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April's theme is
MOTHERS & SISTERS.
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(pretty much what I expected of my study abroad experience)
Two years ago, around this time, I got the fantastic news that I was going to be studying abroad in Rome for a semester. As this was something I’d wanted to do since seeing the Lizzie McGuire movie at the tender age of 9, this was the best news I’d heard in years. I was over the moon that one of my lifelong dreams was finally entering the realm of reality. So, I eagerly packed my bags, exchanged my dollars for euros, bought wall adapters for all of my electronic devices, and jetted off to la citta eterna per quattro mesi, that’s the eternal city for four months for all you non Italian speakers. I did everything one should do in Rome. I ate gelato like it was my second job, gorged on pizza, pasta, bread, and all things carbs, drank plenty of legal vino, went wine tasting, saw numerous Roman artifacts, and most importantly was fortunate enough to travel to other parts of Europe as I’d literally saved for this trip for as long as I could remember. When I finally returned to the U.S., I’d learned a lot more about the world, had accumulated quite a few stamps on my passport, was pretty conversational in Italian, had traveled to a whopping 26 cities and had the bags under my eyes to prove it; this in addition to the two overweight ones I lugged through O’Hare as I waited to be picked up. I’d seen some of the most coveted attractions Western Europe had to offer and was equipped with the photographic evidence to prove it. But truthfully, I was so happy to be back home. I wanted to love Rome, I wanted to fall so in love with it that it was a struggle to leave. But ultimately, being abroad mostly made me appreciate home and growing up in a rather bougie neighborhood on the south side of Chicago all the more.
When I arrived home, not many people asked me about my abroad experience. I suppose to them, it felt no different than me being at school in California for several months. It’s weird to go through such an important experience that you feel changes you, but which nobody else really acknowledges because they can’t understand how it has affected you. I particularly struggled abroad because I went through a very difficult family situation that began only three weeks into the trip and I didn’t have enough of a support system to deal with it. I only felt comfortable sharing my problems with one person in Rome who I became great friends with eventually, but was just getting to know at the time. All of my college friends were also abroad, and everyone else back in the states either didn’t know what was going on or simply had no knowledge of how to help me, so mostly they reached out once if I was lucky and left it at that. Some family members tried a bit harder, but I don’t think anyone really understood how hard it was for me to go through what I was going through literally thousands of miles away from home, in a foreign place where I knew absolutely no one and thus they couldn’t decipher the gravity of the situation and the negative impact it was having on me. I’m sure this situation did negatively color my perspective and thus my overall abroad experience. So perhaps my lackluster experience was simply a matter of being in the right place at the wrong time, which seems to happen a lot in my life.
However, when people did start asking questions about abroad (mostly when I returned to school) I found it very hard to answer them. Truth be told, I wasn’t very impressed with Rome. In fact, I can honestly say that I enjoyed almost every other place I traveled to more than Rome. I fell in love with Berlin as I stood on top of Hitler’s bunker (and tried my best to resist spitting) because it made me remember why I was so enamored with history, a fact I’d long since forgotten. High tea at the Dorchester in London had me feeling like the classiest of ladies even after I’d stuffed myself with far too many cucumber sandwiches deemed appropriate for human consumption. Barcelona will forever have a place in my heart because I enjoyed the best seafood paella of my life while laughing at my friends for being lightweights before I too got quite tipsy off of the deceptively strong sangria we sipped on midday. I didn’t dare blink in Paris when I stood out on a balcony and watched the Eiffel Tower light up the night. And I will never forget the moment of exhilaration that I felt jumping off a cliff with one of my best friends on my trip to the Amalfi Coast. My relationship with Rome, however, was far from a love story, and I had such a hard time admitting to people that Rome wasn’t the dream I’d hoped it to be. On the contrary, some parts of it were a complete nightmare. It’s rather difficult to be honest when people start off with “Well I saw all your pictures, so I know you had a ball abroad! But tell me anyway.” Oh you know I had a ball, do you? Because clearly smiling in pictures indicates that you’re having the time of your life. That’s my sarcasm talking for those who can’t tell--anyone can smile for a picture; it’s just what you do. And my love of photography doesn’t necessarily translate to a good time. But, it’s hard to tell people that my experience was less than ideal. It’s even harder to be honest when people assume and expect that you’ve had the time of your life, when in reality it was one of the most difficult times of your life. There were some wonderful moments and days in Rome, because I put a lot of energy and effort into making them that way. But, a lot of days were just shitty and I often get judged for daring to mention those days. But life didn’t stop simply because I was in another part of the world. There were good and bad days just like there would be if I had been in Chicago or Claremont.
When I declare that Rome wasn’t the end-all-be-all, people assume that I’m not being appreciative of my experience, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. To me, appreciation comes from accepting things for what they are, and in order for me to truly have appreciation for my study abroad experience I have to accept it for everything it was and everything that it wasn’t. Did I fall in love with la fontana di Trevi (The Trevi fountain)? Of course. Did I have the best calamari and gelato of my damn life and do I still dream about it daily? I’m salivating just thinking about it, so you do the math. But it was also the rainiest winter Rome had seen in 300 years, people were rather racist, I wasn’t wowed by the pizza or pasta, my program had some (not all) tragically stupid and entitled people on it, my internship was a shit show, and the icing on the cake was that I lived in a convent. I’m not saying that these things made it impossible to love Rome, but they all were some contributing factors that made Rome simply an okay experience for me.
Months after I retuned home, I wondered if I’d something wrong. After all, everyone who’d visited Rome raved about it and wanted to compare notes. But, it’s a totally different experience to just visit a place or escape for a quick vacation than it is to live there. Almost everyone I talked to seemed to have the time of their life abroad (even my best friend who never wanted to go in the first place) and they were just itching to go back. When they asked me about my time in Rome, the best I could come up with was “It was an experience, one I was very fortunate to have. But if I could go back and change it, I might’ve chosen differently.” It took me a while to realize that while some things certainly could’ve be done better, maybe Rome simply wasn’t the best fit for me and that’s nothing to fret about. Sometimes dreams just aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be and sometimes expectations don’t meet reality. It’s disappointing sure, but I think that’s okay. At least I won’t spend my life wondering what it’s like to live in Rome, because I’ve been there, done that, and got the leather jacket to prove it.
Perhaps we put too many expectations on dreams. Perhaps they are like birthdays and when we put too much pressure on them to be awesome, they can never live up to said expectations so they just end up letting us down. I had built up Rome in my head for 11 years (after all, Rome wasn’t built in a day), so there’s no way it could’ve been everything I wanted it and needed it to be. That’s probably why I enjoyed everywhere else more, because I didn’t have unrealistic expectations and hadn’t taken the time to romanticize it in my head. I truly think the best moments in life and sometimes the best dreams are the ones you didn’t plan, but they happen organically anyway. So no, Rome wasn’t the best time of my life but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it for what it was. Honestly, the best days I’ve had were spent doing the most seemingly mundane things; like riding down Lake Shore Drive on a perfect summer day, windows down, hair blowing in the infamous, Chicago wind, my mom and I singing off key to a Toni Braxton song or an Old School classic going nowhere fast; and it took me going halfway across the world to find out that those little moments, are what dreams are made of.