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Megan Shaffer

I found it nearly impossible to formulate my experience into words.  Do people understand the magnitude of the impact that going abroad had on me?  Doubtful.  They ask, “How was your trip?”  I respond with: “It was so amazing.  I had a great time.” Then that is the end of our conversation.  I don’t know if anyone around me can tell the difference either, but I have noticed a change within myself.

One week after getting home from Italy, I was back at the Indianapolis airport headed for a second adventure: an internship in the Silicon Valley of California.  Just like in Rome, here I would be switching time zones, going to an area where I did not know a soul, living with complete strangers, and having no access to a car.  Unlike when I was leaving for Rome, however, I was not a bit concerned or nervous.  Compared to Rome, where I did not speak the language and did not have data on my phone (so no Google Maps when I got lost)… California would be a piece of cake.

A few days into my stay in California, I realized that it was not as easy as I thought it’d be.  It took me 50 minutes to get to work, which was just three miles away, through a combination of walking and public transportation.  I finally caved and went out and bought a cheap Target bike, but it still took me thirty minutes to get to work, and I had to bike along a busy street (quite scary).  Unlike in Rome where housing was assigned to us and I had roommates my own age, here I am renting a room and living with a 40-year-old man, a 55-year-old woman, another summer intern, and three dogs (I am not a dog person).  I have not yet really gotten to know any of the other interns very well, so I spent my first two weekends here alone.  Had this happened to me last year, I would have probably broke down.  Not that I enjoy spending weekends alone or riding my bike three miles in 80 degree heat to work…but I haven’t really thought much about it.  Prior to going abroad, I was the polar opposite of “laid back.”  It takes time and patience to get used to changes and to make a home out of somewhere new, and being abroad helped me to develop the skills necessary to adapt to these changes.

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Arrivederci Roma

Megan Shaffer

My last night in Rome, everyone was celebrating, but I was feeling down.  Not yet ready to leave the place that I had called home for the past 4 months that next morning.  After listening to my classmates sing karaoke and hugging all of my friends goodbye, my roommates and I walked 40 minutes to see the Pantheon one last time.  Nearly 3:00am when we got there, it was pitch black out and there were only six or so other people in the usually bustling, crowded piazza.  As I sat staring up at the magnificent, monumental structure which is lit up at night, I reminisced on everything that had happened since the last time that I had visited the Pantheon at night, during my first week of the program.


The Pantheon on my last night in Rome

Coming in with zero knowledge of the Italian language, and living in a neighborhood on a hill outside the center of Rome where very few people spoke English, I improved my language skills and learned how to navigate the city on my own.  I got lost multiple times for hours on end in a maze of narrow, cobblestone streets, yet always discovered something new and found my way back home.  Living 45 minutes outside of the city center, I conquered the mess that is the Roman transportation system.  I shared a bedroom with an Italian, who became my close friend and taught me so much about the Italian culture and way of life.  I fought the crowds at the Vatican and had rosaries blessed by the Pope on Easter Sunday.  I strolled through Venice wearing a mask during Carnevale.  I interned at an Italian tour guide company, where I was able to go on a tour of the Vatican Museums and view Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Sistene Chapel, before it was opened to the public.  I took a history course where I was able to go inside Ancient Etruscan tombs dating back to the 7th century BC and explore the volcanic-preserved city of Pompeii.  I had a 5-course lunch with my Italian roommate’s family in a region in Italy largely unvisited by international tourists.  I went to a winery in Naples and tasted wine that is not sold anywhere except at the vineyard.  I went to Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Copenhagen, and 18 different cities in Italy.  The list went on.


goodbye to roommates

My roommates and I on the terrace of our school on our last full day in Rome.

When I returned to my apartment that night, it was nearly 4:00AM.  My phone had been stolen the week before and I did not have an alarm clock, so I had planned on waking up with my roommates’ alarm clocks at 5:30, when we planned on getting up to watch the sun rise over the city.  Everyone must have hit the snooze button, because I woke up at 9:00… for an international flight which started boarding at 10:40.  I furiously stuffed everything into my suitcase and my roommate and I grabbed them and sprinted through the rain to the cab stand, where I waited ten minutes for a cab to the airport.  I did not have a chance to tell my roommates the proper goodbye, but I was too nervous about catching my flight to even think about that.  Once the plane took off, however, the tears started flowing.  Never had I been so sad to be returning home… but I guess this time I was leaving one home to return to another.

I gazed out the window, looking at Italy until she disappeared behind the clouds.  Although ending one chapter in my life and starting another, this last chapter is sure to always be one of my most significant.  I will never forget all of the wonderful people that I met, and all of the incredible experiences that I had in Italy and in my other travels around Europe.  It is a feeling that is difficult to describe; you cannot truly understand until you, yourself, have dropped everything and spent an extended period of time in a foreign country of which you knew no one and did not speak the language.  I return home a changed person – more aware of both myself and the world around me.  Although happy to return home to my family and my friends in Indiana, I am sad to be leaving the city that I have grown to love.

Arrivederci, for now, Roma.

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Perspectives on Italy

Megan Shaffer

Italy is the country with the most UNESCO sites.  It boasts some of the greatest, oldest man-made marvels in the world.  It has beautiful natural landscapes: snow-topped mountains, rolling green hills, rocky cliffs cascading into the sea, and sandy beaches.  This is not, however, what I love most about Italy.  What makes Italy so intriguing to me is that despite being a modern country, it holds on tightly to its traditions.

Lemon Grove

Lemon Grove in Sorrento

It’s hard to explain.  Everything in Italy has… culture.  I went on a field trip with my school to Sorrento, Italy – a small coastal town near Naples.  They are famous for their lemons, which are sold in markets, groceries, and are used to make marmalades, candies, drinks, and more.  We went on a tour of the local lemon grove, where we saw men picking and sorting the lemons by hand.  We then went to the local limoncello store, where they showed us how to make limoncello (pronounced “lee-mon-chello”), a sugary post-dinner shot of alcohol.  We were able to test out the limoncello shots after our tour (and let me tell you – it was delicious, but incredibly strong).  What made this experience so cool was being able to see how they took so much pride in their work.  At each stage of production, the lemons were handled with the utmost care.  They didn’t use machines to harvest the lemons or chemicals to aid in plant growth.  Each one of their products even had a “lemons of Sorrento” sticker on it to ensure that it is authentic and of high quality.

making limoncello

Making Limoncello

I cannot speak for all of Italy.  Italy is divided into 20 regions, and I have only been to 7.  However, in each place that I have been I have experienced this same traditional mindset.  From the limoncello made with regional lemons in Sorrento, to the glass-blown jewelry in Venice, to the Ferrari cars in Maranello; Italians take pride in what they do and it is apparent by the high quality of their products.  So I guess what makes Italy so charming and what distinguishes it from the rest of Europe and the modern world is that they hold on so tightly to what makes Italy… well, Italy.  (They will not even allow Starbucks to open any stores in the country so as not to crush the traditional, drink-at-the-counter coffee culture.)

stand at the counter

Italian “stand at the counter” culture

After writing the first part of this post, I was curious as to my Italian roommate’s perspective on the matter.  I asked her about it, only to discover that she had a very different opinion.  She has lived with a number of Americans, and says that she finds it interesting that they are so incredibly charmed by Italy, despite its terrible public transportation, gypsies begging on every corner, the overflowing public trash cans – the list went on.  She said that she feels that Italy cannot stay stuck in the past forever and that all of the young Italian people want Italy to move forward and become more international.  She says that all of the young people want to leave Italy because there are no jobs due to the economic crisis, but that no matter where they go they will always miss Italy.  She said that she both loves and hates Italy, saying, “No one can say bad things about Italy.  Just us.”

It’s funny how my Italian roommate is fascinated with the United States, whereas I am fascinated with Italy.  Reflecting on the conversation that we had, I thought about my feelings towards my own country.  When I first got to Rome, I wanted to live here forever and never go home (not really, but I could have studied an entire year here).  I feel similar to my roommate in that there are so many things that I do not like about where I am from, but there are also so many things that I love.  Although Rome has become my home away from home, it will never actually be home for me.  I will be incredibly sad to leave this country that I have spent the best four months of my life, but I am happy that I will be able to return home with recipes, souvenirs, and wonderful memories of Rome.  And who knows, maybe I’ll be back soon…

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Avoiding the “Ugly American” Stereotype

Megan Shaffer

The “ugly American” stereotype is so often perpetuated, that it is often assumed that all Americans are the same: loud, arrogant, and disrespectful. Sitting down at a restaurant in Prague, the waitress asks where I am from and openly rolls her eyes and grunts after hearing my response. Is it fair?  No.  But I can see why it happens.  A little over halfway through my semester, I have witnessed the “ugly American” stereotype being fulfilled in 4 different countries and in over 10 cities.

While on a tour of a museum in Budapest, a couple of American students walking alongside me were making fun of our Hungarian guide’s accent. They were laughing so loudly that it was difficult for me to hear what the guide was saying.  Loud and disrespectful – the “ugly American” stereotype.  Once I went to a restaurant in a small town near Rome with some of my classmates.  The restaurant did not have menus and none of the employees spoke any English, so needless to say we had a very difficult time ordering.  The owner of the restaurant, however, was very kind and patient and did his best to explain some of their best items.  One of my classmates was frustrated at the owner’s inability to speak English, and after he left the table, he called him an idiot.  Openly expressing the arrogant attitude that everyone should speak English –  the “ugly American” stereotype.  In Italy, people dress modestly and always for the season. For women, this means tights under skirts and dresses from October to May. Every weekend that I go out in Rome I see young, American study abroad students wearing short, tight dresses with bare legs in February. Dressing inappropriately – the “ugly American” stereotype.

Castel Sant'Angelo

My friends and I in front of Castel Sant’Angelo.

I was told that studying abroad would widen my perspective, and it has.  Through conversations with foreigners and observations of many American tourists and students, I have discovered why Americans are perceived so negatively internationally.  Of course, the majority of American tourists are perfectly respectful when in foreign countries, but it is those who are not that stand out and are the most memorable.  In one of my courses at school, we discussed “cultural intelligence,” which is the ability to observe one’s surroundings and adapt one’s behavior accordingly.  Tall, fair, and blonde with camera in hand – there is no hiding that I am a foreigner, but I do my best to blend in.  Each time I travel somewhere new, I become more culturally intelligent.  I have learned to be more observant of my surroundings, and to dress and act accordingly.  My friends and I have become more conscious of our noise level, and aim to never be the loudest in a restaurant. I always try my best to speak in a country’s native language before assuming that someone can speak English.  So next time you travel outside of the United States, put in a little extra effort to be more culturally aware, and let’s put an end to this stereotype.

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Papa Francesco

Megan Shaffer

Every Wednesday morning that the pope is in Rome, there is a “papal audience,” where visitors and Catholic pilgrims can come see the pope.  Papal audiences are held outside of St. Peter’s Basilica and are a sort of “mini mass,” with prayers, readings from the bible, a homily, and a blessing from the pope (when I was there, the words of the pope were repeated in seven different languages!).  The event is free, but you have to get a ticket in advance because it can get extremely crowded, with thousands of attendees.

St. Peter's Basilica

Papal audience outside St. Peter’s Basilica

I was raised Catholic, attending mass every Sunday.  Although I no longer practice the religion, I found the papal audience to be an incredibly exciting experience.  It felt like I was at a sporting event.  Before the pope made his appearance, there were many groups of  students and religious pilgrims that were announced over the loudspeaker.  The groups would cheer, chant, and even wave flags in the air after hearing their names.  There were people holding up signs, which included messages to the pope and the names of the groups with which they came to the papal audience.  When Pope Francis (or as the Italians say, Papa Francesco) finally made an appearance, the crowd went nuts.  People cheered and stood on their chairs, trying to catch a glimpse and a picture of the pope as he made a lap around the crowd in his “Popemobile.”  The people nearest the edges would hold out their babies, in the hopes that the pope would stop and bless them.

Pope Francesco

Pope Francesco

I feel as though Catholics often get a bad rap for being extremely conservative and unaccepting of those who do not follow the principles of the Catholic faith.  The Pope, although not directly reforming the laws of the Catholic church, is reforming its outlook.  Instead of condemning those who do not follow the laws, Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of acceptance and respect.  When addressing the issue of gays within the church, he said, “Who am I to judge?”  One of the core values of Christianity is love: to love even your enemies, because they are all the children of God.  Regardless of whether or not you are a member of the Catholic faith, the pope is an important world leader.  He preaches values which are applicable to all humans, regardless of their beliefs.  I think what made the papal audience such an exciting event was simply being in the presence of such an important, inspirational figure.

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Debunking Stereotypes

Megan Shaffer

I had given very little thought about what cultural differences I might come in contact with prior to departing for Italy.  I, of course, had assumptions of what Italy would be like.  Some of these assumptions were based upon stereotypes: olive-skinned people with dark hair and coffee shops and pasta on every corner.  Some of these assumptions were based upon what I had heard: there would be a lot of English speakers and flirtatious, Italian men.  After a week in Italy, very few of my assumptions proved to be accurate.


espresso with breakfast

Making morning espresso with a moka pot

First off, not everyone looks stereotypically “Italian” here.  There are people who have immigrated here from all over the world, and just like in the United States, people do not all look the same.  It is true that pasta, pizza, coffee, and wine are sold on nearly every street in Rome.  Although these items are also available in America, it is very different here.  Coffee is not bought at Starbucks, and drunk on the way to work or class.  Coffee (which is the American equivalent to an espresso shot) is drunk standing up at the counter of a local coffee shop, while chatting with those around you.  Pizza is not delivered to your doorstep in a box.  You go to a local pizzeria, where you are cut off a rectangular piece of pizza, which is folded in half and can be taken to go.  Alcohol is not consumed in the “American college style.”  Alcohol is consumed for the taste, not for the feeling, with wine and beer often accompanying lunch and dinner.

Pizza al Taglio

Pizza al Taglio – take-away pizza by the slice

Contrary to what I was told, not everyone here speaks English.  In fact, I’ve found that very few people speak English well.  Not knowing the language has resulted in a number of issues.  First, I get lost…alot.  Not knowing where you are in a large, foreign city where you do not speak the language is extremely frustrating.   Second, I never know what food I am ordering.  Sandwiches and pizzas often do not have signs indicating their type.  Is it turkey, is it prosciutto?  I just point and pay, not really knowing what I’m going to get.  Third, I cannot ask for help.  My arm got stuck in a bus door once, and I didn’t know how to tell the driver to stop and open the door.  It was painful, and awkward.  Fourth, people will come up to me and begin speaking in Italian, and it makes me feel so stupid.  I just shrug and say, “English.”  Lastly, Italian men do not holler at women in the streets.  I am no more acknowledged walking down the streets of Rome than I am walking down the streets of Indianapolis.


Aperitivo – a small snack and drink before dinner

The beauty of living in a foreign country is that it not only allows you to learn about another culture, but it also allows you to learn more about your own culture.  For example, I had never given much thought to the concept of time prior to coming to Italy.  If I had to be somewhere at noon, I got there a few minutes before noon.  I didn’t think anything about it.  I pretty quickly discovered that in Italy, no one is in any real hurry.  There is “Italian time” and “American time.”  If an American says that they want to meet you for dinner at 7:30, they will be there at 7:25.  If an Italian says that they want to meet you for dinner at 7:30, they will be there at 7:45.  In the United States, being on time is extremely important, and as a result, everyone always seems to be in a rush.  Italy, as a whole, is much more laid back.  Waiters wait to bring the check until you ask for it.  Businesses might open on time, they might open 20 minutes late.  What’s the hurry?

The United States, in general, is a very ethnocentric nation.  Living abroad has helped me to be more open in my views and my perception of what is “normal.”  So instead of complaining about the changes in my life, I have learned to be open to the customs of the country and to both adapt and accept them for what they are.  Do I miss taking a giant mug of Folger’s to class every morning?  Yes.  I have grown to love the strong flavor of espresso? Oh yes.

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A Case of the What Ifs

Megan Shaffer

I’d had a long, six-week winter break to relax, prepare for the trip, and spend time with family and friends, yet on my last day in the states, I was feeling uneasy.  As I sat on my bedroom floor, trying to cram 4 months of stuff into a fifty pound suitcase and a carry-on, I began with the “what ifs.”  What if I forget to pack something?  What if I get pickpocketed?  What if I cannot find something I can eat?  What if I get homesick?  What if I get lost?  (And so on…)  My fears were not entirely irrational; I had reason to be nervous.  I do not know a single person in my program.  I am gluten intolerant, and will be living in the land of pasta and pizza.  I have a terrible sense of direction.  I do not speak a word of Italian. (Actually, I take that back.  I know the words “si,” “no,” and “ciao.”)

Despite these fears, I was still looking forward to leaving for Rome the next day.  Last semester had been a difficult one for me, both academically and on a more personal level, so I was ready for a semester of new places, new people, and new experiences.  I was a bit nervous to face the challenges that a different country, different language, and different customs could bring about, but having lived my entire life in Indiana, the thought of living in a foreign country was exciting to me.  When I look back on my life, the times that I felt that I experienced the most personal growth were the times that change was introduced into my life.  I believe that change forces you outside of your comfort zone, allowing you to discover insights not only about yourself, but also about the world at large.

After saying my last goodbye, I was overcome by a rush of emotions: sad to leave my family and both nervous and excited for what lay ahead.  As I sat in the Indianapolis airport waiting to board my flight to Rome, I tried not to let the negative emotions overcome me.  There are sure to be obstacles in my way during my study abroad experience, but no matter what, the positives will outweigh the negatives.  Living in Rome for four months, I know I will have the opportunity to meet new people, see new places, and learn new things.  I will be living in one of the oldest cities in the world, so full of rich history.  I will be in a school with nearly 100 students from all over the United States.  I will have 7 roommates, including a native Italian.  I will be interning at an Italian company.  The list goes on.  I know that studying abroad will be an incredible learning experience, and I hope that it will give me a broader sense of the world around me.  Plus, I expect to have a whole lot of fun while I’m there.

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