When I was 21, I lived in Italy for a year. In August, I flew to Rome and took a train to Florence where a friend met me. I stayed in the comfort of her home for several days before going to live with my "Signora" - a lovely woman in her 60s who lived alone and who spoke not a word of English. My fondest memory is of her graciously letting me watch Star Trek weekly. Dubbed in Italian. What an experience!
I didn't speak Italian well at all, though I understood it well enough. I had been studying it intensively for a year and a half but that wasn't enough to make me feel really comfortable with the language. I stuttered and tried, but I could often feel the flush of embarrassment at my ineptitude. It didn't help that my best friend in the program, Franca, could speak Italian like she was born in Florence. Once a man admonished me (in Italian), "Why can't you speak as well as your beautiful friend Franca?" Her name rolled off his tongue with admiration.
I'm still not sure what possessed me to spend my junior year abroad. Some kind of wanderlust, I guess.
When I entered college, my hope was to become an illustrator. I studied painting, sculpture, printmaking and illustration. I also studied Italian to honor Sandy, a dear high school teacher of mine who had loved Italy and told me the story, with tears in her eyes, of the first time she had beheld Michelangelo's David. I became a double major in Studio Art and Italian in part because of Sandy's passion and that story.
And, being me, I couldn't take the easier path and go on one of the English-speaking courses abroad. I chose the most difficult, most intensive course I could find -- Smith College's program in Florence. I was accepted and off I went to a program in which I would have to take all of my courses in Italian, live with an Italian-speaking family, and take at least one course at the University of Florence. Yeah, it was intense. What a trial.
I've never thought of myself as bold or outgoing by nature, though my sisters would tell you I am. I was really scared during my first few days and weeks in Florence. I cried at night, I was so homesick. But each day things got a little easier. What I overcame in those first weeks, and just walked through my fear to accomplish, became comfortable to me by September. When I returned to the States, I really was a different, bolder person.
I think that trip to Italy when I was so young really set the stage for me to overcome my fears and try new things. I learned to love Italy and Europe. I miss it. I know I'd feel comfortable there even all of these years later. I'm sure my comfort in experiencing new things arises in large part because of that year in Italy.
Each time that Echo experiences a big new event -- coming to a new home, going to her first puppy class, going with me to work, her first visit to our condo in Florida, her first competition -- I must remember how I felt my first week in Florence. These experiences are her Florence and they will be her strength.