One question I get asked often when traveling is “What brings you here?” This time I’m going to Italy for Temple Rome’s Summer I program. The long answer is that about half of my past 3 years have been spent in Italy. I can’t explain how it happened that Italy has slowly become a second home for me as a U.S. citizen with no trace of Italian ancestry, yet that is the thing I find most intriguing about the country. It is so culturally diverse – both regionally, as well as between people. As a peninsula in the Mediterranean sea, Italy reaches towards Africa, hugs Europe, is a boat ride from the Middle East and Asia, and only an 8 hour plane ride from the Americas. Living in Italy has allowed me to meet and connect with people from all corners of the world and walks of life – priests, domestic workers, students, many of whom were immigrants or had their own call to the country.
At the age of 19, I deferred from the university I had been attending to be an au pair in Italy. I originally chose the country because I had taken a trip there with my family and was struck by how a place so ancient and layered with history could be the home to millions of people today. I was in awe of the mere possibility of living in such a beautiful and temperate climate, with trees I had never seen before. I grew up in a family that hosted international students and Au Pairs, and who prioritized travel. My mom had been an au pair in Germany when she was 19 and encouraged me to take a gap year as well.
I spent 3 months of summer 2019 with my first family teaching English and babysitting two boys while spending days at the beach. Before departing, my only experience with the language was a few months of Duolingo practice. When I arrived, I could barely string together words, let alone understand the words people were saying. Being immersed in a new language felt a lot like those days standing in the sea, being pushed over by the waves. Some days were easier and some were harder. It was surprising how easy it was to understand the gist of something just by listening to tone, watching gestures and expression. I loved the emotion of the language because it was the part of communication I could most easily relate to without knowing the meanings of things. I loved the fullness of the sounds, and how they bounced around the corners of one’s mouth. There was so much love and attention given to each word: they were like actors, with language as the stage for however you were feeling that day. I never really knew if I was sick of hearing the language, or simply savoring it.
After another six months of au pairing in Rome during the 2020 lockdown, I knew I had to come back. With lockdown, I missed out on many of the things that had brought me back in the first place: meeting people from all over the world, improving my language abilities at a small institute, and exploring the city. Through Temple Rome, I was able to return for the fall 2021 semester, and I am still savoring the language three years later in the summer of 2022. This time, I am a fluent speaker who can understand the nuances between phrases. Instead of having to rack my brain for how to communicate an idea, I can pick from a variety of options.
With the summer I semester in Rome, I know things will be different this time than in any of the previous experiences I’ve had. For one thing, restrictions have loosened, so there will be more tourists, which also means places that were harder to reach alone could be more accessible. I’m also more familiar with the language and culture, allowing me to have conversations with locals, and make connections throughout Rome.
I’m excited for this opportunity to focus on deepening my own understanding of Italian culture and sharing that process and my experiences with others. After several unique experiences traveling abroad, it feels fulfilling to share the things I learned, and help others bridge understanding of Italian culture that goes deeper than just promoting stereotypes about Italy. My personal goals for the program include exploring new zones of Rome beyond the historical center, discovering contemporary Italian and Roman artists, volunteering, finding new hikes throughout the city, visiting budget-friendly Italian towns, and tasting local and regional cuisine.