Tuesday, July 3, 2012

In Bocca Al Lupo

So the time has come. We've been dreading it for weeks, for months, but it's here. I can't begin to explain how hard it is to leave this town, this region, this country, this life. This experience has been all that I hoped it would be and more. I had awful days and great days and sad days and boring days. I met crazy and interesting and eccentric and unique people. I made the greatest friends a person could ask for. I had an awesome host family. I ate some pizzas, more than a few gelatos, and gained a few pounds. I went to school in a another country. I went to school on a Saturday. I learned Italian. I visited Milan, Venice, Rome, Florence, Naples, Alberobello, Trani, Bari . . . the list goes on and on. I almost bought a rabbit. I broke my host mom's umbrella on a class trip to Siena. I had bronchitis. I went to the movies. I sat around at home with my host sister. I kept a journal. I got my legs waxed. I ate imported avocados. I taught 2nd and 3rd graders English. I lived in Italy.

From the moment I got in a cab to go to orientation in New York to taking out my good ol' suitcase this week, I've had the most amazing time. I've had my fair share of ups and downs, but I wouldn't change anything about my experience. Not one thing. 

Tomorrow, I go to Trani for the going-away party a good friend is throwing (Tess, another American exchange student) and to say goodbye to Ian (Canada) and Charlotte (New Zealand) because year and semester students are separated for departure. Thursday, I say goodbye to everyone in my town. Well, everyone I can convince to meet Emily (Germany), Anna (Iceland), and I for our second to last night in Gravina. Friday, a pancake breakfast with Emily, last-minute packing, pizza with the family, and a night out on the town. Saturday, I say goodbye to my host family, leave for Rome, say goodbye to Emily at the bus station, am reunited with the other semester students (Emma!) from our orientation in January, and enjoy my last night in Italy--the last night of this experience. We leave for New York the day after. 

It's gone by fast. Too fast. If someone called me right now and told me I could stay for another five months, I would say yes in a second. But honestly, I'm happy. I'm proud of myself. I did it. I had the most amazing time in the world. I had an experience that not many people do. I grew into the person I wanted to be. 

This will be my last post from Italy. In bocca al lupo to all of the people I will say goodbye to this week. To the people I may never see again. To the greatest friends ever. To the best host sisters. To the people who made this experience what it was. It's been incredible. Unbelieveable. Unforgettable. 

A presto!

- Leah

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Profound Moments

My entire experience in Italy has been made up of profound moments, people, and experiences. Earlier today, I returned to Gravina in Puglia after my end-of-stay orientation camp with AFS/Intercultura. It was one of the best weekends of my life, to be honest. I can't really describe it, these moments of profundity, but I can try and let you all in on the feeling of them.

The second night of camp, they had us all sit in a circle and gave everyone a candle. You had to think of a memory or a person or just anything really that was really important to you and to your experience in Italy, negative or positive, and then you had to say it out loud (in Italian, obviously) to everyone before they gave you the lighter to light your candle. By the end, of course, mostly everyone was in tears or, for the less openly emotional, kissing away the tears of their friends (If there's any way that us exchangers have become true Italians, it would be the kissing. We love to kiss each other on the cheek). But also, by the end, everyone had a lit candle in the pitch black room. It was absolutely beautiful. And then the volunteers came around and grabbed our candles, putting them in the center of the circle to spell AFS. I can't tell you how much that night meant to everyone.

And last night, too. We had a talent show after dinner, which was incredibly hilarious, as many embarrassing things seem to happen at talent shows. After the show, the lights and the music went on and everyone started dancing. And I mean everyone. Most of us were barefoot, as most of us tended to be during the entire four day experience--a fact that the hotel staff liked to point out during meal times--and most of us probably can't dance. But there's something kind of amazing about sixty-something teenagers from all over the world dancing together, barefoot, to music in a language that, five (or nine) months ago, they didn't understand at all, speaking tens of different languages. There's something really amazing about it, actually. 

And there's something even more amazing about everyone running from the room at midnight at the sudden realization that we're young and life is crazy and spontaneous and that we may never see each other again. And the fact that, moments later, we were all in the pool with our clothes and shoes on. Water fights ensued. Tons of cheek-kissing, as expected from exchange students in Italy. Soaked and transparent shirts. Dresses and skirts pooling at the water's surface. Eye make-up all over everyone's faces. It was freezing and my dress was basically destroyed and my hair got wet, and it was one of the best nights of my life. Getting out of the pool and making it up to our hotel rooms to change--now that's another story. 

So thank you. To all of you, reading this, who made sure I came to Italy and got the chance to have this experience. To my family back home, who support me even though I'm positive I drive them all crazy. And to my best friends, my new family, here in Italy, who are the profound people who make all of these profound moments possible. You know who you are. I'm really going to miss you guys.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Buona Fortuna

Mmmm. Thanks, kind pigeon.
In Italy, not many things are a sign of good luck.

Except, you know, a bird taking a crap on you. I guess that means I'm a pretty lucky girl (see photo). 

Today (edit: Wednesday! I wrote this on the bus home from Napoli, but didn't get the chance to post it until today), I went to Napoli with my host sister's class. We woke up bright andearly--four forty for me, five for her--which was still much later than the lovely three o'clock for Firenze. The bus ride was also, thankfully, shorter--only three hours--most of which was spent listening to a charming rendition of Modena City Ramblers' "Ciao Bella" in the wonderful tones that only teenage boys can reach.

One of the boys was saying how by the time I go back to America, I won't be able to speak in English anymore. Which, obviously, isn't true, but it brought me back to a conversation that I had with Emily (my lovely German friend) this past Saturday on the train ride home, between bites of the much-missed Babybel and fresh bread. 

Emily, having been in Italy for eight months, is entirely fluent in Italian. Understandably. But we were talking about the language, and she said something about how sometimes she forgets the exact word for something in her native language, German, but remembers it in Italian. I just thought this was funny. And it's kind of crazy, when you really give yourself some credit, and think about how far you've come with the language while abroad. 

In the beginning, you literally need to translate every single word mentally to understand something someone says to you. And then, somehow, you just suddenly realize . . . You understand. You don't need to translate or think about what that word means. You just know. I don't know how it happens, to be honest, or when it first started happening for me. But I have to say its something fantastic. And even cooler--thinking in your hos language without realizing it. 

It's around this time that people start having dreams in their host language, too, but I'm not holding my breath--seeing as I havent remembered a dream in months.  But if there's any reason why I hate myself for not coming to Italy for the full ten months, it's the language. I'm going to go home, and I won't be fluent. And that sucks. It also doesn't help that people constantly try to speak English with me, no matter how many times I beg them not to. Sometimes, I would rather not say a word, not talk to anyone, then listen to someone try to speak to me in English or try to get me to. 

Unfortunately, it's also around the time that our return home starts to loom over our heads, like an unwanted and unwelcome thunderstorm. The end of school is just around the corner, and the fewer weekends we have left the quicker I'm beginning to realize that I'm running out of time for everything--time to travel, time to go out with my friends, time to spend with my host sisters. Time to improve my Italian. 

Gosh, I don't want to go home!

Just A Note: I don't know what went wrong with the formatting in this post, but I'm sorry about the awkward way that some words split down the middle. I'm not sure how to fix it, so hopefully it's still readable.

Monday, April 16, 2012

To Travels & Trunks

I'm so sorry I've been so awful about writing! My journal has been keeping me pretty occupied. So, I returned late Saturday night from a fantastic trip with school! We were gone for three days and two nights, and it was insanely fun. One downside to being an exchange student in an incredibly amazing country: you don't actually get to see very much of said incredibly amazing country. So far, I've been to Milano, Novara, Firenze, Orvieto, Siena, Bari, and, of course, Gravina in Puglia. Not bad, but I still haven't been to Venice, or Torino, or Napoli . . . there's too many other places I wish I could find the time (or have the opportunity) to visit.

Unfortunately, as we reach the halfway point--80 days today, 81 days left--I'm resigned to the fact that it probably won't happen. But, honestly, I'm content with my small-town outlook on Italian life. I love my city, and it's people, and it's history, and the surrounding countryside. I love the fact that I'm starting to acquire a Gravinese accent, a fact that my extended host family from Milano just adores to point out. I have pride for this country, and for the south, and for Gravina.

My focus, for the moment, is most definitely learning Italian. Learning a language is tough. Learning a language by immersion is tougher. Being an exchange student is the toughest. I don't think anyone can fully comprehend how difficult being an exchange student is until they've been one--nothing can actually prepare you for the experience you'll have, and I doubt anything will ever live up to it. Even as a person who never thought they would get homesick, who craves independence, who longs to leave their hometown permanently: this is probably one of the hardest things I'll ever do in my life, and also one of the greatest.

Being away from home doesn't sound too awful. And it's not, not for the most part. But there are moments. There are moments when it just crashes down on you like the sky is falling. Moments when you crave familiar surroundings, people, foods, languages, and just things. Surroundings like the four walls of your own bedroom. People like your best friend and your little brother. Foods like bleu cheese and peanut butter and pancakes. Languages like, well, English. Things like your books and DVDs and bike and warm weather. And then the next second, minute, hour, you're fine. You don't even remember why you felt that way in the first place, why you would have possibly missed Arizona, even if just for a moment. All of the orientations and grids of "the cultural iceberg" and outlines of "the average exchange student's emotions" in the world can't prepare you for that.

But it's so, so worth it. I've been here just over two months, so little time, and I can say that I know this experience will stay with me forever.  I'll always remember the friends I make here, and I'll be a part of my host family, in some way, forever. As for the language--no matter how difficult it is now, I know nothing will compare to how I'll feel when I finally get it. The great, fantastic, amazing moments will always overshadow the really low ones--and that's what people tend to forget.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Take Your Time (Coming Home)

Bari, Italy
As of yesterday, I've officially been living in Gravina in Puglia for two whole entire months. How strange is that? For some reason, it just feels like such a huge, incredible amount of time. Two months. That's ridiculous. Time is going too quickly. 

Only 100 days left. Only April, May, and June. 3 months. Plus 8 days of July. Minus two days of end-of-program-orientation in Rome. Less than a month of summer here in Italy. Why? Everyone's saying, "I don't want to think about going home . . ." but there's no way to avoid it. Especially when AFS is emailing you about your return flight home, and your parents are asking you what you want to do before school starts, and your host parents are planning on when to leave for Rome, and you're thinking about what you want to do for your 16th birthday (which is on August 3rd, if anyone's curious), and . . . there's no avoiding the horrible, depressing truth that, eventually, we're all going home. 

[Still in] Bari, Italy
But as much as I can't stand the thought now, I think that by the time July comes around, I might be ready. That's not to say I'll want to leave; I don't know how anyone would ever want to leave. But I think I'll be ready. I'll be ready to say goodbye, at least until next time. I'll be ready to come home and have a sleepover with my best friends, see my parents and sisters, give my little brother a hug. I'll be ready to be home. And as much as this sounds awful, I can't wait to see how I see my country. Being here, away from home, away from America, I'm noticing so many things about our culture that I would never notice or think about otherwise. Now I have to wonder: will I see our country in a totally different light? 

Right now, though, even writing this seems strange. Going home? No way. I'm never going home.

On the photos: Last week, I went to Bari with two of my friends after school! We took the train there (my first time on a train in Italy) at one thirty and didn't come home until eight. It was so much fun. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Ten Thousand Words Swarm Around My Head (How to Keep A Journal In A Foreign Country)

This post is dedicated to my journal, because it's taken directly from it's slighty yellow, leather-smelling, lined pages. (Thanks, Dad. I've put it to use, I promise.)

One of the weirdest things of being here, over a month in, is how used to it I am. Not being able to understand people because I'm not paying attention doesn't phase me anymore. At this point, it would be strange to understand everything. And that fact just confuses me.

Everything's sort of fallen into a pattern: school, lunch, downtime, gym, go out, dinner, sleep. And then it starts again. And again. But the repetition doesn't really bother me. I like knowing how things work here. Although the occasional spontanious Vespa ride is nice.

. . .

Oh, and the language. I'm getting way better. Like WAY better. I speak a lot, and it's almost natural now. I don't have to force myself to. I love it. But switching gears between Italian and English is difficult sometimes. A word or two, no. But to start speaking ONLY English after a few hours of Italian is surprisingly disorienting. Like on Tuesday, when I went out for yogurt with Michela, Emily, Elena, and Francesca I was, for the most part, speaking just Italian. But then when we were at the pinetta, just Emily and I (Emily is another exchange student in my town, from Germany), and she asked me to speak in English, I was still dropping phrases in Italian without thinking about it. Certain things that I say so often here come out of my mouth without me having to think about it. Thing's like "Non lo so" (I don't know), "Va bene" (It's fine), "Che cosa?" (What?), "Oh mio Dio" (Oh my God), etc.

And I'm starting to respond quicker to questions, not having to think too much about how I should respond. The words come faster. Easier.

Gosh, I love my journal. My journal is best friend during classes I don't understand, during some classes that I do understand, and whenever I'm bored at home. Keep a journal. It'll make you happy.

Next post up faster than this one, I promise.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Food For Thought

Here in Italy, eating is an art. Eating is an art the way that Jim Sturgess smoking in Across the Universe is an art. Italians eat while they're at school, while they do their homework, before they take a nap, or just because they feel like it. And their favorite past time is to get everyone else to eat food, whether it be me, the American exchange student, or someone else.

Italians talk about food like Americans talk about a sports game, and the first question you're asked when you see your friends in the afternoon is: What did you have for lunch? The most popular question directed at me also just happens to be: Do you like Italian food? The answer to the first is usually something along the lines of "I have no idea" (at least in my case). The answer to the second is always "yes."
An average Italian meal schedule is as follows:
  • No breakfast. Unless it's Sunday, or you're an exchange student from America who needs breakfast to survive. If you do have breakfast, it's usually something sweet. Before school, I'm usually in a rush, so I'll have a yogurt. If I'm feeling really creative, I'll have warm milk with honey and biscotti. On Sundays, when the whole family pigs out for the first meal of the day, we'll have cornetti (croissant) con crema or nutella, espresso, and whatever cookies/biscotti/etc you're in the mood for. Still not as adventurous as our breakfasts in the states (pancakes? waffles? bacon? eggs?), but I deal.
  • School goes from 8:30 to 12:00 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and from 8:30 to 1:00 on Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Our vending machines at school are pretty stocked up, and there is the famous espresso machine on the ground floor in the hallway that gets a lot of attention as well. Mostly everyone grabs a snack sometime during school, usually sometime between 10 and 12. On days that we have gym or go to the computer lab and head downstairs, we'll usually grab a nice hot chocolate or cappuccino. Both are great, but I usually go with the hot chocolate.
  • Lunch happens anytime between 1 and 3, depending on when we get out of school and my host mom and dad get home from work. Lunch is the biggest production of the day. The first course (il primo) is almost always pasta, or some sort of grain. Sometimes you'll have what they call soup, but it's really just pasta with a spoonful of broth. Lasagna is the best. The second course (il secondo) consists of some sort of meat, fish, or chicken. Along with the second course, you also usually have some sort of side, like salad or vegetables. Bread is a given (the only meal without bread is breakfast). After the second course, someone will probably break out the cheese an salami, or maybe proscuitto. And then you'll have dessert, which is always fruit. Sometimes, after fruit, you'll have a cake or some sort of pastry.
  • Dinner is like a condensed version of lunch. In my family, it can happen anytime between 9 and 12, depending on everyone's schedules. Sometimes you'll have two courses, sometimes one. It's usually smaller portions, and way more flexible--like if you aren't hungry, you don't eat, or you just eat toast. Occasionally, dinner is leftovers from lunch.
Weird things that happen during meals here but not at home:
  • My host family watches TV during lunch and dinner. During lunch, we watch the Simpsons. During dinner, we watch whatever movie is on. At first, this drove me crazy. At home, watching TV during dinner is this rare occurance, unless you're not eating at the table at all and you're just having a burrito or whatever. Here, everybody has a TV in their kitchen that gets used way more than the one in the living room. Now, it doesn't really phase me.
  • Everything is always served at the counter by the stove. You rarely get up and get your own food; my host mom divies out the portions and then calls you up to get your plate.
  • Water and wine are the only things they drink while eating, at least in my family. Tiziana and I have l'acqua frizzante, and my host mom and Viviana have l'acqua naturale. My host dad drinks wine.