Like an almond tree

Saturday afternoon I went out for a walk in the countryside. I took my camera and I started to wander around to find something that could really symbolize my educational process. I walked and walked despite the fact that it was getting darker and darker: the wind began to blow shaking the trees laden with flowers; big fat clouds were gathering drawing a grey blanket over my head; only a few birds were singing: there was thunder in the air. Rain drops began to fall; I lengthened my stride to find a shelter, when suddenly I found what I was looking for.Image At the very end of a deserted steep country road surrounded by old shrubs, a beautiful almond tree was standing alone. The view wasn’t really breathtaking, but I was interested in the “attitude” of that tree: it seemed that solitary tree was looking down the road. I was captured by that view because I understood that was the metaphor of how my life has changed in the past three years. Three years ago, when I earned my high school diploma I was at the beginning of that road: I was sure I wanted to leave my small narrow-minded village and the only way to reach that goal was applying for a university that was at least 400 km away from the place I grew up. I chose to move to Rome and then my new life began. Even though I was thrilled, I soon understood that a huge change like that is not easy to manage: moving from a small village nestled in the country into a big city like Rome is shocking at first. I had to learn how to live alone, how to manage a house and, at the same time, I had to study. The road was long and uphill, bumpy at times. I admit that sometimes I thought of giving up and going back to the comfortable life I used to live in my village. Yet, I found reasons to go ahead and then, before I realized that three years had passed, I found myself at the top of the hill. Last November, when I graduated, I understood that I reached my goal: the BA I earned in an Italian university marked the end of the long journey along that steep road.

On commencement day I was as happy and proud as I could be. Yet, I was also aware of the difficulties I faced to reach the top of the hill. I was like that solitary tree and my degree was like an almond: it was the fruit of my labor. Nothing other than an almond could have better symbolized it: only after cracking its hard shell one can really taste its sweet and all encompassing taste. Nonetheless, I knew that a new uphill road was already unfolding before my eyes, but I also needed to pause, push the rewind button and focus on what I had done so far. I felt like the tree I was staring that Saturday: once at the top of the hill, before starting something new, one needs to be aware of where he comes from. I should always keep in mind the whole path towards the top of the hill, because part of what I achieved and traits of my personality have been shaped by the environment and the education I experienced in the place where I grew up. That is why, like the almond tree, I need to look back at the uphill road and, even if I don’t like it very much, I have to go back to the village where I was born from time to time.

Even if I have to face thousands of uphill roads, there is no way of turning back to my old life; my future is away from Pietragalla. Even so, no matter where I go, I should never forget where I come from.

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The Evening Primrose

Image

To the human eye, the most common kind of evening primrose looks yellow. The beauty of this plant lies in the simplicity of its color, in its soft petals, in the peculiarity of its x-shaped stigma, and even in its fragrant smell. However, nature has contrived in such a way that flowers which may appear plain to human eyes are in fact ornately decorated with spots or stripes that only insects can see because they, unlike humans, are not blind to ultraviolet. The development of ultraviolet filters has allowed scientists to get an idea of what the evening primrose looks like to a bee, but this is only an idea and it is not possible to know exactly how bees see ultraviolet; only a bee would know. How else would bees be attracted to the primrose in order to pollinate it? How else would bees partake in the ever-changing spectacle of nature? In life, there are things that cannot be truly understood except through certain abilities of our faculties, some of which we get for the mere fact of being human, while others cannot come but through experience. As John Keats once said, “nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.”

The student body at John Cabot University is one of the most diverse bodies out there; students have come from all over the world in search of something that they thought only the Eternal City could provide them with. These students possess a knowledge that no degree in International Affairs or Business can offer; we know what it is like to have left an entire life behind. These students are veterans of loss, a loss that many of us became acquainted with the day that we kissed our loved ones goodbye and got on an airplane, determined to learn something about ourselves. This initial contact with loss creates a wound that leaves an imprint on our skins and that is part of what has made us who we are. This wound is almost palpable, and those of us who have it identify one another. Loss may have no color, at least to the human eye, but those of us who have experienced it have also developed a way to recognize it, and just like bees see the ultraviolet hues in primroses, so do we know loss when we see it. Unlike bees, who are attracted to primroses, we do not go to loss, but instead have loss come to us; yet, having being familiarized with it, we greet it as we greet a not-so-welcome, old acquaintance. We try to welcome loss with a bold face and, being fully aware of its inexorability, we are not free from apprehension.

Loss does not stop the day that we accept the fact that we have left behind the soft touch of a linen bedspread back home or the smell of chicken soup as we come home from school on a January afternoon; loss continues as every semester comes to an end. Having left behind the stress of finals, we are all faced with the stress of having to say goodbye to one another. We’ve all grown close together; how not to, after having shared so many coffees and cigarette breaks under the shade of the lemon trees out in the courtyard? Yes, every end is cause for a new beginning, but in order to be so it must bring forth loss. For those of us who are degree seekers, saying goodbye to one another means “see you in a few months,” yet saying goodbye to those who have come to Rome for only a semester means “who knows when our paths will cross again.” This is a reality that as humans, and specifically as study-abroads, we all have to deal with. Elizabeth Bishop knew this very well, and that is why she half advised us, half warned us to hone our losing skills. Practice, Bishop ordered us, losing small things such as door keys or idle hours, and then try losing more important things like a family heirloom or some beloved city, so that when the big losses come we can be prepared. But in the end even the great poet knew that no amount of practice would soften the disastrous blow of having to utter that last goodbye. No matter how much practice we have in the art of losing, it all amounts to nothing when it comes to that heart-wrenching moment when we have to say goodbye to a friend in the early morning, while the moon is still up and dawn has not yet shed its light upon the cobblestones and a taxi driver is impatiently waiting for two strangers to say goodbye. Practice will not help as the tacit awareness of the finality of the situation permeates every uttered goodbye, every unuttered thank you, every tear.  

But we must go on and try to be thankful for things learned and friendships made, and let these things bridge the gaps that distance us from our loved ones. As the semester ends, we all find our lives packed in a suitcase and our hearts pointed in the direction of a place printed out in a plane ticket; some of us know that we will eventually come back to Rome and we will see many familiar faces and miss some others. In the meantime, each of us is bound to go back to that old life which is not truly ours anymore but still holds dear things that will always belong to us, things such as the pine trees of South Jersey, a desert land in Northern Mexico, even the unapologetic smile of a sibling or the smell of a father’s beard in the morning just after he has shaved.

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Pasquetta Under a Wisteria-Covered Pergola

This was to be the first Easter that I spent without my family.

Every year, since I enrolled at John Cabot University, my mom, my sister, and my grandma would come to Rome and we would take a two week trip around different parts of Europe. I have never been one to receive Easter with much excitement, either religiously or culturally; I only looked forward to it because it meant that I would see my family and we would get to be together in some unknown place. This year, however, I got a phone call from my mom saying that they were not going to be able to come to Europe this year, and instead would go to San Francisco for a week. I was obsessing about the fact that all my friends here were going to be out of town and that I would probably have to spend the holidays alone when Ale, one of my Italian friends, invited me and two other friends to go up to his country house in Campoleone to celebrate Pasquetta, that is, Easter Monday. I was not very excited at first, b

ut he insisted so much on my going that I could not refuse. And so it was that Nick, the archeology major, Andres, the fashion designer, and I headed out on Monday morning to Termini Station, where a train would take us from the noisy streets and dirty cobblestones of Rome to the vast greenness of the countryside. I was shocked to see how much the scenery changed during a twenty minute train ride; the worn brick walls and the millenary ruins desecrated by some colorful and some artless graffiti quickly gave way to bright green fields covered by yellow and white chamomiles that resembled daisies.

After we arrived at Campoleone we headed towards the house. Perched atop a small hill, with its faded yellow walls and Roman tiles, the villa was surrounded by nothing but Mediterranean pines. An escort of olive trees led us to the main entrance, where my friend was waiting for us. He showed us an early 17th century fountain that had been incredibly well preserved, and then took us to a small passageway that led to a Wisteria-covered pergola, where the table was set. My two other friends and I could not believe our eyes; as if the whole experience was not Italian enough, our friend informed us that we were having pizza for lunch, and not only that, but we were going to make the pizza. He showed us to the pizza oven where the wood was burning, in front of which there was a table with flour and all the ingredients that we would need. I was familiar with the process of making pizza because in many restaurants in Rome you can see the oven, but I had never made one myself, and the experience was amazingly refreshing; the soft feel of flour against my hands, the intense red of the tomato sauce, the juicy mozzarella and cold mushrooms, the tasty salsiccia, and the smell of onion and garlic and off to the smoldering oven! Some minutes after, the smell of freshly baked bread signaled us to take the pizzas out of the oven; our stomachs were as impatient as our hands. We headed towards the table, where we devoured our crunchy pizzas and drank delicious red wine under a purple sky. We even had a perfectly creamy tiramisu that Ale had made that morning for dessert. Then, over coffee, we talked about everything and nothing at the same time; as they say in Italian, we enjoyed the dolce far niente. Surely, cooking pizza is a wonderful experience, yet it would not have been half as enjoyable without Ale’s funny remarks, Nick’s fascinating historical facts, or Andres’s passionate talks about fashion. With nothing but the Roman campagna and some incredible friends to keep me company, I had the best Easter anyone could ever wish for.

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What is this land America?

“I always kinda sorta wished I looked like Elvis”

What is this land America?
So many travel there”

It was an extremely hot July morning. Actually, not just “an”; it was the extremely hot July morning that would have changed my life forever. I was about to leave my city, my country, my continent my life for something completely unknown. A true leap of faith. After 16 years in Europe, I was going to be an exchange students in the United States of America.
The most I knew about this immense nation was from two sources: Peanuts and Bruce Springsteen’s songs. Not a great deal, as can be guessed.
I passed the whole airplane trip from Amsterdam to Memphis thinking “Oddioddioddioddioddioddioddio”, staring at the airplane on the tiny screen in front of me getting closer and closer to my destination. “I don’t even know how to say toilet paper in English! What am I gonna do?” The old lady sitting next to me looked at me frequently, genuinely concerned. I was sweating like a marathon runner. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t listen to music. I didn’t watch a movie. I didn’t read. I didn’t even think. At that point, I was thinking to myself: “Where’s al-Qaeda when you need it?”

Eventually, the airplane landed. And there it was, with its “spacious sky and amber waves of grain”. America. Something so utterly different to my culture that I couldn’t even begin to fathom. And yet so similar: Europe and America are not like mother and daughter, no: we’re like two twins separated at birth. The differences are huge, but deep under our fundamental values are the same.

Anyway, talk about culture shock. I hadn’t slept in 24 hours, and America was as delicate as a meth-addict with a baseball bat who knows you’ve just won the lottery. The people, the smells, the drawl, the huge size and quantity of every single thing around me… and I hadn’t even left the airport!

Everything played out like a stereotypical movie.
The first person I had contact with was a member of the study abroad association , and he was the typical 6’6’’, 350 pounds black man with hands as big as shovels and kind eyes. Thankfully he was not facing homicide charges, or I would have been starring The Green Mile within my first minutes in the US.

Then I met with my host family, who had a car as big as some Roman buses, three kids, two dogs, and lived in Small Town, U.S.A.

The car trip from the airport to the town I would eventually called “home” was through spaces so endless I was overwhelmed. In Italy a person is overwhelmed by the power of mankind and its engineering, but in the US you’ll be the dry leaf in Mother Nature’s tornado.
My first meal was a drive-in (never seen one before in my life) at McDonald’s.
The house was typically American, with front and side doors, the American flag hanging in front of it and an enormous lawn.
The only thing I needed was to get an apple pie smashed in my face and Uncle Sam-themed bed sheets.
My exchange program had been swapped with a plot from The Simpsons.
It was just the beginning, and I loved every minute it.

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The Roman Roller Coaster

By Molly Skubak, University of Dayton, John Cabot Study Abroad Spring 2012

In our pre-departure meetings at my home school, our study abroad coordinator was quick to warn us of the emotional roller coaster we were about to embark on. “There will be highs and there will be lows”, she would say. She explained that students often experience a variety of emotions, both positive and negative, throughout their semester abroad. After four months of living and studying in Rome, I can vouch for her findings.

Stepping off the plane in Rome, my nervousness was clouded by a combination of excitement and jet lag. After eight hours and 20 minutes of fruitless attempts to discover a comfortable way to sit in an aisle seat, I was desperate to escape the cramped plane. Too tired to fully think for myself, I followed the crowd of students in front of me. Together we collected our bags and lugged them all the way across the airport to a nearby hotel where we would check in with John Cabot. By the time the university shuttle service dropped us off at the Gianicolo Residence, I was exhausted, sweaty, and, to put it delicately, probably not smelling like roses. A lovely first impression for my future classmates. Fortunately, everyone else was in the same boat. Those first 24 hours in Rome felt like the longest in my life. Although all I wanted was a warm shower and a bed to crash on, I was grateful for all of the distractions that kept my mind from drifting back to America.

Just days later, though, my circadian rhythm adjusted and the panic set in. Why did I think I could live here for four months? What if I can’t make any friends? How am I supposed to remain upright on these damn cobblestones? Filled with anxiety, I was desperate to reconnect with the friends and family I had so foolishly left behind in America. You can imagine, then, how I handled unpacking my laptop battery only to find a wire had ripped. Not well. While I like to think I maintained a calm exterior, anyone privy to my internal dialogue would have thought God had just sent the eleventh plague. My mind was in frenzy; not only was I physically removed from everyone I knew, now I did not even have the comforts of modern technology to ease the separation. Of course, when I say this I mean I no longer had technology at my fingertips. My roommate was kind enough to lend me her laptop whenever she was not using it and the Guarini campus contains multiple computer labs. Despite this, I acted as if every moment on a computer was precious and fleeting. If ever there was a computer in the room I was feverishly typing away to my boyfriend or neighbors, pounding the keyboard as if it would disappear any second. But it didn’t, and as time passed my heartbeat returned to a normal pace.

Eventually I discovered that my panic-stricken questions had some pretty simple answers. Four months of pasta, pizza, and gelato? Deal. Smile and be nice and friends will follow. Just be careful and don’t even bother with heels. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with Trastevere. The winding roads always seem to lead somewhere new (you try reading a Roman map) and here the cobblestones, though still dangerous at times, add charm to the neighborhood. Snack bars and bakeries are on every street, with an endless array of cornetti oozing with nutella, cannoli stuffed with sweet ricotta, and biscotti dipped in dark chocolate. On sunny days the gelatarie are more tempting than ever, with creamy nocciola, sweet banana, and rich caffe. At night the bars come alive. Smoke and conversations fill the air as crowds spill out into the streets. It wasn’t long before I was asking myself, How can I leave in just four months?

I spent the last four months adapting to being away from home as much as to Italian culture. At times I wanted nothing more than to return to my home in Pittsburgh or my home university in Ohio. But, as my advisor predicted, this roller coaster had its high moments, too. While my environment and the people around me definitely impact my experiences, I realized that my own perspective and attitude play the greatest role in determining how I feel about my time abroad. It is easy to visit Rome for a week and determine it is a beautiful, historic city with incredible food and friendly citizens. It is slightly more difficult to live in Rome for four months and realize that historical means antiquated and outdated, this incredible food will turn your jeans against you and the friendliest natives are probably just distracting you while their friend picks your pocket. However, the biggest accomplishment is in discovering these highs and lows and appreciating them for what they are: a genuine semester abroad.

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Cache of civilizations under an arch in Via della Lungara

By Tara Keenan, John Cabot University Writing Center Coordinator

I left New York at 34 because every bone in my body could feel that the window was closing.

If my husband and I didn’t leave then, we would certainly remain stuck forever (20 minutes from where we were born in the same hospital, three months apart). At the time I worked as a community organizer and I taught at Fordham University but we needed change. So I quit and off we went to Rome, with no prospects for work and nowhere to live. For a couple of years I bounced around English language schools and by my third year, I found John Cabot University just under the Arch in Trastevere.

One of the first John Cabot events I attended as a composition instructor was a reading by Amara Lakhous from his book, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. This unassuming little violet book sang to me with its sometimes witty and other times heart-wrenching stories of the lives of immigrants in the Esquilino neighborhood of Rome. And there was the author in front of us, talking about his writing process, his experience with language, and his life as an immigrant in Italy. At the end of his talk as he took his seat, I looked down, surprised at the pain radiating through my quads. I rubbed my legs and scanned the packed Aula Magna—there was Carlos from Texas and that nice student from Morocco I met earlier in the day, and the boy from Rome who helped me fix the computer during my last class. My legs began to cramp up. I rubbed harder. I had literally been sitting on the edge of my seat for the entire presentation and question period.

 After Lakhous wound up I tripped through the little streets, across Piazza San Egidio, then through Piazza Santa Maria toward the park at Piazza San Cosimato. The way the moonlight hits the cobblestones never gets old but on that particular night, it was even newer than that. I passed Da Vittorio Pizzeria, as Whiskey, the golden retriever, regarded me from under the dinner table with his electric smile curling out from his under his nose. I kept on walking and waved at the Italian card store owner as he locked his door. He looked at me with eyes gleaming and bellowed: “Spillatrice!” “I punti!” I fired back over my shoulder. About a year earlier I had walked in there looking for a stapler without knowing the word. Now every time I passed we went through this ritual. Tonight his laughter and the sound of his jingling keys were jewels in my ears. As I made my way up the hill toward Monteverde I replayed the night in my head. I looked back down the hill and at the piazza with its empty produce stalls gapped over the pavement like missing teeth in an aging smile. Tomorrow morning it would be bustling.

It had come, as I knew it would, as I gambled it would, when I left New York those three years earlier. I was finally where I needed to be. Mixing with exciting people, with ideas, passion, something to say! I was surrounded by students and professors from far and wide and while I could teach them, they could also teach me. It was this simple fact that set me on the edge of my seat and wrecked my quads that night. I was surrounded by a symphony of people, enveloping me with their harmonies. I was finally home.

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