I was sixteen, living in a tiny Midwestern town and determined to go to Europe. I didn’t have money and in that rural environment, received no encouragement from my friends or teachers. Nonetheless, I researched relentlessly until I learned about the Rotary Club International’s Rotary Youth Exchange program, which funds and facilitates international student travel. After making a (perhaps not entirely sincere) presentation to the Rotarians about how I wanted to be an ambassador of friendship to promote international peace, the Rotarians agreed to sponsor me and in short order a Dutch host family was found for me. I was to spend the summer with an English-speaking family in Amsterdam. Bliss!
And then, about two weeks before I was to leave, I received devastating news: my Dutch family had cancelled, and unfortunately my trip was cancelled too. I feel sorry for those nice people at the Rotary club, because I threw an epic tantrum and would not accept this news. I asked over and over “Surely there is another family that will take me? I’ll go anywhere.” After several days, of no, no chance, I finally wore them down and was told, “We’ll, there is a chance for you to go to Italy, but really, we don’t recommend it. They’re quite disorganized over there, and we don’t have any English-speaking families, and we won’t be able to confirm your hosts until after you arrive.” I insisted that this was fine, I would do it, Italy, yes. So I acquired an additional plane ticket to take me from Amsterdam to Milan. What would happen in Milan? Anyone’s guess.
[I want to interrupt this story to point out a few essential facts: this was the ’80’s. We didn’t have email or cell phones. My parents allowed me, an unaccompanied minor from a small town to fly to a foreign country to live with an unknown family in a undetermined town where I did not speak the language. And a club of upstanding citizens sponsored me. Now that I’m middle-aged my response is What the crunk were these adults thinking? But most of all, I want to thank all of them. Thank you, thank you.]
Looking back over that summer, I am most surprised by my shocking ignorance about common sense matters. For example, I didn’t seem to realize that I would be traveling though different time zones, and I had not heard of jet lag. Excitement kept me awake the night before the trip and then I stayed up straight through my two flights. I remember thinking “Isn’t it so silly how they have this fake night on the airplane?” By the time I departed my second flight and was retrieved by a man holding my name on a cardboard sign, I was extremely sleepy. I went to this man’s house and was shown the bathroom, so I took a bath. I thought I had arrived at my host destination, but no, another family came and picked me up. They were my real host family and they proceeded to take me on a sightseeing blitz. I was staggering with exhaustion and trying to be a good sport, and honestly I don’t think I knew what what city I was in. (I was in Turin, in Northwest Italy.) My luggage was lost, and the last thing I remember before passing out into a deep sleep was my host mother holding a pair of panties to my face, yelling something in Italian that must have meant “Do you need to borrow these?”
When I woke the digital clock in my room read something like 14:58 and I was so confused, I thought even the time was different in Italy. And on it went, one disorienting scenario after another. For the first few days I thought everyone was fighting since they stood close to each other, yelled loudly and waved their hands around a lot. My host family’s shower didn’t have a curtain, so I invariably got water all over the floor, to the dismay of my host mother. (I still encounter this in Italian hotels and can’t figure it out–why no shower curtain? Is there someone who can teach me to shower without getting water on the floor? Please??? I’ll buy you a gelato.) It appears that I’m complaining here, but in fact I was enjoying the disorientation. And my host family was perfect: kind, fun-loving, generous, and hyperactive. They had two girls slightly older than me who included me in all their activities, despite my initial inability to speak Italian.
After living there for two weeks we were visited by a family friend, a girl my age who had recently returned from a year as an exchange student in Kansas. The girl spoke fluent English so with her as an interpreter my host family bombarded me with questions. The adults wanted to know:
- Did I miss my mother. 2. Why I didn’t tan. 3. Why I ate so much.
The girls wanted to know:
- Why I didn’t tan. 2. If I missed my parties and boyfriends. 3. Why I ate so much.
I was mystified about the reference to the parties and boyfriends I was supposedly missing. The English-speaking girl explained that teenaged Italians were addicted to American nighttime dramas like Dynasty and thought that that Americans were glamorous party-goers constantly breaking up with their lovers while wearing shoulder pads and sequins. From my experience, most Italian teen’s conception of the US is that it consists of only New York, Texas, and California and that we all drive fancy cars. While at home I was a freckled dishwater-blond book nerd, in Italy I was a Blond American. I was a celebrity and that was fun while it lasted.
Why did I eat so much? Because the food was freaking delicious and I loved trying new things. In the rural Midwest in the 1980’s, we did not know about focaccia or risotto or polenta or pesto, those intoxicating foods I stuffed myself with that summer. And holy mother of chocolate goodness: NUTELLA. Chocolate. For. Breakfast. One of my happiest days was when we went to a pizzeria, and my host family ordered and a pizza was set in front of me. I cut myself a slice and passed it to the person next to me. Everyone laughed! Mangia tutto, they said, eat all of it. These people ate chocolate hazelnut spread for breakfast and let you have whole pizza for dinner: I was fairly certain Italy was the best place in the universe.
Though I have poor language skills, I managed to learn some Italian anyway (and am now a believer in immersion as the best way to acquire language facility) and I specialized in slang and swear words. Though I could no longer put together a grammatically correct paragraph in Italian to save my life, I am proud that I can still inquire “What is you dick doing?” like a native. I was, however, a failure at tanning. This was a big deal in Italy where the entire country takes the month of August off to spend all day, every day, on the beach, turning into bronzed gods and goddesses. They must have thought I was a freak, hiding in the shade with my SPF 60.
In between lazy days of sunbathing, my host family took me to the Alps, Nice and Monaco, which surprised me, since I didn’t realize they were so close. (Again, I’m wondering what sort of teenage bimbo I was that I didn’t once ask to see where I was on a map.) By the end of summer it felt perfectly natural to speak Italian, eat an entire pizza myself, and jump on a train to another country on a moment’s notice.
And then I returned home, no longer exotic or glamorous, with a handful of Italian coins that I carried in my wallet for several years. I would talk and talk about Italy to anyone who would listen and no doubt sounded like a pretentious twit, until I got to college and realized that summer trips to Europe and semesters abroad were common and indeed expected for a more privileged, urban young person. When I finally returned to Italy on my honeymoon, I was shocked to find that Italy is full of tourists. As it happened, I met no Americans in my entire Italian summer and I had the feeling that Italy was a special place that I’d discovered myself. Although I should know better now, secretly I still feel that way. Italy belongs to me.
In front of the Milan cathedral with one of my host sisters.