During my term abroad, I country-hopped on RyanAir, drank wine in Chianti and gave thanks in Paris, but the biggest lesson I learned was from Anna.
Small, bubbly and full of life, she taught me that food (and life) is best enjoyed slowly, savoring each bite and filling your stomach as much as you can – and then taking a second helping. You can travel all you want, but you’ll learn the most when you sit down, relax and enjoy life with an open mind and heart.
According to a November 2009 report by the International Institute of Education, over 260,000 students studied overseas in the 2007-08 school year. The lessons we learn abroad, intentionally or otherwise, give us an understanding of the global world in which we live.
I studied abroad for a multitude of reasons, but my main motivation stemmed from a desire to travel and explore. In September 2009, I boarded an Italy-bound plane at JFK with seven other students, all of us simultaneously excited and terrified.
We spent three weeks studying art history in Florence, Siena and Pisa, then spent the remaining two months in Parma, a small Roman city about an hour south of Milan famous for Parmaggiano-Reggiano cheese and prosciutto. The immersion program forced us to speak Italian and interact with locals instead of skating by in a major city using English. Most of the students knew nothing of the Italian language, while some of us had studied a few years. For a generation obsessed with communicating, it was now our main obstacle.
We all did a lot of traveling while overseas and ran into a lot of communication issues but eventually learned the vocabulary we needed to get around. However, all the lessons I learned while traveling and getting lost (or stranded in train stations) don’t compare to the lessons I learned about life and communicating from Anna.
Once a week, she would prepare three-course meals for us in her apartment. Every Monday night, seven or eight of us would gather in her kitchen, notebooks and pens in hand, ready to watch her movements and decipher her Italian in order to get the recipe for whichever fabulous pasta dish she was making that night. There was always a meat dish (we even tried horse!) and a salad, as well cheese and dessert courses. Anna would explain the recipe slowly and answer all our questions, all while trying to interpret our broken Italian.
By the time we sat down for dinner, we were all ravenous. Anna would serve each course and we would all sit around and chat about travels, life, gossip about past groups of students, and her grandchildren (born in Boston, now living in Germany). There were always copious amounts of wine, and her husband Aldo made sure our glasses were never empty.
These meals were always at least four-hour events, and they never failed to be the highlight of the week. We would sit around giggling (from the stories and the wine), soaking up the conversation and learning about the differences between Italian regions. Anna took her time with us, whether it was sharing her cooking skills, working with us on our Italian or simply teaching us about life in Italy. When I reminisce on my abroad experience, my mind is always drawn to Anna and Aldo, our Italian grandparents, who probably taught me more about Italian culture than I would have ever learned had I traveled the entire country.
The experiences of Gen Y travelers are not necessarily limited to the group tequila shot photos gracing Facebook that have become the stereotypical study abroad anecdotes. We grew up with tehcnology and as we have matured and technology has evolved, so has our way of communicating.
But, through traveling, we are learning to turn off technology for a little while and get to know how to really communicate with the world and its people. We are a generation yearning to always be connected in a way that was incomprehensible to those who came before us, but we are also working harder than ever before to break down barriers.