My study abroad story starts off sounding like a bad joke.
A French woman and an Italian woman get on a plane. And then there was me, of course. The three of us were seated in the emergency exit aisle on a plane from Marseille, France to Rome, Italy. The French woman to my left was very small and slender. She simply pursed her lips at me when I claimed my seat next to her. She seemed to have a cold, and every five minutes, would unveil a handkerchief tucked neatly in her sleeve and blow her nose in the most polite way possible before expertly tucking the handkerchief back in its spot. The woman to my right welcomed me with a loud “ciao!” as she took her place on the aisle. She was a voluptuous woman who apparently boarded the plane with her entire family and friends. She gossiped in Italian with the woman next to her and called out to others halfway across the plane. And there I sat in the middle. I suppose I fit the bill for “typical American” just as much as these women matched their cultural stereotypes, but I was okay with that. I was happy to be representing an open-minded, curious and educated student abroad.
I was heading “home” – meaning back to Rome, which was my home for the semester – after a relaxing weekend with my sorority sisters in Aix-En-Provence, France. The entire weekend consisted of me confusing “wi” and “si,” and awkwardly pointing to my friends when a stranger tried to start a conversation with me in French. I was forced to pick up some essential Italian words (most of them involving food, of course) while living in Rome, and was able to get by. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the same in France. Aix wasn’t a touristy city like Rome, so almost no one spoke a word of English. As I sat on the plane, I couldn’t help but feel relieved to head back to a place more familiar.
One of the flight attendants gathered the attention of our row to give us the speech about the emergency exit. He asked, in French, what languages we spoke, to which the woman on my left replied quietly with “Francais,” as I said, “Anglais:” one of the few French words I picked up over the weekend. The man professionally dictated the procedures in French. He eyed the Italian woman, who was still conversing with her neighbor, and asked if she understood English. She replied with a half-smile and shook her head. “Parlo italiano,” she laughed. Hopeless, he looked at me and explained with a French accent that he would say the procedures in English, and then I could translate them in Italian. I stared at him with utter confusion. “Oh. Oh no. Sorry, I don’t speak Italian …only English,” I muttered. I was so embarrassed, and left the poor flight attendant at a dead end. He repeated his speech in English and pretended that I was kidding about my bilingual abilities.
In this moment, I learned that I had been studying abroad with the wrong mindset. I thought that the language barrier was a struggle I had to overcome, rather than a learning opportunity to take advantage of. I thought I was “worldly” and educated for deciding to study abroad in the first place, yet I didn’t truly take advantage of all that Rome had to offer me.
Up until that moment, I always spoke to people in English and only used Italian when necessary. I didn’t push myself to use Italian because I was scared I would embarrass myself, but that is the best place to learn: out of your comfort zone. You can have the best professor in the highest-ranked university and you wouldn’t learn as much as you could if you actually experience it, put yourself out there and let the world teach you.
Studying abroad gives you that unique chance and you are only depriving yourself by choosing not to go. College is a time to be selfish for all the right reasons. It’s a time to broaden your perspective and find your place in this huge and beautiful world. Everyone should study abroad and take advantage of all that this world has to offer.
words and photo_ julia levy.