Italia Week 6

My last week in Italy was once again filled with a big variety of wonderful experiences. On Wednesday our group took an afternoon trip to Siena, where we saw the main piazza and the Duomo, and had some free time to wander around. We happened to pass by a small choral group who looked like they might have been students singing in front of a church, as well as a guy playing the Four Seasons on the accordion. The presence of street musicians is one thing I love about cities, especially in Italy. Almost every day walking to school I would pass an older man sitting on the sidewalk playing his violin. He wasn't amazing, and it sounded a little lonely, but I still always enjoyed hearing him because he was putting effort and skill into sharing something beautiful with the rest of the world.

On Wednesday evening, five other students and I went back to the English-speaking Episcopal church for the dinner we had been invited to the previous week. The reverend and several other church members grilled hamburgers and sausages for us, accompanied with various kinds of salad and huge portions of watermelon for dessert, and we sat around tables in the beautiful garden outside the rectory and talked for a couple of hours. I still think that was one of the most amazing examples of hospitality I've experienced, especially considering that they knew we would be leaving in a couple of days and thus were just a "temporary investment" on their part. It meant a lot to all of us to be invited.

Thursday afternoon was spent back in Florence with friends visiting the Palazzo Davanzati (historic home of 14th-century Florentine merchants) and the Villa Bardini, which housed a sculpture collection and a high fashion exhibit. That evening was my last ballet class, which I think is when the fact that I was leaving first hit me. Even if you don't talk that much with the others, dance is still a very bonding activity and it was sad to realize that it was the last time with those particular dancers.

On Friday we had our last classes and a short conversation exam with our program directors, which went well. I spent several hours packing before our group got together at quite the snazzy restaurant for an unexpectedly elaborate and wonderful goodbye dinner. It turned out to be five courses in all, which were  not only all delicious but also so beautifully presented that I felt compelled to document the whole affair in photos. The first antipasto or appetizer was a piece of bruschetta, toasted bread topped with olive oil and tomatoes. Being a non-pork eater, I took the vegetarian option for the second plate (rather than , and received more bruschetta and a lovely variety of grilled vegetables. Third came the primo piatto, or rather piatti, because it was three different kinds of pasta self-serve style: penne all'arrabbiata (with a spicy tomato sauce), gnocchi with salmon (possibly one of the best things I've ever tasted), and tagliatelle with porcini mushroom sauce. After a considerable respite for digestion purposes, we had pieces of steak with boiled potatoes (I couldn't help thinking, "Long has it been since I've tasted such an exemplary vegetable"),which was actually the main course. Finally came a trio sampler of miniature desserts. This was all accompanied, of course, by various types of wine, with spumante at the end to top it off. I believe we were at the restaurant for about three and a half hours altogether. Basically, the amazingness of the food combined with lovely surroundings and good company made it an absolutely perfect last evening in Florence.

The next morning we all parted ways with the city. I took a morning train to Milan, where my flight would leave from several days later. I had previously gotten in contact with a missionary family there whom my brother had helped out on a short-term mission trip several years ago, and asked if I could stay with them. It turned out that I would be arriving on the same day as a missions team of high school and college students from a church in New Jersey, so I was able to sort of blend in with them and participate in what they were doing. That included a walking tour of Milan highlights, visits to the two Italian-speaking churches that the aforementioned family has founded (it was the first foreign-language church service I've been to where I could actually understand most of it, and that was such a nice change!), some outreach - handing out fliers promoting the churches - by Milan's Duomo and Galleria, and hanging out with local kids and families in a park across from one of the churches on two afternoons. A lot of the student team members played games with the kids there, and I helped with face painting, which was a lot of fun. The kids also had an opportunity to hear a Bible story and make a craft each afternoon. This also opened up some doors for the fluent Italian speakers to start conversations with some of the parents and other adults in the park.

I actually stayed in the home of another American missionary family who had four kids, and they were all just awesome. Their oldest daughter and I one morning went to see the museum of the Teatro alla Scala, which included a peek into the gorgeous auditorium itself. That, coupled with the Duomo and Galleria, made me feel like I was able to do just enough sight-seeing to hit the highlights, while mostly being able to help out with the student team's activities. The whole team was also a wonderful, fun group of people and I'm so glad that I was able to meet them and hang out with them for a couple of days.

I flew out of Milan on Wednesday morning, the 3rd, and had a short layover in Zurich before boarding my next flight. That turned out to be a little interesting, because due to an apparently malfunctioning or not clearly labeled exit sign over one of the exit doors, we ended up sitting in the plane for two hours while they searched for sign parts, did paperwork, and finally ended up with an exception to the usual "all exits must be clearly marked" regulations. However, thanks to 21st century airplane entertainment system upgrades, we were able to pass the extra time pleasantly enough. The flight was about 9 hours back home, where I was met by Mom and Dad and whisked home to enjoy a delicious home-cooked dinner and magnificent town fireworks display - a very fitting welcome home.

As a person who always wants to understand the big picture but often struggles to, I've been trying to mentally sum up what I learned from this experience, and how it will change me for the future. The most obvious outcome is that I definitely got better and more comfortable with speaking Italian, and was able to hold several conversations with native speakers, which was definitely a confidence booster in of itself. With the 6 credits I earned on the trip, I've now completed an Italian minor. The problem for me is that I'm not exactly sure what, if anything, I'll be able to do with the language in the future. Funny as it sounds, I find studying grammar really interesting, and I definitely enjoy the mental challenge of learning a different language, but I don't know if I'll ever have the time or the need to reach a level of fluency. It's hard for me to invest a lot of time and effort into something if I don't know if or how I'll use it in the future. However, if nothing else, studying the language was an excellent excuse for this entire overseas excursion, has helped me better understand my own language, and has been good work for my brain. I've learned that when someone who is not a native speaker tries to speak in your language to you, you should honor their efforts and continue the conversation in that same language, even if it's slow and difficult for them, because they are trying to practice. (I can't count how many times I attempted to speak in Italian at a store and was replied to in English.) Also, I've realized that since it's impossible to be able to communicate in words with everyone you may want to communicate with, there must be a way to transcend language barriers. I'm thinking that this is possible through expressions, tone, gestures, art (including dance), and through love. Even though the message may not come across as precisely as you'd like, it's still worth the try and the general gist will most likely be understood.

Finally, as I gained confidence and kept learning about myself and my surroundings, I realized how many of my issues boil down to lack of trust in God and how many of the things I do, or don't do, are motivated by fear. But He often chooses to make himself the most real to me when He gives me some beautiful challenge, like this one, that I don't think I can handle, and then He steps in with love that is strong and pressing, but also tender and caring, and He helps me work through it and makes me stronger ever step of the way, pushing me onward, encouraging me to climb higher, try harder, and be more. It's taking me a long time, but slowly I'm learning that there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome with God. The biggest take-away for me from this trip is that it's incredibly foolish, short-sighted, and fearful to tell God what I will or won't do, based on my own assessment of myself. I'm so thankful that He knows both me and the plans He has for me SO much better than I do. I'm done with limiting God and what He can do in my life, because I have seen Him show up in ways that may seem subtle to others but have really meant a lot to me. I truly can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

It's strange how remote and long ago a trip can seem once you're back home and trying to remember the details and nuances. It's only been four days since I was in Milan and it already feels like ages ago, because it's a whole different world. Even though it was a truly wonderful experience, I was ready to come back, ready to be home again in a country I really do love for a lot of reasons. I think I was able to let it go because I feel strongly that there are a lot of things to look forward to and to move toward, many more things to do and places to see. But I wouldn't have traded the trip for anything, and I think that's the best way to feel about any learning experience: really anticipating it, relishing it in the moment and squeezing as much as possible from it, and then taking that with you as you move on to the next thing. It's not "the end"; it's merely another step in the grand adventurous journey of life.