As I boarded my flight to JFK, I left behind my community with the hope that I would find an added support system in Rome. All was well until I got to London (as always), there is something about me and Heathrow that clashes without fail. However, after a delayed flight, an extra security check, and one confiscated snail mucin, I arrived in Rome. I raced from the airport only to find that the campus shuttle left without me. Ever the resourceful one, I lugged my bags across the road to the train station and had a sudden epiphany –I spoke zero Italian. I realized that those four semesters of German could do nothing to help me now. By this point, I had been traveling for 12+ hours and wanted nothing more than to sleep in a bed. Couple this exhaustion with the fact that I kept getting weird stares and side eyes- I was over it all, to say the least. As I bought and boarded my train ticket into the city center, I thanked the heavens that I knew how to navigate a large city.
After the tenuous journey to my new home, I was elated to be greeted by a familiar face – Katana- another Black student in my program. She helped me take all my bags to my room and took me for a burger (not very Italian I know). On our walk, she filled me in on her journey to the apartment and what I missed that day. As I went to bed that night, I took solace in the fact that I had at least one person in this new city who understood me even a little bit.
The next day, as I headed to campus to declare my stay with the consulate- the relief of the prior night began dissipating. The stares, clutching bags, and extra distance, as I waited at stoplights did not go unnoticed. We were told to chalk it up to conservative Italian customs, but I had been in the city for less than 48 hours and these interactions exacerbated my feeling of “otherness.” As I got to campus and sat in a room with every student whose name ended in A-L, I noticed quickly that I was the only Black person. I thought to myself, “Is this how a needle in the haystack feels?”
I was jetlagged and unamused by the amount of paperwork in front of me. Everyone had their groups by this point and then there was me, an outlier, and I hated to admit it, but I was ready to retreat and go home.
While I have no reservations about making non-POC friends, not being able to see yourself in others is a very isolating feeling and those first days in Rome highlighted that tenfold. I left campus that day mentally and physically exhausted; and as I walked to Flaminio this nice person stopped and complimented my outfit. This was the first person who had spoken to me that day other than my floor mates. We sat there and had a cappuccino (after 12, sue me); we exchanged social media and I learned that they were raised in New York Chinatown. Soon their friend joined us and soon after Katana followed. We were all in this cafe laughing and talking about how all the vendors kept calling me and Katana Beyonce- despite there being no resemblance whatsoever.
Soon the stress from the 12 hours of traveling and weird looks dissipated. And just like that I began to see the puzzle pieces of community come together and form a beautiful, yet incomplete, picture. For the second time that day, I sat back and had a thought: “Well at least it will be easier to find other needles in the haystack with me.” While I am still adjusting to Italian culture, I am enthusiastic about making more friends, learning Italian, and finishing that incomplete puzzle. Italy is such a beautiful country rife with culture and beauty that I cannot wait to explore; learn how you can study here too! And do not be afraid to put yourself out there and find your people.