The end of my study abroad session was strange: I didn’t feel like I was really leaving, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave or if I was ready to go, and I started to feel like I was unsure about my place in the world. My final weekend in Europe crept up on me, and it was like six weeks had flown by and I wasn’t sure where the time went. When it hit me that our two-month adventure was coming to an end, I was home-sick with both emotions and germs. I couldn’t find the right words to blog, so I wrote in my personal journal to keep some of the more nostalgic and emotional memories to myself. I figured rather than draft posts at the end of my session that were carefully crafted and over-thought, I would first settle my thoughts and then reflect on my feelings after I had been back home for a few weeks. Now, I feel as if I can put my confusion into perspective.
When everyone asks me how my study abroad program was, I simply reply, “Amazing! Incredible! Extraordinary!” Others rarely ask anything further. It seems silly to me that something so personally impactful on my life could satisfy the curiosity of another with simple, clichéd, and overused adjectives. When put into writing, however, the adjectives disappear and my thoughts become more meaningful.
Florence shocked me. I expected Europe to be an enchanted kingdom that was innovative, unsoiled, elite, glorified, and electrifying; mostly, I expected the enchantment to be tangible. But my eyes were opened to a divergent view. The beauty wasn’t in the exterior, but in the soul. The buildings are stunning because they’re ancient and ornate, the cobblestones wore me out but they’re unique to the architecture, the Ponte Vecchio needs some serious remodeling but it has been standing since the Renaissance period, the infinite clouds of cigarette smoke left me with a chronic cough, crime is seemingly unrestricted and unpunished, and the Arno River is green and heavily polluted. All of these things make Florence, Florence, and the city is so full of heart that hardly any of it matters.
During my travels, I heard a lot of, “You’re only in Europe once! Let’s go out! Let’s make a list of things to do! Don’t just sit there reading, let’s go somewhere!” That was mostly everyone’s philosophy.
My philosophy: learn something that will make me better. I don’t have to think it’s the most impeccable place in the world just because it’s Europe and I had never been. I chose to study abroad to broaden my horizons, not to check a box, and looking back on my experiences, I do not have a single regret.
I got everything out of this trip I wanted; not necessarily in the way I planned, but on a pleasantly surprising and deeply rewarding scale. I love traveling and embracing other cultures of the world and I am a fervent learner, but physically living in a foreign country gave me hind-sight in reverse: I appreciate home more than ever.
Exploring is magic, and the number of places I want to see multiplied exponentially from this journey. I captured over 1,000 pictures, cooked (and devoured) delicious food, read my favorite Oscar Wilde novel on a Florentine balcony, and made memories of a lifetime. Simultaneously, I was able to be grateful for what I have back home. That’s the most important place. Home is where we return. Home is what grounds us. And home is where we spend the other 95% of our lives; we must appreciate home as much as we appreciate escaping it.
I’m not going to sugar-coat my documentation and claim, “Oh my goodness, what I would give to go back! I wish I was in Italy every day! I’m so sad to be back in the States!” I don’t think any of those things. What I think is that places are still places, and the people you surround yourself, and can share your adventures with, matter more. I sat on the Ponte Vecchio on the last evening, taking everything in one last time and crying because I felt so humbled to have an opportunity to be there. There, I had the most overwhelming chain of thoughts: “Why am I feeling so out of place in my youth, yet so grateful to be seeing the world at such a young age? How can I help everyone be able to do this? Why does no one else seem to have any of these feelings, and am I weird for refusing to succumb to fake happiness?” I was confused, I was emotional, I was guilty, and I was blessed. Suddenly, I saw a middle-aged woman carrying her mother in an assisted walker, very slowly, across the threshold. In that moment, everything I had been searching for during my trip came full circle. Florence is magnificent, but at the end of the day, and at the end of our lives, it doesn’t matter how many nights you spent at bars, how much bread you ate, how much money you spent on gelato, how much money you have to spend on gelato, how much time you’ll have to spend back in Florida at your job to earn it all back, how many pictures you took of historic structures, or how many miles you walked. It’s not about the numbers and the check-boxes. What matters are the people who you can share these experiences with and who you can recount your stories to, no matter if your story takes you to Florence, Italy or your own backyard. What matters is the ability to tell a story, from whatever you may have experienced.
There was nothing better than being able to sit on my grandparents’ couch and share with them everything I did, just because I took an opportunity. I could see in every picture my daily gratitude, appreciation, and awe of the city. And the most important part that I take with me are the memories I can share with the people I love.
Life is what you make it, and this trip is one that I can be proud of, because I came out of it with more than just a few extra pounds in bread and wine.
It’s one more chapter in my life, a constant discovery and reminder to just be fearless, explore, learn. Just be happy. Just have fun. Just go with it. Just live. Just do. Just read. Just write. Just travel. Just see what happens. Just try anything…just be.