Story by Kelly Lam, photos by Lauren Goldberg
A month before my Summer I Dialogue, Discovering the Eternal City: Power, Society and Environment in Rome, I desperately began to question how I was confident enough to throw myself, as well as both my travel and social anxiety, into a foreign country with a group of people I had never met before. The excitement that brewed in me when I first applied to the Dialogue had disappeared, replaced with doubts and fears about whether I still wanted to further the knowledge I gained from one of my favorite classes with one of my favorite professors. Rationally, yes, but emotionally, I was ready to lock myself at home and avoid the trip altogether. And during the first few days, when everyone around me seemed to be gushing over their upcoming plans and the scenic views of Rome, I found myself lonely, bouncing from person to person in hopes of making a friend out of those short, shallow conversations. Alongside warnings of pickpockets, thievery, and dangers of walking alone at night, I was unmistakably uncomfortable and massively homesick.
Luckily, these negative emotions of disconnectedness only lasted a short while. The few horrible days of crying to my mom at night had ended, and I had found my place in a group of friends who were nothing short of amazing throughout the entire trip. With them, I felt safe and welcome. We had spent most, if not all, of our days together, creating wonderful memories and encountering people who were equally as welcoming throughout our journey around Italy. With these kind people, I felt a sense of community that isn’t as present in the bustling cities of Boston, where I spend my time at Northeastern, or New York City, my home.
Rome, despite being the capital of Italy, was much slower paced than either of these two cities, allowing for a heightened sense of community to persist. Many of the little things made my day, like the neighbors in our apartment in Rome who never failed to offer a ciao whenever they saw any of us. At home, neighbors rarely spare a hello, if even a glance, to one another. The store owner whom we got breakfast from everyday graced many of us with free snacks when we first arrived, continuing to welcome the English-speaking tourists crowding his store everyday.
While these actions may seem small to many, I grew up in a place where the word “tourist” always had a negative connotation to it, representing people who simply do not understand the unwritten social rules and cultural norms of New York City. Acts of simple kindness, especially towards people who are obviously tourists, made me feel a sense of community even though I was thousands of miles away from home. Bella Figura, the concept of presenting one’s best self, contributes directly to Italian social identity. This concept finds itself in the profound Italian wish to be part of something bigger than just the individual. I too, could feel that aspect of “something bigger,” or the strong sense of community, throughout the Dialogue.
Part of our study abroad consisted of a trip to Ercolano, a part of Italy that successfully fought against the control of the Mafia. Ercolano had once been home to drug trafficking, extortion of local businesses and murders in broad daylight. Although I had expected people in this town to be closed off and on their toes, everyone that we had met welcomed us with open arms and warm smiles. The man who had sold me a shirt at Ercolano’s Sunday flea market had given me such a genuine smile, marking that small gesture as a highlight (among many others) of my trip. And that shirt only cost five euros! When we visited Radio Siani, an anti-mafia radio station that had reclaimed the old apartment of an ex-mafia boss, I had expected the radio hosts to be stern and serious in navigating their story. Yet, these people were bright, bubbly and full of smiles, focusing on the successes they have faced rather than their struggles. Sofia, the owner of a bakery that was bombed by the mafia after she refused to pay rackets, inspired many other community members to push out the mafia from Ercolano. Yet, when we met her, she was incredibly humble, noting the efforts of other community members and declaring that she does not consider herself a hero.
I can list so many more amazing, bright and humble people that I had encountered on this trip. While that list would be too extensive, these people and communities make up the beautiful memories from this trip that I will carry with me for life.It’s easy to fall into a state of pessimism. With our classes touching on environmental and social justice issues in Italy, which includes sexism, environmental crime and the rise of neo-facism, it is easy for me to feel helpless and at a loss at the injustices occurring in the world. And of course, not everyone we encountered was kind. The furbos, a term representing the cunning and scheming type, tried to take advantage of their fesso prey: us, the unsuspecting American tourists. However, with all the bright people I’ve met and the amazing stories I’ve heard, I’m reminded that successes are possible. Even though it is difficult and most certainly cliché, I’m inspired to try to have a more positive outlook on life – especially regarding the little things in life.