Here’s the side of study abroad these euro-payin’ kids don’t want you to see:
Some days, it’s absolutely terrifying.
Do not get me wrong.
Milan has been gigantic and eye-opening in so many ways; literally plug “Milan” into the standard brags & exclamations of any abroad student, and that’s what it’s like, in absolute truth. I’ve got several gushy posts about Venice & Lago di Como & the IES program in queue; you’ve heard enough of the good. But today, my first day (and one of very few, I’m sure) totally alone in my apartment… Besides two wonderful pasta meals shared with some new Italian friends & homecooked by my roommate, Chiara, who was born & raised in Milan and knows her friggin’ way around una cucina, let me TELL YOU.
The thing about being abroad is that it gets so loud and goes so fast, you have no time to think. But on days like this… It gets quiet enough, and the things that were drowned out fade back in. That’s what I think is worth writing about.
Here’s what it sounds like:
1. I’m lost.
I can navigate the halls of my apartment, but not the aisles of the local grocery store. I need a map, but I’m really self-conscious about taking it out in public because this isn’t a tourist city; no one does that here. And when I hear a hint of English, any fleeting whiff walking by, it’s like a gust of cool wind in the hot, schweaty bowels of the NYC subway.
2. I’m intimidated.
I’m convinced that the 5-year-olds conversing in Italian on the bus are significantly more intelligent than me. The men are beautiful, granted, but the women are works of art; the kind that have been works of art since the womb and have lived their whole lives being this sleek, this classy, this aloof, so don’t even try to blend in. And when they start in on their auctioneer-speed Italian banter, I’m pretty sure they’re talking shit about my hair.
3. I’m scared.
My good friend got pickpocketed at a (rather good) club last night, and typical of abroad misadventures, there’s nothing we could do about it. You’ve got “Bewildered & Careless American Exchange Student” tattooed on your forehead. No one familiar can drop by and help you, and when you’re alone & feel like chatting, it’s the middle of the night back at home.
Now, in the past few years, I’ve had to adjust to a couple different places & struggle to carve comfort and home out of each. I’ve learned that this funk is absolutely inevitable; it happens every single time you change scenery, in different degrees. But I must say, and not surprisingly, this is the most severe it’s been for me. I’ve got several challenges staring me in the face, looming with feet shoulder-width apart in front of me, fists bared, drooling and snorting and shit. Some I’ve seen before, but like me, they’ve grown past adolescence and are now full-blown douchey twenty-somethings.
Also, in true Berna fashion, I just had to choose the most difficult, inconvenient option possible — Milan is not your typical study abroad city. I went in this knowing this was study abroad “the hard way.”
It is now hard.
It’s one thing when you don’t know where to go to get laundry detergent.
It’s another thing when you can’t even speak the right language to help you when you get there.
To help you to get there.
To help you if you get there.
It’s a paralyzing, stale sort of stuck-ness. Makes you want to crawl up ever-so-ungratefully, close your eyes and wake up somewhere where you know things, just for a second.
One other thing I learned:
This. Always. Passes. And it grows to something you could never have pipe-dreamed of.
Y’know how I likened the days before New York as the point-before-a-drop on a rollercoaster? This is the bumpy, creaky pre-climb up, right when you begin slanting upwards, and the thought flashes through your mind: Shit. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea. Maybe I wanna get down. Maybe I’m scared, but we can’t turn back now.
And I know I’m not alone; that’s one of the greatest comforts. It happens to everyone. It’s happening to all 80 of us here in Milan as I type this. It’s absolutely inevitable and, I can already say, part of the reason studying abroad ends up being so soul-changing. You’re pushed to your absolute limits, and you come out very, very different.
I think, in the case of the uber-hyped study abroad experience, the downs are more important to document than the ups. It’s you at your rawest, your most stripped and primitive. And as terrifying it is, it’s a tingly foreshadowing of just what I’ll be when I come out of the other end of this semester. It’s a promise of something pithy and thick and real and good.
Very, very good.