Originally Published Here: Self Reflection After Seven Weeks in Italy | Gilman Global Experience Blog

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!”