Author Archives: Sarah in Italy

Self Reflection After Seven Weeks in Italy

I’m sitting in the airport at Newark waiting to catch my flight to Austin. Only ten hours have passed since I boarded my flight to the United States and I’m already homesick for Italy. I wasn’t ready to come home. The last seven weeks have been challenging, exhausting, and inspiring – sometimes all at once!

Since my divorce I’ve been very introverted and reclusive. I purposefully elected to take a study abroad trip to help me overcome my hesitation at putting myself out there and taking risks. As I move forward into the job market, I’ll need to be able to navigate the sea of rejection that will come when I start interviewing. I know it sounds melodramatic, but I’m starting a career very late in life – I’ll be 42 when I graduate. Most of my friends my age have been working in their chosen career fields since their mid-20’s. It’s all new to me.

So, when I left for Italy, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t sure if I could handle the unknowing of it all. How to get around. What to eat. Where to shop. How to dress. What to say, when to say it, and how to say it. And I wasn’t sure if I would ever get past feeling like a tourist to feeling at home in a foreign country. As an older, non-traditional student, I’m kind of set in my way on some things, as it happens when you are a bit older. (You know- I only buy this one type of toothpaste, I only use this one type of laundry soap, I never eat this or that.) I knew Italy would require I be flexible on a lot of things and, as a single mom of four, flexibility isn’t my strongest skill.

However, here’s what I learned after spending seven weeks abroad.

The World is a VERY Small Place!

I was sitting comfortably on a bus headed back to my apartment after a long walk in the Tuscan countryside. A young couple hopped on the bus and asked, in broken Italian, if I knew if this bus was headed towards a certain plaza. I smiled and said back, “Dispiace, solo Inglese.” (“Sorry, only English” – a phrase I got very good at saying!) The young woman smiled and said “Oh good! Me, too!”  We started chatting, I assured her she was headed the right direction, and she asked where I was from. “Texas – a little town called Temple, you’ve probably never heard of it.” Her eyes grew larger and she started laughing, “Are you kidding? I JUST left Temple! I’m a medical student and did my rotations at the hospital there! I can’t believe this!” The twenty minute bus ride flew by while we both laughed about life in Temple. We exchanged emails and have stayed in touch.

I still cannot believe I met a local Texan on a bus in Florence. The odds of that happening seem very unreal. But it happened. And it really taught me that no matter how alone in the world I might feel, I bet if I reach out and start talking to people around me, I’ll be surprised at what I discover. I’m pretty sure we’ve all felt that way at one time or another.

 

tuscan sunset

I broke off from my group and took a long walk through the Tuscan countryside. The view was worth all the effort and the ride home was where I met my neighbor from Temple! I wouldn’t have met her if I hadn’t taken a risk and taken that walk!

American Excess is Excessive

While in Italy I learned I could do just fine with very little. I had a fixed budget while abroad and it had to last the full seven weeks. I wasn’t on a work or student visa, so I couldn’t have worked even if I had needed/wanted to. I quickly learned how to budget and live simply. Breakfast was normally comprised of peanut butter with jelly and coffee – made at home. Instead of taking in a movie at the cinema, a walk through a park was just as relaxing. Also, one thing in particular I noticed: the small housing in Italy was so well utilized it really made me wonder why Americans dream of living in huge houses.

 

burano houses

Typical row houses you see all over Italy. These were in Burano, an island near Venice. They aren’t very large at all. But the people live comfortably in them and seem happy within their communities.

Walkability is Amazing

I spent seven weeks in Italy without a vehicle. For this busy mom of four who clocks 100 mile days on the regular, being without a vehicle took some getting used to. But by the end of my seven weeks abroad I had not only really come to enjoy walking everywhere, or taking public transportation, but I also lost 15 lbs! I ate all the pasta and pastries I wanted…and I lost FIFTEEN pounds! (Listen, I’m just an average mom who has an average amount of love for fitness regimens!) Sure there were some days where we were doing a LOT of walking because we were on an excursion. But most of the walking I did was just in “activities of daily living” as they say.

I have lived in suburbia or even on the outskirts of suburbia all my life. Living without a vehicle was something completely foreign to me. In fact, even though in my Public Administration major I have taken classes on urban planning and development, sustainable design, and walkable cities, I have never really understood how one could actually LIVE without a vehicle.

Now that I’m back in Texas, and I’m driving **all over the place** (Texas is gigantic) I genuinely miss the pedestrian-focused Italian lifestyle. In my opinion and experience, it’s a much healthier way to live. I would never have been able to understand this concept had I not experienced it first hand.

 

milan pedestrian

These pedestrian-only streets are common all over Italy. Foot traffic or bicycles only. Sometimes Vespas or motorcycles are allowed – but most of the time even those are forbidden.

In Closing

It would be wonderful if study abroad opportunities were moved from an educational “nice to have” to a requirement for all undergrads. It is a requirement for me to graduate in the Honors College with a minor in Honors Studies, and I was fortunate enough to earn the Gilman Scholarship which absolutely allowed me to go abroad. I like to tell my kids’ friends, “If this 41 year old mom of four can figure out how to study abroad, YOU have no excuses!”

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Study Abroad Survival Tips for Introverts

Hello, my name is Sarah, and I am your classic introvert. I like to be alone more than in a group. I prefer the company of those I know to that of strangers. And I like to be home, with my family, more than anywhere else.

Pushing Those Comfort Zones

If you haven’t noticed, my comfort zones are completely juxtaposed to everything a study abroad experience would bring to the table. I am easily overstimulated by new environments, experiences, and challenges. This over-stimulation drains my energy, negatively impacts my mood, and creates frustration in basic day-to-day activities. I knew things would be stressful so I also knew that taking care of myself would be the “make it or break it” aspect of the experience. In this blog post I share a things I did that helped me manage myself through the experience as best I could.

Also, it’s important to disclose…I wasn’t always successful at managing myself. I had a few situations where I lost my patience with a situation, my tone of voice with a peer, or complete tolerance for an activity at hand. But every student in the group seemed to have a tipping point here or there, so I didn’t sweat it too much. Whirlwind activity (like knocking out 6 honors college credits in 4 weeks in Italy) can stir up a lot of anxiety and unease! On top of all the requirements for classes, adjusting to a new country, new language, and new everything, there are roommates, classmates, and teachers to deal with and the dynamics of a large group can wear me down.

Introvert Study Abroad Survival Tips

So how did I manage to make it through four weeks of Italian Life & Culture with twenty students, a very extroverted Professoressa, and various teachers, directors, and tour guides to deal with? Basically I gave myself permission to opt out of many activities that were not mandatory. In Florence, we had a few days where there was nothing planned. On those days, students would take off on extra excursions and I was usually invited but I always declined. This meant I missed getting to see Cinque Terre, but it also meant I had the ENTIRE apartment completely to myself ALL DAY LONG! I slept late, walked to the corner cafe for an espresso & pastries, visited a little antique shop I had been eyeing, and then I holed up in the apartment for the rest of the day and did nothing except watch Netflix, wash my laundry, and order pizza for dinner delivery. It. was. amazing.

 

Italian Breakfast

Buongiorno da Italia! (Good morning from Italy!)

 

Flea Market Finds

Things I would never find at a local flea market in Texas: vintage geographical map of Florence, glass eyes for stuffed animals, doll parts, and books dating to the 1600’s!

 

One of my favorite things to do was to get up early before everyone else and get out the door so I could do some exploring of whatever city we were in, on my own. By 10:00 am, Italy was hot and humid and miserable until around 6:00 pm when the evening breeze would kick in. Getting out to see the sights before the heat of the day kicked in was always a treat for myself. Likewise, when ever I could squeeze in some alone time during the class days via breaks in between classes and required excursions, I would just walk around and explore the area on my own.

 

Florence Sunrise

I left the apartment two hours before class started in order to get to Michaelangelo Plaza and watch the sun wake up Florence. And this photo doesn’t even do the experience justice.

 

When we were in Sorrento, a bunch of the students went to the local Discoteca and not surprisingly, I declined. A loud, crowded, hot, dance floor with a disco ball and stroke-inducing lights sounded just absolutely awful. (Remember, I’m 41. I’ve already done all that!) Instead, I grabbed a bite from a local deli and took a quiet solitary stroll along the Mediterranean sea at sunset. It was just what I needed after a long day of service-learning at a local home for differently-abled adults.

 

Sorrento Sunset

Better than any sunset I’ve ever seen in my entire life! Totally worth ditching the Discoteca!

Tips for Self Care While Studying Abroad

In short, carving out alone time was really important for me -as it is for most introverts. Don’t be afraid to take the time for yourself. As an introvert, you need it! The benefits of taking care of your introverted self when studying abroad are too many to detail out in this blog but in short you will:

  • Be able to manage your energy and mood while abroad.
  • Be able to function in your new environment.
  • Be able to succeed in your academic responsibilities.
  • Be able to enjoy your ex[erience abroad.

I knew that spending a summer studying abroad in Italy would completely turn my daily life on its heels. But I also knew that the experience would be worth every challenge that came with it. Going into the program with an open mind, willingly accepting the challenges to come, and knowing that I would need to be my own caretaker, truly helped me get the most out of my program. In closing, take care of yourself while abroad to maintain your sanity and your sense of balance during what will be an overwhelming and challenging time in your life. But, if you are proactive in self-care, you will get the most out of your program. And as a bonus – if you take some solitary walks when you’re abroad, you will discover some really cool places in the city you are studying!

 

17th Century Church

Discovered this quaint 17th century church on a solitary hike around the hills of Sorrento. I’ve researched and researched and cannot find mention of this church anywhere else on the internet and my Professoressa had never seen it before. A mystery! Something to investigate next time I’m in Sorrento!

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Older Student? Remember, You’re Not a Chaperone!

“Which student is yours?” asked our tour guide who was waiting outside for us as we finished a museum visit. I was one of the first students to make my way out of the museum and offered to help her gather up all the backpacks from the required locker room. “None,” chuckling as I said it, “I’m one of the students.” She looked at me with a curious expression and said, “Oh! I just assumed you were here chaperoning one of your kids studying abroad!” “Well,” I replied, “I am definitely old enough to be anyone’s mom – but nope – I left all my kids at home!”

 

Family Dinner

Me and “my girls” at dinner. I really admire each one of these amazing young women and fully enjoyed getting to know them all while we were studying abroad.

 

She went on to ask all the customary questions. How old am I? How old is my oldest? What about the youngest? Where are all the children now? How are they surviving without mom? Interestingly enough the tour guide was only two years older than me, and she herself had two young teenagers at home. She said, “I could never be so far away from them for so long.” (I have found this to be a universal statement made my mothers everywhere who have never experienced the joy of solo travel!)

Save Your Breath – and Your Sanity

But it brought up an interesting issue that I encountered a few times while on this experience. As one of the oldest participants in the group, there were several situations where one of the younger women would ask my advice or help with something. At first I openly gave my opinion, “No, I wouldn’t go out tonight. We have to be up early tomorrow.” or “Yes, I think that outfit is appropriate for the dinner we have to attend.” But that soon turned into the following type of conversations:

  • “Sarah, where’s so-and-so?” — I have no idea. Why would I?
  • “Do you have so-and-so’s class work? She said she gave it to you.” — Uhhh…nope & nope.
  • “Sarah, did you tell her to go this way? Because you might have given her the wrong directions.”— Also nope. She has her own smartphone!

So in quick order I stopped giving my opinions on questions where I felt responsibility was being shifted to me. Helping in a limited situation (“Can you hold this bag while I find my phone?”) vs. asking for life choices to be made (“Should I go out tonight?”) are two very different questions. One is general courtesy and helpfulness, the other type shifts the burden of responsibility off the person asking the question and onto the one that answers.

Make the Most of YOUR Trip

Just because you are an older student in the group does not mean you have to take on a parenting/chaperone role. Remember – you paid just as much to be able to study abroad as the 20-somethings did and you should feel comfortable putting your own study abroad goals ahead of the younger crowd. Once I took a step back from the group and stopped answering questions and helping with everything, the experience really opened up in a different light for me.

This was a huge change for me! I’m usually the first one to say, “Oh, I can help.” I think it’s the fact that I’ve been mothering for over twenty years and it’s just a habit to want to take over when others need help. But seriously, the other students didn’t sign up to have Mom come along for the ride and I was happy to take a step back.

But…Have Fun with Your Traveling Companions

Shifting this mindset really helped me release myself from the mothering/chaperone role and step into the role of independent student. That said, I had a lot of fun traveling with the 20-something crowd! They’re adventurous, happy, and fun to hang out with. And you will find lots of moments to impart your older-student wisdom on them. Like, when we were at a museum, and Andrew was staring at this empty display. He said, “Wonder what this is supposed to be?” I replied, “Andrew, that’s the job market for all of us when we graduate with our student debt…I mean…diplomas.” Super fun and memorable moment!

 

Andrew

Job market for recent graduates as expressed through an Italian art installation.

 

And the younger crowd can get away with things that maybe us who are speeding down the hill of mid-life might not be able to pull off. On our last day in Florence, I took an afternoon side trip with Karina and Joana to Pisa. They had a lot of fun posing with the tower…atop the fence. No way was I going to try that! I would probably have fallen off and broken a hip or something!

 

Pisa

Living vicariously through these two – great memories of Pisa via Karina & Joanna!

A Few Pointers for Older Students

So if you’re an older student thinking about studying abroad – or you’re already headed abroad – here’s some tips for those who might be worried how to handle their younger co-travelers:

  • Let the younger students mess things up and figure the solutions out themselves.
  • Don’t moralize their decisions.  If they want to go party one night, and you think its a bad idea, remember: ultimately they are responsible for themselves.
  • Don’t do their laundry – but do see if you can get them to do yours!
  • Hang out with them (they’re a lot of fun!) but feel free to break off when the party heads from the Apertivo to the Discoteca. (Unless you just really love dancing with loud music and lights!)
  • Don’t take their own responsibilities off their shoulders just because it’s easier for you vs. listening to them complain about it. Your own experience abroad should be YOURS – not yours-impacted-by-theirs.

If you find yourself as one of the older students in a study abroad group, the group will start to look to you as a chaperone, role model, and mentor. It’s just part of being an older student in college. Get to know your group members, enjoy your time with them, and enjoy your experience abroad. Just remember, you’re not there as a moral sounding board, caretaker, or chaperone.

 

Last Night

My whole crew plus Professoressa’s 92 year old Roman Mama! Traveling with students younger than you can be a little intimidating at first, but dive in, keep your boundaries, and have fun!

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Laundry Lines and Italian Life

April Pre-departure Meeting Before Leaving for Italy

Dr. Jackson: “You will not have a dryer in your Italian apartment. You will have a washing machine and a clothesline or drying racks. Please be prepared to line dry your clothes. This takes longer than your electric dryer so pack accordingly.”

Me: “What. The. Heck. No thank you, I need my dryer. Sun dried clothes are scratchy and stinky. I remember farm life! Why would they not have dryers? It’s 2017!”

Six Days Later in Florence

My second load of laundry is presently hanging on the terrace clothing lines. The windows and doors are all opened and I can feel the gentle evening breeze that is cooling the apartment and drying my clothes at the same time. I’m sitting on the terrace listening to the birds chirp and watching the little old lady three doors down hang her bedding out. She waves with a smile. I return the gesture and think to myself, “This is nice.”

 

Laundry

Who knew I’d end up actually enjoying this?? My gramma would be so proud of me!

Adapt to Thrive

I decided before arriving here that I would fully accept Italy as-is. If that meant line drying my clothing, I would line dry my clothing. If the locals do it – then I can do it, too. To impose my American way of living into this experience would shortchange the learning experience. What would I tell my children? I’d say, “Buck up and get the clothes pins!” I’m only here for a short time and a few weeks of line dried clothing won’t kill me.

A Slower Lifestyle

Florence is a busy place with thousands of people trying to navigate some of the most narrow streets and sidewalks I’ve ever seen. Yet, even still, in the hustle and bustle of modern Florence life, neighbors wave at each other while they are both hanging wet laundry out to dry on the terrace. The Italians seem to have preserved slow living which can allow for self care.

This slower lifestyle can be observed in other normalcies of the Italian day-to-day. Shops take three hour breaks between lunch and dinner to rest, recover, and reset for the evening crowd. The general public are not auto-dependent; instead, they chose to walk or utilize a bike/scooter/vespa. Whole families can be observed moving about the city without a personal automobile.

Yesterday I walked through a piazza and watched children kick a ball around, teens playing chess, college students at the shuffleboard, adults playing cards, and elderly chuckling about who knows what – probably the American woman walking in circles around the piazza looking as lost as she was. The collective observation: no one was in a hurry to go anywhere. They were simply enjoying the slowness of the early evening hours. Another word popped to mind: community. Another realization of what we’re missing in America.

 

Night Community

The city takes on a whole new feel in the early evening hours. I loved every bit of it – everyone out and about…but no one really in a hurry to go anywhere. So peaceful and enjoyable – even for an introvert like me!

Embrace the Chaos, Protect the Serene

The hustle of a Florence day does exist, but the Italians seem to have done a great job accepting the chaos of current life while protecting the serenity of a slower lifestyle and the duty for self care. I see the two as one in the same. A symbiotic relationship. I’m looking forward to watching my entire worldview shift a bit – maybe a lot. I believe in “going with the flow” (embracing the chaos of life) but I’ve neglected the duty to “protect the serene.”

Grab the Clothespins!

Turns out I really enjoy hanging the laundry out to dry. It forces me to slow down to take care of myself via my laundry. Slow living and self-care is something many Americans sacrifice – self included. We are all so busy busy busy in America, we don’t even have time to smile at our next door neighbor while we hang our laundry out to dry. It is in these small moments, these seemingly inconsequential interactions, where I find the most to reflect on and consider regarding Italian life and how different it can be from American culture.

Since returning home, I have installed a few laundry lines and we have all taken to enjoying hanging the laundry out together. I am actively looking for more ways to slow down our daily grind and carving out moments like this so we can spend more time together as a family. Even if it is **just** the time we spend talking while we switch out the laundry.

 

Home Lines

Laundry with my girls and Sandy the Dog. By the way, in case you’re wondering, the clothes come off the line smelling amazing!

 

 

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Mom Abroad: Challenges and Adjustments During My First Week in Italy

“I’m signing up to study abroad in Italy, which is 4 weeks long, and I may stay over a few weeks longer to visit friends in Europe. I know that life for you will be very different with me gone all of June, and maybe most of July, but I really need to do this.” My four children looked at me, at each other, and back at me. Then the question I was waiting for fell out of the 17 year old son’s mouth, “But…who will buy the groceries?”‘

 

group2

The most recent photo of all four of my children, taken in December 2016. They’re kinda just chilling in the backyard- hard to get teens to take a photo!

 

As a single, forty-one year old, work-at-home mother (and primary caregiver) for my four children, committing to a study abroad program was not an easy nor simple decision. Many considerations had to be taken into account. Who *would* actually buy the groceries? How would my 17 year old get to work? My sons are old enough to manage themselves. But, what would I do with the girls? They certainly couldn’t just stay home – alone – for two months while I bounced around Europe. Planning for this experience abroad has been both overwhelming and exciting. Between my last minute anxiety about being so far away from my children to spending my third night in Florence at the local ER, getting to Italy and settling in has come with its fair share of ups and downs.

At the root of my struggle has been the internal conflict of being a fully autonomous adult in America versus a suddenly very dependent study abroad student in a foreign land. For my younger classmates, being here in Italy isn’t that much different than being in the dorms at college. Run out of money? Call Dad. Get lost? Smartphone Map App to the rescue. Health takes a turn for the worse? Mom will call your family doctor and take care of you. But when I ended up in the ER (dehydration is a buzz kill!) calling my study abroad contacts (teacher, program, insurance) was the last thing on my mind! As a health-conscious adult, I knew that I was dehydrated to the point of needing medical attention. So I took myself to the local hospital and communicated as best I could with the staff. After a long, frustrating, night in the ER, it finally occurred to me, “I should totally have brought an Italian speaking person with me.” I mean, obviously, right?

It’s here in these little moments where I realize as an older, non-traditional, study abroad student my mindset and outlook on things is just different from my classmates. Over the last week I’ve learned to ask for help with more things, double check my prerogatives to make sure I’m not being overly ambitious, and communicate with my group about my day-to-day agenda more than I ever would have to if I were stateside. Personally, I think it’s a great lesson for me in the value of community. So many times as Americans, we operate in a sort of self-imposed solitary confinement. And for the most part, it probably works for most of us. However, experiencing the value of an in-person team has taught me more about myself than I expected.

 

group

My study abroad group with our Texas State University banner at Palazzo Pitti. I’m in the back with my hand up.

 

This is the power of a study abroad program. Yes, I am a 41 year old mother of four. But I’m still on a journey. I’m still growing and changing. And I’m so grateful to be able to experience the whole of this experience. And as for my 20, 17, 15, and 13 year old children? They are fine. I get a text from one or two of them every day asking me things like, “How do I use the toaster oven, again?” to “The iPad mini isn’t working, Mom!” To which I’m having a lot of fun replying, “Sorry, can’t really help you with that while I’m 5,000 miles away. YouTube it!” My children are not youngsters anymore. They do not need me to personally feed and water them every day. They must learn to be more independent and what a better way for them to learn some life-management skills than with me in Italy?

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