Finding your place in a paradise abroad

In a foreign city, small familiarities can make intimidating surroundings feel more like home. (credit: Mairéad Pettit/Personnel Manager) In a foreign city, small familiarities can make intimidating surroundings feel more like home. (credit: Mairéad Pettit/Personnel Manager)

Before I left the U.S. for Italy I devoured every piece of advice about studying abroad. I had a plan for money — backup debit cards — and of course travel-sized bath items, so I was ready. But as my departure date got closer and closer I began to panic. What in the world was I doing? I don’t speak Italian! How am I supposed to get by, live, and thrive in Rome? It felt like freshman year all over again.

The most useful piece of advice I received was this: Expect everything to be completely different, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the similarities.

And that is exactly what I did. I got off the plane expecting to have landed in a place that was going to be completely unfamiliar — and it is, to an extent. I am excited every morning to be able to live and learn here in Rome, the birthplace of modern civilization, but the moments that have stood out to me so far are those that combine the unknown and the foreign with the familiar.

The Burger King just down the street from school is always packed at lunchtime with hordes of Italian high school students. Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” is strangely popular, and seems to be playing in every shop I walk into.

And then there’s maybe my favorite thing to relay back to the states: The street peddlers shoving “selfie sticks” in my face whenever I get within fifty feet of a tourist attraction.

This feeling of familiarity, of home, in a place so foreign can be hard to describe. You almost don’t realize it’s there until you run back into something quintessentially Roman, like the musicality of the Italian language surrounding you on the street, street markets selling everything from undergarments to vegetables, or the Colosseum appearing in front of you.

It’s been a month since I started this experience and already I still feel like I’m walking the line between tourist and resident. I want to take in every inch of the city, to get lost in its side streets, drink in its history, but I also want to live here — be a resident — and begin the process of becoming Roman, no matter how short my time as one may be.

These two wishes conflict with each other. In order to be truly Roman, you can’t marvel at the city on your walk to school. To them, this city is home, is normal. They see no discrepancy in the combination of modern and ancient because to them the ancient is the modern. It is the backdrop of the bus ride to work, the everyday views on the way to the store.

And so I have found myself playing two parts. During the week I am the student, the everyday person living life in Rome. I take the metro; I take my cappuccino standing up at the counter; I grab un panino for lunch and eat dinner at 9 p.m.

On the weekends, though, I am the tourist. I walk the streets, only vaguely taking note of how to get back; I wear the headsets provided by tourist attractions; I acknowledge my surroundings as the marvels they are.

Little by little, in these four weeks, I have started to pick up the language of the everyday, enough to at least make an effort when buying groceries or paying for a meal. I have started to look past the big attractions that draw most people to the city and begun to see the smaller details that make it truly remarkable.

I think what I have realized most strongly since being in Rome is that in order to gain the most authentic experience, you have to play the part of visitor for a least a little while. The Romans don’t walk past ancient wonders because they don’t find them interesting. They walk past them because they have the appreciation instilled in them, after a lifetime of walking past them.

Once you can be instilled with a fraction of that appreciation, you can be free to find your own rhythm in the life of the city.