scholastic reality is going quite well.
In the end, expectations are not a bad thing! It is healthy to ponder your upcoming adventure… Just be careful that you do not set yourself up for some major disappointment. Just like pasta – healthy in moderation! Like I said before, I tried to come to Perugia with as little expectations as possible so that I could fully embrace my reality. Although I am always worn out afterwards, I am so happy with the relationships I have formed here and the experiences I have had.
Here are some general tips for future exchange students:
1. Don’t generalize countries. Whatever you do, do not think, “I want to go to Italy because they eat pasta and pizza 24/7.”
Some families never eat at home, and some never go out. Some are health nuts and some host moms make dessert every night! I know this from other exchange students I met at orientation.
Or you may think, “I want go to France because Paris is beautiful.”You may not be placed near Paris, but another wonderful place in France. Wonderful in a different way.
2. The key to learning the language is wanting to! Apply your interests in your host country’s language. Personally, I like to listen to music, so I created an “Italian pop” playlist and another “Italian relaxed” playlist. I play the I-pop songs when I run, and the relaxed one when I walk home from school.
Another way could be to choose one of your favorite movies and watch it in English with Italian subtitles, and then again in Italian with Italian subtitles. This way you practice your reading and listening comprehension skills of Italian. Watching movies and TV is also a great way because you hear how people speak and the vocabulary they use… Italian is full of many idiomatic expressions!
3. Take action and ask for help. Do not wait for someone to come to your rescue. Trust me, it is much easier on everyone if you ask the questions you may think are dumb or insignificant. After all, this is a learning experience.
One day, I was exhausted and asked my host mom if she had the time to drive me to school. She couldn’t, so she suggested I take the bus to school with my friends. If it wasn’t for this moment, I would have never known that taking the bus to school was even an option. I am very glad asked her! Allora, don’t keep your worries and insecurities bottled up because it will not be good in the long run.
It is so exciting to see how my expectations and reality compare and contrast. For example, some of my good expectations turned out better than I would have ever imagined! And some things I expected to find (like peanut butter), I may never see again until I return home! But it is okay, because this high school exchange is going to be different from my home, which leads me to my number one tip (if you need to expect something):
Expect your host country to be different from your home.
Because if anything is true, it is this. I am not disappointed in any way with my experience so far, and I am pleased with the things I never would have expected. Different doesn’t have to mean bad, it can be good in ways that differs from what you have known your whole life.
About the Author:
Bethany Carideo, is 16-years old and our 2017 Greenheart Travel Correspondent scholarship winner from Athens, Tennessee. Bethany is traveling abroad as a high school student in Italy and her goal is to become proficient in Italian, and is excited to have new host siblings during her time abroad. Follow her adventures here!