Thursday, December 31, 2015

Finding Home on Study Abroad

The night before my flight to Italy, I stood in the kitchen as my brother stirred pasta sauce on the stove and said, “What if I just don’t go?” 

My suitcase waited by the front door; it contained clothes and toiletries to last six months. I had changed my debit card’s pin number to withdraw from European ATMs. My backpack contained an English-to-Italian dictionary and a London travel guide.

“What do you mean?” My brother said, but his tone remained flat and unsurprised. I listed off my concerns: foreign language, unfamiliar people, multiple opportunities for getting lost, robbed, and humiliated. “Well,” he said. “You could stay here. But what would you do? You’d have to find a job if it’s too late to take classes at Macalester. All the preparations have been made for your program. You might as well go. And if you get too homesick, nothing would stop you from coming home—it’d be expensive, but you could do it.”

Me and Heather Johansen (also a senior at Mac) at a vineyard in Tuscany!

I felt like I was standing on the precipice of adulthood. No one was telling me what to do, all the choices were my own, and that terrified me. It was nearly a year ago that I stood in the kitchen with my brother, nearly a year ago that I wished to renounce adulthood, nearly a year ago when I would have settled for the familiar—my brother’s pasta sauce and the icy Minnesota winter—over what waited for me across the ocean. 
Me and some friends from my program on a spring break trip to Howth, a town close to Dublin on the coast of Ireland (it was windy).

What I did not understand a year ago was that no one can prepare you for study abroad. For me, the spontaneity, adventure, and discovery were the best parts. There were many things I learned abroad: that worrying is useless, that asking strangers for directions is okay, that people can surprise you, and that I was lucky for the opportunity to travel, because too often, life becomes routine.
Me in Vienna

None of these realizations happened right away. I dreaded the awkwardness of living with a host family; I feared making a fool of myself at the dinner table and speaking in painfully slow Italian. But I soon loved my host family. I loved that my host mom pronounced my name “Alessandra,” that we lingered at the table after dessert, and that my halting Italian delighted them.

Me in Venice

I think of my time abroad as I do my time at Macalester; it changed me, and it did not happen overnight. I said earlier that no one can prepare you for study abroad, and I meant “prepare” in a literal sense. At the time, I wanted a list of things that would and would not happen; I wanted exactness. I wanted a crystal ball. But my time at Macalester did prepare me for study abroad. It made the world more immediate, more tangible. It improved my writing, made me better informed, gave me the opportunity to engage with people of different backgrounds and viewpoints of my own. It made me open to new experiences. 

Me on top of the Duomo in Florence

My Florence classes revolved around visiting cultural landmarks such as Renaissance churches and museums and learning the Italian language. In London, we took walking tours of the city by day and attended theater productions by night. For those four months, my primary responsibilities consisted of traveling to new countries to learn as much as I could about the culture. When again will this be true? Does such an opportunity exist after college?

My friends and I wandered the streets of Florence for hours. We explored the markets, tried new gelato places, and discovered rugby matches and chocolate festivals. I stopped relying on Google Maps. I stopped looking at street names and stumbling on the cobblestone. Street vendors stopped calling out to me. I stopped thinking of myself as a tourist. 

My Italian host parents, Nino and Gabriella!

When my roommates and I returned from a whirlwind program trip to Venice, our host mom Gabriella served us spaghetti with tomato sauce and basil and said, “Now, you relax. You are home.”

Alexandra McLaughlin ’16

Rosemount, MN