Le ragioni che non ho scritto (The Reasons Why I Haven’t Written)

Before coming to Italy, I knew I wanted two things: a language-intensive program where I could really learn Italian and the opportunity to experience a host family. I was lucky enough to have been able to check off both from my wish list. However, things haven’t turned out how I had always imagined them to.

The host family

From what I had heard from friends and what I had worked up in my imagination, a host family was one of the best reasons to go abroad. In my mind there was a great emphasis on the family aspect because I had hoped that it would be like a home away from home.

If I gave every reason why I did not feel at home in my homestay, it would turn into a book. However, since I know that people will want to know the reason why I left, I will leave you with a story that I feel accurately depicts my life with this host family.

The weekend before my birthday, I decided to go to Amsterdam. (Classic Alana. Always looking for unique architecture and historically interesting cities, I know.) To get there I flew with Lufthansa from Bologna with a layover in Frankfurt, Germany. I can go into my trip to Amsterdam and the other places I’ve been in a later post, but today we’re talking about the trip back home.


I had brought one small suitcase with me, which would typically fit in an overhead compartment, but the smaller plane I was flying in did not have enough space. All went well on the flights to The Netherlands, however the plane to Frankfurt was full. This means that anyone who had a bag that did not fit in the overhead compartments was forced to get it checked at the gate. “Anyone” that day unfortunately included me.

I was told that I might want to take out some important things out of my now-checked luggage before boarding the plane. So of course I took my passport, my phone and a small porcelain vase I had bought so it wouldn’t break. I told the people at the desk that rather than ending my trip in Frankfurt, I would be going to Bologna. I watched as they wrote the information down on the luggage tag and handed me my receipt.

A few hours later, around 8:30pm (20.30 for the Europeans), I landed in Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport. I followed the crowd of people to baggage claim and waited for my bag, which contained my wallet, laptop, Italian documents, and schoolwork (yes, I did homework in Amsterdam… I’ll explain later). After waiting for about 20 minutes and seeing the baggage claim area clear out and refill with the next flight’s passengers, I went to Baggage Assistance where I was told that my bag had remained in Amsterdam. It hadn’t even made it on the plane, 200 yards (182 meters) away from where I had checked it. They told me that the bag would be flown to Bologna the next day, then delivered to my host family’s house soon afterward.

So there I was, stranded at an airport in Bologna alone, without money and with a phone on 40%. Luckily, I had remembered that my “host sister” lives in Bologna, so I called her, hoping to stay a night at her house until I could figure out how to get back to Ferrara, a 30 minute drive away. But I had forgotten that she returns to Ferrara every weekend, so when I called she told me she was home and handed the phone to her mother. Great, maybe she’ll pick me up, I thought. After explaining what had happened, she asked why I didn’t take my wallet out and told me to call my program. I called my program director, who helped me find a hotel and lent me €50 the next day to get back to Ferrara.

Upon arriving at the house with only what I had left of the €50, the mother greeted my cheerfully, as if I had not been stranded in Bologna the night before. When I didn’t respond happily, she asked why I was upset. It might have had to do with not having any money and not being able to rely on the only “responsible adult” with whom I could be in direct contact since there are no representatives of my program anywhere near Bologna or Ferrara. Then, she proceeded to tell me that she and her daughter were going out for lunch, so I would have to go out as well. For the next 4 days, I was left to sort out the luggage situation by myself.

Not a particularly hospitable host family. After living with them for 3 months, it had finally gotten to the point when I decided that it was not worth the €750 rent to stay in a house where I was not allowed to have guests, not allowed to use the kitchen, had to stay on the first floor for Wifi, was constantly freezing and surrounded by cigarette smoke, and generally not happy.

The program

Many American foreign exchange programs are heavily based around American-style classes hosted by the program. Middlebury College’s program, on the other hand, is focused on language acquisition and cultural immersion, which means that two of my courses are at the University of Ferrara with other Italian students and the third is one hosted by Middlebury, but taught completely in Italian. On top of this, for each university class I was taking, I was obligated to have a weekly “seminar” (individual tutoring session), for which I had to write an essay in Italian about the content of the class every week. The Middlebury course also assigned a mandatory essay each week. Therefore, for most of my time here so far I was forced to write three Italian essays a week. These essays would keep me up until late at night from Saturday to Thursday each week.

I would use all of my energy writing these essays and be left with none when I wanted to have time to enjoy my time in Italy or relax (or write a blog post). However, despite the amount of work I put into these papers, they were usually torn apart and essentially rewritten by my tutors whether it was for my grammar, content, or both. On the few occasions where I felt inspired to write something, I would be interrupted soon after starting other work I had to complete or by the stress of an issue in the never-ending list of problems I have faced since being in Italy. Even this post was started 3 weeks ago and has only just come into fruition now.

Only recently have the seminars, classes and exams ended, so I can finally have some time to myself without having 17hours of class/tutoring per week on top of homework.

It’s been difficult to keep up with my everyday life and almost impossible to update the blog. So there’s why I disappeared for a while, but seeing as I genuinely enjoy writing when I feel up for it, I have some ideas for the near future that might actually see the light of day soon. Stay tuned.


La cicatrice (The Scar)

bathroom, green and white tiles, robe, sink, toilet, window, night

Let’s talk about my time here in Italy.

Before I take a shower here, I open up a window in the bathroom so that the room doesn’t fill up with steam. About three weeks ago, I turned on the shower head and stepped into the shower, as one does. After getting moderately drenched in water, I realized I had forgotten to open the window, so I decided to reach out from behind the wall of the shower and open the window without leaving the boundaries of the green and white tile shower floors.

After I had succeeded, I turned back into the shower to continue. As I turned, I felt a small scratching sensation against my right arm. I figured I had brushed against the plastic containers suspended on the wall. However, when I glanced down, I saw a gash that ran about 5 inches from my inner elbow to my outer mid-forearm. I looked over at the plastic cups and realized that I had placed my razor, the one now holding a fresh clump of skin between its blades, facing up in the one closest to me.

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I didn’t feel pain until I held the cut under the running water. At this point, it began to bleed and sting as if I had poured rubbing alcohol into the open wound. Every time I removed my arm from underneath the falling water, vibrant red blood would pour out of the four clean lines drawn across my arm. I watched the blood circle my forearm and drip to the ground before I would subject myself again to the water rushing out of the shower head.

When I finished my shower, I looked for a bandage, but could only cover part of the cut with the few small ones I had. There was no hiding what I had done to myself. Now there still remains a scar from where the razor had sliced my arm. However, although the wound healed, I still feel like I’m bleeding.


La differenza fra la lingua e il linguaggio (The Difference Between “Lingua” and “Linguaggio”)


When standing at the edge of a shore, the water you see immediately before you presents a sort of tantalizing innocence. The water reaches for you, playfully offering an invitation into its mysteries. You see so many others already in the water, some just getting their feet wet, others far past the breaking point of the waves. But there you stand, just barely outside of the grasp of the sea. As you take your first steps toward the clear ocean water, the temptation grows and becomes more exciting. When you make contact with the soothing touch of the tranquil waters, you feel a sudden desire to go further, a drive to get deeper. Stepping farther away from the shore feels great, an incomparable experience to any other. So you start to rush in. Suddenly you realize that the water is colder than you had first noted and it slows you down. You see others in the same position as yourself, frozen by the quick change of temperature.

Your journey into the water slows considerably, but you keep pushing on because you’ve gotten a glimpse of the abyss of secrets that the ocean holds. Once you’ve gotten your knees beneath the brine, you begin feeling the force of the tide. The tide that at one point, a point you can hardly remember, seemed so gentle. In the moment you took to glance back at the sand the current grabs your ankles and pulls you to the sea floor. You pick yourself, brushing off the sand stuck to your skin. Now it seems that with every step you take towards the horizon you’re dragged under, and every time it becomes harder to get back up.

As you approach the breaking point of the waves, they seem to triple in size, but you tell yourself you’ve gotten yourself this far and the promising reward feels too tempting to abandon. Luckily by this point, you’ve made friends throughout your journey who are there to help each other conquer the breaking point. The current pulls you in and pushes you toward the shore with every breath it takes. Each time the entrance to the vast ocean seems to open, it shuts right before you have the opportunity to pass through. The tide breathes in and you’re exposed to the beauty and wonder of the ocean before you. The tide breathes out you’re hit with the complexities that seem almost impossible to decode in order to join those past the crashing waves.

The reality of the situation is that most people are not able to break through this point. A majority of people give up after being thrown around by the sea for so long, allowing themselves to be drawn far back towards the beach. In order to break free of the difficulty of this stage, one must be lead into the oceans depths by others who have past it long ago. Even still, the process takes years to complete. Then there is an understanding and interaction with the ocean waters that is only capable by those who have know the ocean for the entirety of their lives or close to it. That is the ability to quickly and confidently navigate the immense sea and also to play with it, making it one’s own. That is fluency.

Here I stand, almost at the breaking point. With each day that passes and each conversation had, I feel myself being either pulling in or shoved away from the crashing waves. The process of learning a language that is not one’s own is, in my opinion, one of the most unique and complex experiences that can be had. It allows for a connection with people and cultures, which is unattainable otherwise. However, to master a language is to understand the intricacies of its linguaggio and its cultural context.

Here’s what I see as the difference between la lingua and il linguaggio (both of which could literally be translated as “language”): la lingua is a series of sounds, ultimately representing symbols, that are spoken and understood by a certain group of people whereas il linguaggio points towards the significance of words, phrases and verbal, social interactions within the context of a culture. Il linguaggio is the style of speaking and a certain train of thought and understanding of one’s world, which dictates the path of each social interaction. This is different in every language (lingua) and culture, which means that, even if a word in English is translated literally into Italian, it might not hold the same meaning within the context of the linguistic culture of the Italian language.

What I’m saying is that knowing vocabulary and grammar is great and useful, but without a deep understanding of the cultural understanding behind each word, phrase, or conversation, fluency is impossible. However, the ability to develop this level of understanding in any language, from the point of view of a non-native speaker, is extremely difficult without being completely immersed in the culture and language for years, even a lifetime. That is why I feel uncomfortable when people from home consider me “basically fluent”. I haven’t travelled to Italy to become fluent; I’ve travelled here to learn more about the language and culture from a more internal and immersive point of view. The concept of becoming fluent, or passing the breaking point, in 5 months is impossible. I don’t deserve the title of “fluent in Italian” because it is not my reality, and realistically might never be. Not to say that I am devastatingly crushed by this, because all I really want to do here is learn as much as I can about a world that I am lucky to get a sneak peek into, and if I improve my Italian a bunch in the process, good for me. But don’t expect me to come back to America fluent in Italian, just packed full of pasta, gelato, and good memories.

*This is my understanding and interpretation of these Italian terms. They may not be 100% accurate because I’m not fluent in Italian. Also, I tend to think too much and read into things.

La cultura delle bici (Bike Culture)

Ferrara, Italy is known as the city of bicycles, so luckily my host mom was nice enough to lend me a bike during my time here. One roadblock to this minor act of culture assimilation is that I have not ridden a bicycle since the beginning of high school, nor have I ever ridden a bicycle made for adults. As I have come to notice in my short time here, bicycling is one of many cultural differences between Ferrara, Italy and Nutley, NJ. Let me briefly outline my experience of relearning how to ride a bike…

Pictured here is my bike. Sleek, stylish, crafted out of pure 24 karat gold with platinum spokes. A true beauty.

One problem with this treasure of mine is that it is slightly bigger than I am comfortable with, meaning that I can’t exactly have a foot firmly planted on the ground while sitting atop my bicycle’s throne. This makes starting and stopping a bit clumsy and awkward. The first day of riding my steed was, to say the least, fear inducing, considering it is commonly practiced here to ride in the streets and among crowds of people because it is assumed that everyone has the skills equivalent to those who ride in the Tour de France.

Relearning to ride a bike here is part of my experience of the culture of Ferrara. Alongside my progress with the bike, I have being slowly learning the rules of this society. There are many things that I have found to be socially forbidden here that do not exist as concretely in America. For example, people here DO NOT cross the street unless they are given the green walk signal. For anyone who knows how I cross streets, this has been a kind of difficult rule for me to follow.

However, one cultural phenomenon I took to very quickly is the nonexistence of tips for restaurant staff. That definitely justifies the amount of extra money I spend on gelato and the occasional glass of wine in my book (although maybe not in my bank account).

Either way, the process of discovering and adapting to this culture, like the process of relearning how to ride a bike, started off very rocky, but as each day passes my understanding of the Italian way of life and my cycling skills* grow a little more.

Who knows, maybe by the summer, I will be so comfortable with this bike culture, I will want an adult bike for myself at home in America.

(Haha, just kidding – I like my car too much to ever abandon it)

*I hesitate to call them skills because only a few days ago did I gain the confidence and balance to start off with my right foot instead of my left foot a couple of times.

La straniera (The Foreigner)

I am a foreigner. This fact has been made clear to me every single day since my arrival in Italy. It has been made clear every time an attempt on my part to speak Italian is received with the furrowing of a brow and a look of intense concentration and again every time I mirror the expression to those who are speaking Italian too quickly or using words that I do not yet understand.

My separateness from this country and its people only becomes more prevalent when Italians speak, or attempt to speak, to me in English. Although usually a nice gesture, there are times when I cannot help but connect it with the assumption that my ability to communicate in Italian is so inadequate and poorly received that they feel it is an impossibility for me to have a fluid conversation in Italian, even if it requires only simple phrases.

Each time this English-Italian exchange takes place it acts as a reminder that I am seen a foreigner with the linguistic capabilities limited to those needed 4,200 miles (6760 kilometers) away. In other words, although physically in Italy, I often feel psychologically locked in an American bubble across the world.

My current limited understanding of Italian language and culture creates this feeling of separateness, which is continually perpetuated by the insistence of many Italian natives to categorize me as “other”.

How could I be expected to better my Italian when I am so often forced to hide under my American identity?