Nine years ago today I embarked on a journey that would completely change my life. I was a scared, excited, nervous 20 year old heading across the Atlantic toward Italy, a place I’d only dreamed of, with people I didn’t really know. Oh, and it was for three months. Three months living in a land I knew little to nothing about, where the language was foreign and the people who did speak my language were acquaintances at best. I was completely unprepared for what that semester would bring, yet I am forever thankful for the time I spent learning a little Italian and a lot about myself.
Here are a few takeaways from my semester abroad, and the reasons I think that three month stint changed me more than any other time in my life.
I fell in love with my Bible.
I was a semi-educated Bible student before I left, but traveling to Corinth and Ephesus and Rome made me fall in love with the Scriptures in a way I had never before experienced. My eyes were opened, for the first time, to the real people and real struggles and real places that the Word tells us about, and for the first time, it became real. Since that semester, I have spent countless hours studying New Testament geography, taken another trip to Europe to visit places I didn’t get to the first time, and have taught, written, and done podcasts about all the places I discovered on my journeys. I got serious about my spiritual life because of that trip. I made Christ personal on that trip. I am so thankful that God gave me the opportunity to study and grow in such a beautiful place.
I saw the forgiveness of Christ.
I made some pretty epic failures in the midst of discovering myself and my passions and what the course of my life would be, but in so doing, I was able to experience the beauty of the forgiveness that can only come from someone who is behaving and responding like Christ. While I would go back and change my actions and attitudes in a moment, I am so thankful for all of the experiences that showed me just how loving and wonderful and kind and forgiving my sweet, sweet husband is. I am beyond blessed to be Robert’s wife, and when I think back to my three months in Italy, I am reminded of just how much he loves me and how beautiful forgiveness truly is.
I realized my prejudices & empathize with minorities.
When you don’t ever travel and immerse yourself in different cultures, you might not ever realize that you hold prejudices. I didn’t! If you had told me I was kind of an American elitist, specifically a white American elitist, I would have laughed at you. But traveling around, seeing other people, getting to know them and interact with them, really made me reexamine past interactions and attitudes. It is also humbling to be the minority. To be in a place where you don’t speak the language – to be in a place where you’re the outsider – it’s scary sometimes, and you rely so heavily upon the kindness of local strangers. I wondered if I was that kind when I was on my home turf. I wondered if I ever excluded people when I should have included. My eyes were opened to the differences and similarities that all people – regardless of culture or race – have and I learned to see those differences as beautiful instead of ostracizing.
I developed wanderlust and a passion for writing.
I am not a homebody by any stretch, and my semester abroad just cemented that fact. I don’t like being home for long! I want to be out and about, experiencing new places and taking in as much of God’s breathtaking scenery as possible. And while I’m there – I want to be writing! While I’d had a blog for a while before I went to Italy, my writing really ‘took off’ while I was there. I took a creative writing class with an amazing professor, and it opened something up within me that I didn’t know was there. The rest is history. I pray that I will always use my passion for writing to convey God’s truths and bring Him glory, because He is the reason I was able to experience the things I have and have the memory to remember them all.
To close, here’s a little something I wrote about my time in Italy, since it’s “Italy Day” for the thirty or so of us who traveled abroad that semester.
I miss being inspired. I miss sitting on a damp, wooden bench outside of the fortress walls of a hidden Italian town. I miss overlooking the Italian countryside, the view as vast as the images rumbling around in my head. I miss the cool breeze, stirring up ideas for stories and poems. I miss my muse.
It’s unfortunate that my muse is approximately 5,500 miles away. My muse lies across a deep, unforgiving ocean, far removed from my reach. It’s unattainable. Unreachable. It’s so far that my mind can’t get there alone. The last time I was there—the only time I was there—was 16 months ago. 16 months. Those months, one by one, clot up the words in my head. Like gauze, they lick up any imagination and inspiration. And the more months that pile up, the less I remember; the less tangible my muse is.
For now, I can still see it. I can still see the rich green, rolling hills in the distance. I can see the small, colorful villa perched on the steep, grueling hill. I can feel my legs burning from carrying a 25lb backpack and two liter-sized bottles of Cola Lite all the way from Monterchi. I can taste the richness of the stracciatella gelato, and feel the sense of urgency to lick the edges while it melted in the soft orange, Italian sunlight. I can still count to ten in Italian. I can hear the men in the Florence markets saying “Ciao bella” and the cute, slumping old men of Citerna saying “Buon giorno.” I can feel the slick, marble floors of Hotel Sobaria. I can taste the pesto pasta. It’s there. I can feel it. I can see it. I can taste it. I can attain my muse. Sometimes.
But sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I struggle to find the Italian word for a phrase I used so often. I forget what we did the second night in Rome. I can’t taste a gyro. I fail to remember the feeling I got when I stepped inside the Catacombs. I don’t appreciate the taste of a real Diet Coke. I don’t like walking. I don’t remember the feeling I would get after running down the hill with Jenny Towns. I’ve forgotten the sense of family I felt with all of the people on my trip. I’ve even forgotten the friendships.
I wish I could revisit my muse. I would soak in every single detail of my Italian life. I wouldn’t waste my moments with picture-taking and bad decisions. I would cherish every moment, pen in hand. I would take more time to sit on the benches. I wouldn’t eat gelato and I wouldn’t play Tetris. I would take my journal or my computer and I would write. I would write about the smells in the air. I would describe the little man and his dog. I would describe the woman who made me a Nutella Panini. I would describe the random assortments of ciocolata. I would describe every taste, every feeling. I would paint Hotel Sobaria with words; dressing it with warmth and colors and love. I would walk down each and every street in our small little town and I would memorize every step. I would write beneath the clock tower. I would step inside the doors of the cathedral and write. I would scribble down note after note about the landscape and the exotic plants.
Oh that I could do it over.
Nevertheless, my muse is depleting. Slowly but surely, it’s slipping away. With every passing day, my memory blurs. My mind forgets one moment at a time, and suddenly I forget entire words, phrases, paintings, sculptures, museums, days, weeks, trips. I want to stop it, and if will were enough, the moments would be etched in my mind forever. But I cannot stop it. My muse is depleting. Day by day, it’s slipping away.
But while it’s here, with me, I will remember. I will remember like I’ve never remembered before. Each day I will recall certain instances, obscure moments, and bring them to the forefront of my thoughts. I will think of the dirty, blue seats on the trains to Firenze and the tone of the lady’s voice proudly announcing “Santa Maria Novella.” I will think of the Istanbul Kepab shop and the two precious ladies who worked there. I will make myself taste the meat and the picante sauce. I will bring to my mind’s eye the rest of Arezzo, and the road that took us there. I will follow each and every curve and bend in the road. I will see the prostitutes on the side of the road; I will hear the off-key singing coming from the overcrowded van. I will remember getting lost on the way to the new, indoor football field. I will remember the trip to Harding’s villa and crushing them in football. I will call it football, because soccer seems so Americanized. I will pull out my purple Fiorentina jersey and wear it with pride—remembering the chants of the angry, emphatic fans at the stadium. I will remember the interesting people I met on trains—the man who used my iPod so that we could talk to one another using my auditory translator. I will think about the freezing rocks I slept on in Cinque Terre. I will recall the world’s best pizza in Genoa—the place where Christopher Columbus was born. I will remember surviving an entire week on Nutella. I will think back on the moments when I connected with the people I now call my best friends. I will remember meeting some of those people for the first time, sitting downstairs in the classroom at Hotel Sobaria. I will remember Dr. Jewell’s History of Italy class and the numerous packs of M&Ms I consumed. I will remember Whitey and his stories. I will remember Panoranomico at San Gimignano. I will remember the outfits of the guards at the Vatican. I will remember the circular pattern of Siena. I will remember the view from the Bell Tower in Florence and the vibrant burnt-orange color of the rooftops.
I pray that I will always remember.