A few weeks from now, I’ll board a plane from JFK to Bologna, where I’ll study abroad for five months. I’ll bring my parents with me as far as the boarding gate. Then, I’ll bring my two suitcases, filled with scarves, boots and jackets, all easy to layer and, most importantly, cheap (after all, my parents’ luggage was stolen on the first day of their honeymoon). Toiletries will be stuffed into my shoes; a housewarming gift for my Italian roommate nestled between socks; money, preemptively in euros, already stashed in my cross-body purse.
I haven’t decided what books to bring yet—perhaps one I’ve been waiting to read (Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am), one to model the short story (Alice Munro), and one, of course, that reminds me of home (any of the Harry Potters). I’ll try to limit myself. Most importantly, however, I’ll bring a notebook to write. I imagine I will miss the English language, among other things.
Study abroad has been one of those milestones that seemed too far off in the future for me to believe my present self would ever quite reach. I’ll be stronger then, more eloquent, more sure. I’ve thought that before, of course, and yet here I am: same long brown hair, frequent blushing and inability to know what I want. I have known, however, I want to travel around Italy since I can first remember hearing my grandparents’ stories about their home country, the same stories that made me want to write. These stories, I believe, will provide comfort by way of family history. These stories—and, moreover, writing in general—will be what get me through my time away from home.
A few months ago, I had lunch with a girl who went to the same study abroad program as I am going to. Sitting across from me in the small campus dining hall, she looked quite comfortable. Her hair was longer and redder since the last time I saw her and she wore a mustard yellow jacket, retro and quirky enough to fit right in on our liberal arts campus and, perhaps, Bologna, another space made artsy and busy with students.
“You’ll be so fine,” she tells me. “Remember that you have your family and friends here. And remember that you have your writing.”
I felt calm after talking with her. I was—and still am—nervous about how lonely study abroad could be, how quiet I could become under the weight of a foreign language, how the experience overall could make me feel rather young. At some points, I’m sure I will feel all of these ways. This is okay. I’ll remember my home. I’ll become comfortable with myself and, at times, with being by myself. I’ll learn, moreover, to draw upon my personal constant: writing.
In my writing, I channel moments from home—my dog’s human sighs, my mom’s constant singing, my best friend’s ability to drink scalding tea without blowing on it. I remember forgotten moments from my life and learn to untangle the threads of my feelings. I let fact and fiction blur together because that work is still fact, a memory of the time when I was writing it. I document.
I don’t view writing as an antidote to loneliness so much as an agent for connection with the present world. The experience of living abroad will help inspire my fiction, but, moreover, I think writing fiction will help inspire me. For me, time spent concentrating on words and stories puts my mind at peace and in focus, helping me to better engage with the world. The act of writing helps me to communicate better with myself so that I can do so with the world around me. While of course I’ll feel warmed by phone calls with my loved ones while abroad, in moments when I’m particularly tired of feeling foreign, I must remember that I have myself and, thereby, my writing.
When I board my flight that first week of January, I’ll carry my writing with me. You can imagine it being stored in my brain or in my heart or, less symbolically, simply next to my passport in my purse. I probably won’t even be aware that it’s with me at the time, too caught up in the flurry of leaving. And yet, in five months, it will return with me, heavier and stronger through the experiences it has helped to handle.
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Rachael Allen is a Junior at Bowdoin College studying English and Italian. She serves as editor-in-chief of Bowdoin’s arts and literary magazine, The Quill, and news editor of Bowdoin’s newspaper, The Bowdoin Orient. She loves to write (and read) both fiction and nonfiction, including monthly columns for her local newspaper. You can read these columns as well as other work on her blog: https://rachaelallenblog.wordpress.com.
I love your essay, Rachael. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings about your semester studying in Italy with all of us at The Fictional Cafe.