Monday, February 23, 2009


A year ago, I wandered into Angela Peterson’s office curious about Park’s study abroad program. I’d always wanted to do it, but never took the initiative to take the first step. When I got there, I mentioned that I’d like to study in Ireland perhaps. She asked if that was my dream and I told her, “No, my real dream is to study in Italy but I don’t speak Italian.” Then Angie said the magic words, “Oh that’s no problem! You can study at Lorenzo de Medici and learn Italian while you live there! Total immersion.” Seriously, total immersion is right.

I’ve been in Tuscania, Italy for a month now and it still seems unreal. I have a 10 minute walk to school in the mornings, down uneven but beautiful cobblestone roads. Sometimes I pass a local or two, walking their dogs. One thing I love? Everyone looks you in the eye and greets you, regardless of whether or not you understand their language. “Buongiorno” really is a beautiful word. I’ve also fallen in love with the fact that the entire town smells of pastries and bread in the mornings. Everyone in town has a favorite pastry and pizza shop and I’m willing and able to try them all. This is also how I’m beginning to pick up a little Italian here and there. While I have only a preschooler’s knowledge of the language, I’ve managed to get by just like most of the other 19 students here at LdM; pointing to what I want and asking the person behind the counter to show “quanto costa;” how much.

Lorenzo de Medici offers more than one study abroad option. Three Cities gives students the opportunity to spend one month each in Tuscania, then Rome, and ending in their choice of Venice or Florence. The “three cities” students who are with us here in Tuscania now will leave for Rome next week. Another option is to spend the entire semester in Tuscania, Rome or Florence. Knowledge of Italian language is not required but a sincere desire to learn about the Italian culture and integrate with Italy’s people is. Here in Tuscania, it is a total immersion program, in that we are living as Italians in this rural town of only 8,000 people. It is about 90 miles from Rome and believe me when I say almost no one speaks English. Although we do have mandatory Italian classes (beginner’s for most students), I’m finding that I learn more from interacting with Tuscania’s citizens. In fact, I’ve made friends with the café owner of San Marco in the San Marco Piazza. His name is Waldo and he does speak a little English. He is patient with us, explaining the Italian words for certain pastries, coffee and anything else we ask him. He shared his personal story with us of how he came to be in Tuscania (he’s actually from South America) and lets us sit in his café before and after classes, no charge. I really found his kindness comforting in the overwhelming circumstances we’ve found ourselves in. I love stopping by in the evenings when he’s slow and just sitting at a table sipping cappuccino and talking with him. If you come, be sure to ask him what his hobby is. A hobby of taking college courses for years and years just to soak up information and knowledge really is one of the most beautiful things a person could do with his time, I think.

There are only 5 of us here for the entire semester and we’re already planning trips. Just today, we planned and booked our first trip of the semester- Venice. It’s 2 bus rides, 2 trains and 6.5 hours from Tuscania. We grabbed a hostel and will spend 2 full days exploring the city. When the Three Cities students leave, we will have a farewell dinner in their honor. It will be sad to see friends leave, but we are already organizing weekend trips to visit them in Rome.

One of the first things they tell you when you study abroad is to avoid making a spectacle of yourself; blend in and respect the city you’re in, as well as the people who call it their home. Tuscania is an incredibly safe town, which is why I have taken to letting myself enjoy long walks around the town by myself at night. I tend to stay within the walls and the streets are well lit, but there’s a point at the top of a hill by the school where I go and sit and can see everything from the lights of nearby towns to St. Peter’s church on the outskirts of Tuscania. Locals will walk by and offer the chance for conversation but I still lack the ability to understand or respond in Italian so it usually ends up being a simple “buongiorno” and they walk on.

I’m a psychology major so of course one of my favorite things to do is to sit on a park bench on Saturday afternoons when it seems as though the entire town is out, and just people watch for hours. Observing behavior, culture and customs is something I find incredibly interesting and Tuscania is a wonderful place to do so. Saturday is when the parks fill with children, elderly and the in-between, especially on sunny days. I sat there for 2 hours last weekend, by myself, watching them all. At one point a little old lady came and sat by me. When she discovered that I did not speak Italian, we just sat there in silence, watching Tuscania’s citizens enjoy the afternoon together. It was not awkward in the least and I think we were both equally grateful for the company.

For young adults, there is very little to do in the evenings and on weekends. They mostly go to neighboring towns for their entertainment, and some of the LdM students have discovered this. Since most of us have limited funds and are on a budget, we’ve taken to gathering at different students’ apartments and cooking, then just hanging out and talking all evening. One thing that takes some getting used to here is the late dinner time. Most people eat dinner at about 8 or 9, so when we head out to a restaurant for dinner at 7, we’re often met with closed signs. Also, most places shut down from 1pm-4pm for siesta which is why I’ve missed lunch nearly every day since I’ve been here. I’m used to eating lunch at 1 or 2 but nothing’s open then. Since I don’t eat breakfast and I almost always miss lunch, by the time dinner rolls around at 8, I’m completely ravenous! I’m trying to make myself adapt to their schedule of early morning breakfasts of coffee and a croissant, lunch at noon of a sandwich and juice and a late dinner of pasta and meat. I think I’m getting it….

Most students opt to stay in apartments with other LdM students, but there is also the option of living in a homestay. One student this semester chose the latter and her host family invited me over for dinner with them. They are an older couple with a young daughter who lives in Rome, working as a receptionist. While they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Italian, we managed to have sparse conversations, ripe with wild hand motions and occasional trips to the English/Italian dictionary. The host mother made a complete 4 course Italian meal consisting of pancetta and grilled eggplant for the appetizer, pasta, then chicken and potatoes, followed by wine and dessert. I hadn’t eaten so much or so well since I arrived. It was heaven on earth. In fact, when Christine (the student who lives with this couple) and I walked into the house 2 hours before dinner was to be served, her host mother was in the kitchen working on our meal and it smelled absolutely amazing. While we were in her bedroom studying our Italian and doing homework, we both stole occasional glances at the clock, waiting on 8 when we could taste those amazing smells that were filling the house. In fact, when I left, I think my stomach was actually smiling…