I’m learning as much about myself here as I am about Italy. I used to think that I was so independent; I didn’t need anyone. I was always happy no matter where I was or what I was doing. But I’m starting to suspect these last three weeks in Florence have thwarted the very independent nature that makes me who I am.
A lot of times, especially in the beginning of the semester, I felt alone. I was just going through the motions of my daily routine. Except I wasn’t getting through anything. Eating meals alone, remaining quiet in class and always coming home to an empty room can be dispiriting. With no meaningful contact with others and few conversations that went beyond me introducing myself, explaining where I am from and what I am studying, there were certainly times that I wondered if I belonged here, 4,000 miles away from home.
This is the first time I’ve really felt out of place because it’s the first time I’m somewhere completely new, and alone. I chose to attend a university that’s in a familiar city, a place close to my home in Long Island. Even when I’ve traveled to new countries, I’ve always had my home with me — my mom and brother. This is a totally unfamiliar situation, and honestly, it’s made me feel uncomfortable at times. I don’t look like the natives here, I’m not used to life away from home and I don’t enjoy the same activities that my peers enjoy, so I haven’t found my squad. And maybe I won’t have one while I’m here, and that’s OK. It means I have time to learn more about myself, become friends with myself.
At times I got too caught up in missing New York and the familiarity of my home. My photojournalism class forced me to stop and reflect on my reality — the photos I took helped me realize the insane, dazzling beauty of this city. I remembered how lucky I am to be here right now and how I had finally fulfilled my childhood dream of living in Italy, the land of abundant pasta and plentiful gelato.
And some things are keeping me intact. Last week, I took a cooking class for the first time, and there’s nothing quite like making fresh pasta with strangers. Playing soccer with friends brought me back down to Earth, while sitting in Italian class three times a week reminded me of my high school days and how much I enjoyed learning about the language and customs. I’ve found some great places to eat, walked the cobblestoned alleyways of Florence, gotten lost a handful of times, and found comfort in being able to cry and laugh throughout the process.
It’s certainly true that being abroad has taught me a lot about myself. I’ve learned how much I appreciate my mother and all that she’s done for my brother and me. My mother came to the United States at the age of 16. She knew nothing about the country, she didn’t speak a lick of English and she couldn’t even see. But she didn’t crumble. She took it all in stride, and she made it. My mother is the smartest, strongest and most spirited woman I know. She raised me to be resilient, to take control of my life and to enjoy every waking minute because you never know if it’s going to be your last.
I miss my family more than anything in the world right now, but that’s not a weakness. In fact, it’s my biggest strength. I want to keep going, learn all that I can here and try things that may seem daunting at first. I still cannot completely understand everything that my mother has endured in her life, but I know that I want to stop being afraid and enjoy this time in my life for her. Every time I learn something new, I can’t wait to share it with my family. I look forward to our weekly video calls, so I can see my mother’s face, and I can listen to my brother as he tells me how it felt to wear contact lenses for the first time or how he won his soccer game the day before. I wish I was there to watch him play or that he could be here to try every flavor of gelato with me, but the truth is that we’re going down different paths — and that’s okay.
I promise to stop looking at all the things my friends are doing back home, all the moments I may be missing. I promise to soak up as much Italian sun as possible and meet as many Florentines as I can, because I don’t know when I’ll ever be this young and in this peculiar a place ever again. And yes, Mom, I promise to keep my grades up. See you soon.
Email Bela Kirpalani at [email protected]