What will I gain from this crazy experience?

This is a question I have been asking myself constantly throughout my study abroad time. I think what I have begun to realize (obviously pretty late in the game) is that there won’t be just one big vocab word that will be able to sum up my experience. Just like my summer at STP can’t be encapsulated in one short sentence, neither will my experience here in Europe. Right now, I’m beginning to understand that lessons, growth, and change of ideas are not always obvious, but still happening.

I haven’t updated what’s been happening in a while, so here is a little of what I have learned in the places I have been able to visit.


Masses of tourists make things expensive and good authentic food harder to find. Also, Pisa is the most hyped of building ever. It’s just a leaning building people!

Italian Alps:

During the trip in the Italian Alps (Domodossola), we stayed with a couple who have started up an organization, Canova Association. The association works to rebuild ancient homes that people can live in but, at the same time, makes sure to preserve the stone architecture of the time and create sustainable homes. Kent, the husband, used the term “historical continuation” in describing how they help to rebuild houses. He stated that he feels more like a custodian of his home because of all the different stories and lives that had happened in the home before him. For the people that we met, their definition of home is definitely different than a way I think of home. I realized that I approach my home as a place of convenience, while many of these homes, which are part of the Canova Association, aren’t convenient. I was out of breath walking up all the steep stone steps to Kent’s home; I can’t imagine the walk in the winter. Their respect for the old structures, people, and environment around them is commendable.


During the trip to Poland we traveled to Krakow, Torun, and Warsaw. Sadly, we spent a lot of time traveling so we didn’t have that much time trying to enjoy and understand each city but I really enjoyed the atmosphere of each city. The most impactful part of the trip was visiting Auschwitz. While I am still trying to sort through things, this is what initially struck me during the trip.

Driving toward Auschwitz, I was oddly reminded of driving toward both Pulse night club in Orlando and the DMZ separating North and South Korea. Driving toward North Korea to visit the DMZ will be an experience I will never forget. As you get closer to the border, you can see and sense, a change in your surroundings and the atmosphere. Rice patties surround the road and bridges are built as obstructions to prevent tanks from being able to drive deeper into South Korea from the north. Once at the DMZ, I saw how the officers acted and saw the mountains of North Korea barren from the overharvesting of trees. All of these things gave me a sense that things were not how they should be.

When driving to Pulse, however, I was struck by the fact that it didn’t feel eerie or abnormal. It felt like a typical place, with typical people, living (you guessed it) typical lives. Driving toward Auschwitz, and being there, the experience was kind of in the middle. I expected some high intensity, but instead was surprised by all of the tourist activities.

What shocked me the most was the reminder of how recent this horrific event occurred. Living in Italy for nearly two months now, I have seen buildings that are thousands of years old. Heck, the buildings the Canova Association are helping to rebuild had intact roofs that were more than a thousand years old!  In history class, I always had the impression that the Holocaust was in this world’s very distant past. I naively believed such a catastrophic event had caused the world to never repeat this sort of action ever again. Instead, I am disheartened to realize that similar sorts of devaluing of humanity are happening on a daily basis, whether at a large or small scale.


Umm, well, it’s definitely the most crowded place I have ever visited! While I definitely haven’t gotten used to living in Bologna (and as someone only living here for a short time and not knowing the language, I understand it will never become normal for me), I have enjoyed how authentic the city of Bologna is with very few tourists. So Rome was a place I wasn’t accustomed to but, I have to say, it was easy getting around because of the masses of English speakers! I made a day trip to Rome (it’s about a two-hour train ride from Bologna) to see a very tiny Pope Francis from his apartment window during his Angelus Praying & Papal Blessing, so the trip was worth it just for that experience alone.


Orientation Travels

I’ve never been in a place that makes my skin crawl and my heart happy all at the same time.

Sicily is a beautiful place and one of my favorite things was just walking around the tight streets looking at all of the windows with flower and plants growing around them. However, of the main reasons our program traveled to Sicily, was to learn about the migrants in the area.

Coming into this program, I didn’t know much at all about all the migrants traveling to Europe. I just thought that this rise of immigrants and refugees to the area was causing a burden to the EU. While I honestly still don’t know much, I sadly came to realize that Europe doesn’t have it all together any more than the U.S. Instead, political power, the influence of money, and oppression operates to control every part of the world (fun stuff, right?!). The migrants that I met this past week were mainly boys (one girl and I believe 13 boys). These young boys (14 years of age to early 20s) came alone to a country they don’t know the language of because they were told they would receive 20 euro a day just for coming to Europe.

While I am still very confused with all the details on how these boys arrived in Sicily without their consent, what strikes me the most is how much a person can be under-appreciated, forgotten, or devalued. And while I struggle with being in a new area, trying to make new friends, being away from my family, living on a budget, and trying to communicate with people who don’t speak my language, these boys are struggling with all these things in ways I can’t even imagine or comprehend. I came to realize that while my problems are still problems, I can get out of them, and I am in control. These boys are not in control of their situation, and they can’t just facetime their parents when they get homesick.

While the US has acknowledged the problem of racism in its country, I was surprised to learn that Italy has not done so, and has a large outsider vs. insider mentality that prevents people of other races or ethnicities to be given equal opportunities of jobs or entrance into the community. It’s a problem the U.S faces too, but this was hard to process as we met intelligent and eager boys who were being disadvantaged by the city.

While I left Sicily more than I week ago, I have had a difficult time summing up my experience and, more importantly, my response to the experience. While my hope and prayer is that the world will begin to correct these wrongdoings, I know that requires true commitment to change.

In addition to visiting Sicily, we actually started out our trip in Malta. It was a good introduction because many people on the island speak English. Also, for many of us, it helped to contrast between getting a typical tourist experience, and then traveling to Sicily and understanding the value of an insider’s perspective.

Some random observations about Malta:

-In Malta it was quite easy to communicate because the people speak both English and Maltese.

-Something I thought was interesting was although it is a tiny little island, it has over 365 churches and both abortion and divorce are illegal. At the same time though, with heavy tourism to the island, Malta is known as a party destination so it was interesting to observe the dynamic and impact heavy tourism has on the island

-Malta also has Megalithic temples which are the “oldest free-standing stone structures” in the world (older than Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt!).

-Probably one the strangest things was that they drive on the left side of the road. So as a roundabout fan, it wigged me out going the opposite way through them.

Arrival in Italy

Well I did it. I made it to Italy. Walking away from Mom, Dad and Xavier at the airport was horrible but the thought of missing my flight helped me to leave them.

I didn’t really have much trouble going through the Indianapolis airport. Ironically, the hardest part was checking in my bags and I had my parents to help me. Then I messed up going through security, but the lady kindly told me what to fix so it was all good. I arrived in Charlotte and speedily walked toward my gate (which just happened to be on the opposite side of the airport that I had arrived at). I get to my gate and wait about 20 minutes until we can start lining up. I realize that everyone around me seems to be speaking another language, and it freaked me out a bit. Waiting to board the plane, though, I was reminded of “college home” as two guys in front of me talked about being from Cincinnati.

The ride from Charlotte to Madrid was about 8 hours. I wasn’t worried because in my mind this was nothing compared to the flight to South Korea four years ago (because apparently I consider myself a world traveler?). Well, turns out the possibility of me growing taller in the past four years is pretty likely because I could not sleep in the same position I did on the flight to South Korea. I could not fit, and I couldn’t just lean on the random guy next to me, sadly. Somehow, I fell asleep but I don’t know how or for how long. My flight consisted of eating my airplane dinner and breakfast, watching a movie, sleeping somehow, and then the eight hours is up. (Side note: I felt like crap after I woke up and thought I might be sick, but just kept reminding myself to just breathe – good advice from my Dad when we said goodbye).

Anyway, we (I met up with three other kids from the program to travel from Charlotte to Bologna together) get off the plane and the Madrid airport is HUGE. The weird part, but nice for confused State travelers like me (I can’t call myself an American anymore) is that because it was 6 a.m Madrid time, the airport wasn’t busy. We followed the arrows to get to our next gate. According to the signs, this would take us 26 minutes and required us get on a subway and ride a crap ton of escalators. Again, I got a little reminder of home as a group of what looked to be college students passed by, with one of them wearing an IU hat.

We went through customs — a little intimidating but not a problem — and then had to go through security for the final time. What was different about going through security was it wasn’t as “intense” as security in the States, and you put your boarding pass and passport through with your bags instead of holding onto them the whole time. At home, we are told to hold onto those items, so I was surprised when I had to put them through the conveyor. Well, just my luck, I get to the other side to grab all my items and my boarding pass and passport have already disappeared! Yeah, I started freaking out, asking people around me and trying to think what in the world I was supposed to do about a lost passport (and Italian student visa). I think my boarding pass and passport must have gotten stuck in the conveyor or something (still not really sure what happened) but after I went to ask someone (who you know, didn’t really speak English), an officer found it and called out my name. Luckily that was my only big scare during the trip, well at least so far. I still have more than 90 days to go.

Landing in Bologna, we realized pretty soon the lack of English signage. Many Italians know some English, but it would just be more polite if I knew at least some Italian. For now, I’ve accepted that I’m going to stick out and make some cultural mistakes. Even today while walking, some biker rung his bell and as he passed us, he said “good job.” I don’t know how he could tell we were from the US from our backs, but maybe a couple more weeks walking around Bologna and I’ll figure it out.

It’s not even been a week, but I’m already pretty confused by Italians’ eating schedules. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are only served during select hours of the day at the mensa (dining hall). For instance, breakfast during the week is only served from 7:30-8:45 and dinner is from 7:00-9:00. We aren’t automatically provided lunch so I don’t know if that means Italians have light lunches or what, but I guess I will figure out my own system pretty soon. The first night here, we had dinner in the mensa and then a group of us girls went out to the store and bought some wine. Back home, we probably would have considered the place where we bought the wine as a cheap grocery store or gas station convenience store because of the way it looked, but here it is normal (I guess). It’s funny, because when walking around I realized I could buy either a bottle of wine for €2.50 ($2.80) or a spiral bound notebook for the same price. All I can say is that wine is big here!

Just some random observations:

  • Bologna specifically is known for graffiti, and while in most cities that would be considered trashy, it’s a way for the college students (Bologna has the oldest university in Europe) to express themselves. The graffiti is everywhere, and it’s pretty fun to see.
  • The nights are always active with young people and older people alike. Passing by, you can see a group of people sitting on the street curb sharing a bottle of wine.
  • It’s not unusual to walk into a restaurant and hear State music being played.
  • Italians don’t usually have air conditioning (luckily that isn’t the case for me).
  • Pasta and paninis are eaten all the time. All the time!
  • Bologna is a pretty decent size city, with about 376,00 (larger than Florence by about 15,000), but it isn’t a noisy place. People don’t normally drive but use a bike or moped.
  • You can be given a pitcher of water and a pitcher of wine for a meal.
  • You can’t hail a cab.
  • People really want exact change. You are automatically not liked if you don’t give exact change (and credit cards aren’t used that often, or accepted).
  • Shops close in the middle of the day (siesta time or riposo in Italy) and you can see many people, families, couples and friends just hanging out together during what would be considered a long lunch break (maybe that’s what causes the late dinners).