And So You Swim On

Exams are done. Finished cramming everything into suitcases to be sure it would all fit. Just a few more days before departure. I just need to finish cleaning my apartment. I’ve thought about taking a walk around the city one last time, but I’m a little worried it will be painful. I’m really bad at goodbyes.


When I first arrived, everything was new. I wanted to take seventeen pictures of every building I saw. Then, after a month or so, all the gorgeous, ancient buildings looked alike, as if they were some sort of repeated rolling background in an old video game or B-movie. When Brenton came to visit, I felt like having him here gave me new eyes because, even though he’d been to Italy before, he hadn’t seen this Italy, and in a way, it was like I was seeing this Italy for the first time. All over again. Then, when he left, that feeling faded, and the architecture became stock footage again. Yet now, as the realization that this time next week, I won’t be here, has slowly been sinking in, the cityscape feels new again. It’s like my eyes have sort of been drifting in and out throughout the duration of this trip, and in this moment they’re awake again.


It’s a bizarre feeling, but since 2010, I haven’t stayed at any residence for longer than a year and a half. Some I’ve only stayed at for three or four months. Maybe it hasn’t completely hit me yet that in a few short days, I’ll be leaving the place I’ve been staying at since January. If you do anything for over five months, it becomes muscle memory. Maybe I’m getting used to the quick changes, but right before my disappearing act, it catches up with me. Maybe I am simply, as Lady Danville would identify, a Tired Magician.

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I do know that I’m going to miss some things about Italy. Particularly, the food. I already miss gelato. I think I’d be willing to wrench my heart open amid the city streets on a noble quest for gelato. I should do that.


I don’t know if this sort of nomadic lifestyle stretches a person, creates a greater, or more infinite capacity for self-donation, but I definitely feel like parts of my self reside in every place I’ve ever lived. Inevitably, when I leave, a part of me will remain in Italy. Though I think it’s fair that the places I’ve stayed have given me something in return. Perhaps it was a barter, unconscious, but somehow, at the same time, deliberate. Or maybe it was entirely accidental; I rubbed off on them and they rubbed off on me and I walk away with it, like those little pebbles that get stuck in the treads of my shoes, while I’m leaving my footprints behind. Sometimes, these pebbles were pretty baubles–like memories–to put on a shelf, or something more useful–like lessons–but they were always some form of experience that has attached itself to my identity. When I return to the States, I will have Italy. I will always have Italy. And, in some, microcosmically historical way, Italy will always have the time that I was here. And when I come back to Italy, I will have more of Italy and Italy will have more of me. And the Italy I’ve taken will become a part of me and perhaps the traces and imprints of myself that have scattered here throughout my stay will become a part of the city, too. As a sort of mutual diffusion. Or symbiosis.


I’ve had a lot of fun throughout this experience and I learned quite a bit and my Italian has improved immensely, but it has not been easy. One of the lessons that I had to learn the hard way–and I’m still getting it–is that you can’t measure your success with someone else’s tape especially with study abroad. Everyone’s dealing with different things and everyone is coming in from different backgrounds and levels of study. For my program, I had to have five college semesters of Italian minimum, but some other BCSP students had the opportunity to start studying in middle school. Some students in the program have been to or lived in Italy before. It took me a really long time to be comfortable with my level of Italian and I didn’t see my progress because I was comparing my abilities to students with way more experience than I had.

If you don’t mind drowning in analogy, you can think of language classes sort of like learning how to swim. In college, you learn in a sort of swimming pool. Taking an hour or so for a few times a week, in 101, you stay in the shallow end, and by 204, you can dog paddle your way around the pool. If you take higher 200- and 300-level classes you may spend a bit more time in the pool and learn tricks and dives, but you’re still in the pool. Going to a foreign country to study is like being dropped into the ocean. Do you become a better swimmer? Of course you do. There is no other option. But you may not notice your progress for a while because when you look around, all you see is water. It becomes a completely different game. Your objective is not to tread the lengths and depths of the ocean; your objective is to keep your head above it and to keep swimming.


I think that the greatest lesson that I’ve taken from this experience is to pave your own way. Measure your progress against yourself and always strive to be better. Do you, but acknowledge that your environment can shape you, too. Always keep moving. Even if you’re in a permanent residence, always keep moving forward.


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