HARVEY: Lessons From My European Adventure

As I prepared to leave home for the spring semester, I caught myself staring at a stack of jumbled postcards from my travels, next to the cooking supplies from Target that I planned to use to make beautiful, Italian meals in my Henle kitchen. I was nursing an espresso that I brewed myself with Italian coffee, because I was up all night getting ready to leave home after a full day of procrastination watching “Friends.” It is exactly one month ago today that I departed from the Villa Le Balze — Georgetown’s study center in Florence — and I have come to represent the chaotic picture of a post-abroad junior returning back to campus.

As I drove past the airport with my mom, I remember half-wishing that I was on one of the planes taking to the sky. I am straddling two different lives — one worn-in but somewhat forgotten, and one familiar but nearing its end. I am in between the two, and it is not an easy place to be.

My transition from Georgetown to abroad, in contrast, happened smoothly and suddenly, marked by the purchase of a dark grey felt brim hat. I had made the decision, naturally, that if I planned to spend fourth months living in Europe, I would need a cool, trendy hat to wear for all of the cool, trendy things that I was sure I would do. It was a hat I had considered buying while at school many times, but never had because I did not feel comfortable wearing it around the Hilltop — an environment that, though open and welcoming, is not particularly forgiving of experiments in personal style. But wearing it abroad was a different story.

In Florence, old men wear full suits when riding their bikes to get coffee and young men sport scandalously low V-necks. Their cobbled streets are free of the Patagonia fleeces and spandex yoga pants that plague ours. In Florence waited a fresh frontier of independence, anonymity and complete self-ownership. It was a feeling that I had not encountered since the beginning of freshman year, and it would include many more changes than the way I chose to dress. Along with the hat came a new way of thinking: be open, be brave and leave the restraining norms that I had internalized during my two years at Georgetown behind. I bought the hat and wore it on my flight to Florence, and I had nothing but open sky in front of me.

Inspired by my bold new fashion choice, I embarked on my first adventure in Italy: a day trip to the Cinque Terre. An Instagram favorite, the Cinque Terre is a string of five islands on the Italian Riviera that boasts beautiful beaches, impressive hiking trails, quaint and colorful houses built into the cliffs and amazing pesto. Armed with nothing but backpacks, sunglasses and a handful of Italian phrases, we boarded a train to the Cinque one early September morning, and we were off.

When we arrived at one of the islands, Riomaggiore, we immediately realized that we were going to want more than an afternoon to explore the area. The wide, softly red clay streets were filled with the sounds of gentle laughter as bronzed Italians indulged in their creamy gelato and barefoot bathers padded into the bars for a midday drink. Everywhere there was color: the bright oranges of beach umbrellas, the aqua blues of the Mediterranean, the greens of the surrounding mountains. However, there was not a single hotel or hostel room available. We roamed unsuccessfully from door to door, and grew desperate as we received messages from the other 25 students on our program who, prompted by our ecstatic urgings, had decided to get on a train that would arrive that night. We were mentally preparing ourselves to sleep on the beach when a godsend arrived in the form of a large, old Italian hotel manager handing us a small square of white paper. It bore the words “Vera, no. 20,” and was accompanied by the statement: “Go see this woman. She is Vera, she have 80 years, she have room.”

After 20 minutes of wandering in circles in a remote alleyway, we finally found Vera, no. 20 hidden behind an imposing growth of wisteria vines filled with bees. Vera was very small, very white-haired and very much an 80-year-old Italian woman. She welcomed us, surveyed us, scolded us, took our 40 euros each, patted our cheeks and left us at the door to an empty apartment in her complex — all in mostly unintelligible Italian. My roommates and I eyed the two attached bedrooms and half kitchen, fearing we would be kidnapped, murdered or, at best, robbed. We panicked and considered leaving as the light in the Cinque Terre faded. Then, I thought of my hat and the commitment that I had made to myself when I bought it, and I argued that we take the room with an open mind, as an adventure. That night, we crammed 30 stranded American students under one roof, and it turned out to be one of the most fun and most memorable trips of my semester abroad.

Now just a few hours away from Georgetown, I am once again faced with fear and uncertainty as I face the unknown — a classic case of study abroad withdrawal. Can I transition back to real life? Do I want to? Will I be happy? To me, the only answer seems to be to approach the new semester back with the same sense of fearlessness and creativity that I had when we arrived on Vera’s doorstep and hope that it turns out alright. I’m looking for adventure this spring. And my hat? It’s crammed in the backseat right behind me.

Elizabeth Harvey is a junior in the College. ABROAD WITHDRAWAL appears every other Friday.

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