This week I’m posting only on Thursday because it’s a special post, and it took me some time to prepare. Today is the fifth anniversary of my departure from Italy to the United States for my exchange year. That will always be probably the best year of my life, and the experience that changed everything. I probably wouldn’t have traveled so much afterwards if I hadn’t gone to the US, I wouldn’t have found a summer job that I love, probably even this blog wouldn’t exist. It’s an experience that I always recommend to everybody, to every teenager who lives in this globalized world. Once a year I go back to my high school, and talk to all those 16-year-old kids, convincing them that would be the Experience of their life. This post wants to be part a story of that year, a big list of memories, and part a list of the things that have changed thanks to that year.
You make memories which will never fade
I was seventeen when, on that 26th August 2011 I left with other 83 Italian kids from Rome on a flight to JFK. I had been on a plane only once with my parents and there I was, on my own, on a transoceanic flight, off to my American dream. We were all wearing the same yellow t-shirt, and a name tag with the first three letters of the town we were headed to. Mine said BUF, for Buffalo, New York. Now, when I say New York, as I’ve written about before, it’s not New York City. It’s New York State, a beautiful big state. It takes about seven hours by car from the big apple to the old Buffalo. Like me, four other kids had those three letters on their name tag: Cecilia from Padova, Clelia from Perugia, Franco from Reggio Emilia and Andrea from Rome. After stopping in Zurich we landed in New York, but our journey wasn’t over: after having left Italy about twelve hours before, another plane was waiting for us. As for today, I still haven’t caught so many flights in one day as on that day. So, we said goodbye to the others (I have to say, I said goodbye to a little crush I had) and we arrived in Buffalo late at night, when in Italy was about 4 am, after being awake for 24 hours. I still remember the huge smoothie we took in the JFK airport, because it felt so American and we spent our first dollars. And our shock in being served blue chips on the last flight: I still don’t know if blue potatoes are an actual natural thing or just potatoes with a lot of color in them. I remember my curly hair, fresh of perm but not as pretty as Cecilia’s natural curly hair, Franco’s tan after two weeks on the beach in Sicily, Clelia’s blond pixie cut, and Andrea’s Roman accent, probably the first Roman friend I’ve had in my life. It all feels like yesterday. We were out there in the world, ready to start a new life.
You learn a new language
They say learning a language it’s not the primary goal of spending one year abroad. Sure, you’re gonna have to learn it, but the experience comes first. Well, our ignorance of English hit us already when in Italy was 4am. Foreign languages education in Italy simply sucks! I was good at school and still, when a man picked us up at the airport in Buffalo, I didn’t understand a thing! I was used to my teacher’s fake Queen’s English (I love British English, but her accent was just fake!) and if we add that this man pretty much laughed at us for the mistakes we made in the few English words we said, the cultural shock is served! He probably didn’t even laugh, he probably just tried to be funny. Tried. Anyway, in March I was nominated student of the month for the English department in a 2-thousand-something students high school. I think, being the “foreign kid”, that was quite cool.
Your have a new family
I’ve grown up as an only child, and even if I’m not spoiled, I surely had my parents all for myself. So, the day I left, when I waved goodbye to my parents in Rome, on a bus with other exchange-students-to-be, I saw my dad crying: it was the first time, and so far the only one, that I saw him like that. And my mom, the following morning, still sleepy, put three bowls on the table for breakfast: when my dad saw it, he took the car keys and drove my mom to a cafe to have breakfast and to cheer themselves up.
My family in America was totally different! My mom was divorced, single mother of 2 girls, one two years older than me, and the other one year younger. We were all women and finally I could easily talk in my family about shopping, underwear, waxing, boys, without any embarrassment. I had two sisters, but I mostly shared my life with the younger: we shared the room, we went to school together, we spent the afternoon watching CSI Miami together. Sure the relationship wasn’t always easy, but I wouldn’t change my little sister with anyone else, as my big sister and my host mom.
You travel the world and you realize dreams
In a small village like mine, the American dream is still actual and strong. I still get stopped by some old lady asking me “So you’ve come home from America?”, after four years. That was huge! I’ve even been put on the village gazzette, with a big picture of me in front of the Capitol in Washington D.C. And that’s why I chose the US in the first place, because I had that American dream as well. Now that there’s internet, now that we can fly all around the world, now that we hear world news on TV everyday, now that most of the stuff we buy is made in China, the United States seem so close to us. But it was mesmerizing how different things actually are. High schools are not as cool as in High School Musical or in Glee, their simply high school: you go there to learn and to take tests. Sure there are cheerleaders going around in their uniform, but only on game days. And I loved how the teams were all dressed up when the games in the afternoon were away, and instead wearing their uniforms when the game was home. I once wore heels so high at school before a game away that I pretty much had to kneel to get my books out of my locker. I loved having my friends senior portraits inside my locker and I loved having lunch in the cafeteria with the music on, or having free time in the senior lounge.
But the US are not just high schools, are a lot of different things. And I’ve tried to see as many as those different things as possible: I’ve been to New York City, Disneyworld, Disneyland, Washington D.C., Vermont (which obviously included the Ben&Jerry’s factory), Phoenix, Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Yosemite Park, Las Vegas and San Francisco. I’ve been in all the placed I could dream to visit as a teenager, I fell in love with (and in) San Francisco, I’ve walked the Golden Gate Bridge, I went to a Broadway show and ate springrools in Epcot, in Disneyworld. I’ve done so many things I cannot even recall them all right now. Not mentioning the fact that I lived about forty minutes away from Niagara Falls and they almost became boring the fourth time I saw them.
But that was only the beginning. Because all those beautiful experiences opened my mind on how beautiful the world is and that’s when traveling became an addiction for me. So, if in 2011 flying across the ocean was incredible, in 2013, after high school graduation, I took a plane on my own to Brazil, to volunteer. I’ve spent a year in England and I pretty much travel all summers for work. I cannot think of my future without thinking of foreign countries, different houses, suitcases and cute foreigners.
You make friends for life
I’ve met so many people from all over the world just during that year, but there are some friends with whom I pretty much keep in touch kinda regularly, who truly have a special place in my heart. There’s obviously my family, even if that’s not friends, that’s family! There are the Italians who where sharing my experience with me: Cecilia, Clelia, Sofia, Franco, Andrea and Francesco. There is my BAF (Best American Friend) Kim, with whom I share so many special memories: dances, parties, volleyball games, bus rides, prom, shopping, we even shared the same crush. There is Filippo, a boy from Florence who moved to the US and arrived in my high school: his counsellor thought to put him at lunch in my same time slot and for fifty minutes a day I would go back home with my mind and speak my native language. And Wendy, my liaison, and her all family, who were always available to welcome me and listen to my problems. And there are many others: Sarah, Alex, the all volleyball team, etc. etc. etc. The only regret I have is that I haven’t been able to go back to the US yet and my visits to my family or to Kim have been so far only via Skype.
The best choice I took when I started school was to get involved, a lot! The volleyball team had been essential: not only I’ve met my BAF there, but I’ve met my first friends. They usually tell you that in the first week you’d have a lot of attention: your foreign, moreover you’re Italian, and everybody wants to talk to you. It didn’t happen to me, not even my teachers knew they had an exchange student in their class (it happened instead to Filippo and I was so jealous I wished I was an Italian boy instead of a girl). But after the first volleyball practice I finally had some familiar faces to say Hi to in the crowds in the hallways. And then the Italian Club, the German Club, the International Club, the track team, etc. came on the way. I was shy for the first time in my life, but suddenly all those clubs and societies helped me meet people and everything got much easier.
It’s not so expensive at it seems
OK, it’s expensive. Spending a year abroad is always expensive. While every other teenager in the US has a job, I couldn’t because of my student visa. The only thing I did was babysitting three or four times, making at the most 120 bucks. Obviously my parents paid for the program, and it’s an investment, and yes, probably I couldn’t have lived this experience if I weren’t only child. But I also know that I’ve earned so many scholarships afterwards which really helped. So my advice is go for it, and gather infos about possible scholarships. And if you still cannot afford it, think about other solutions, as a gap year being an au pair. The important is that you do it: you won’t just live in another country, and learn another language, but in the moment you can rely only on yourself, you will know yourself better (and who your true friends are): for example I learned I have a traveling (and I’m afraid also shopping) addiction!