This blog has been created to share the College of Staten Island (CSI) students’ experiences around the world. Dolphins across the Seven Seas provides the opportunity for CSI students, staff, faculty and beyond to gain insight into the study abroad experience. Additionally, Study Abroad Peer Advisors provide reflections upon their experiences as well as advice to potential study abroad participants. CSI is the single senior college of the City University of New York (CUNY), located in the borough of Staten Island.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Journey to Tuscania ~Francine Bianco, Tuscania, Italy

New York, or even more closely, Staten Island, can be a bubble. An all-encompassing bubble—one you don’t think to get out of after a while. Why burst a bubble? The context of the phrase is never anything good; at least from the surface. Everyone I love and adore is within a 45 minute driving range (and that’s even a stretch of time, so I can include my South Jersey brother and family in this mix). You can picture the look of panic and pride on my Italian-American mother’s face when I told her that I confirmed going to study abroad in Tuscania, Italy with a $2,000 bank check to secure my housing. Until that point she thought it was just chatter, the kind you do on bar stools, of dreams you’ll never actually step off to try and attain. But I had to. Everything inside me screamed to venture off for adventure, to seek new landscapes and in turn shape new eyes; momentarily step off the rock I’ve come to call home and back in time to my family’s ancestral roots—Italia.

Now, let me insert some humorous anecdote here, so you can fully grasp the naïveté I possess when it comes to traveling. I like to call my account of this transcontinental temporary move: Traveling 101. Picture, if you will:

24 years old (well, almost 24), and getting ready to board my first plane ride alone. I was actually quite surprised at how friendly the employees at JFK Airport were. I had imagined them to resemble guards, the kind who don’t speak and barely smile. To my pleasant surprise they looked like they enjoyed their job, which somehow made my stomach relax. Before this, I had pictured an assembly line of people handling my luggage and poking and prodding at me, lint falling from my pockets as important documents get left behind, because there’s no time, “We must keep going!” they’d tell me. None of this occurred, and it was almost as if they could smell my fear, my anticipation. I couldn’t have been handled more with care than I was.

The last time I flew I was 14, going to see Celine Dion in Las Vegas. I’d followed the suit of my sister-in-law and brother, and don’t remember much. I do remember that I kept my head down, praying God would hold me in the palm of his hand as we took off, listening to the instruction from Tomasina to chew gum, so my ears wouldn’t pop as much.

I smiled at that memory, as I placed spearmint chewing gum in my mouth, praying again for God to keep me in the palm of his hand. No one sat next to me on the flight to Ireland, and the only faces I had seen on that seven-hour flight more than twice were the flight attendants. They looked exactly as I had imagined—which almost surprised me. I wondered if it were a job requirement for them to wear as much make-up as they did. I also wondered if they had someone show them how to do it when they were initially hired—they all had an impeccable shade of pink on their cheeks, and their brunette and auburn hair wouldn’t have moved if a window had suddenly opened.

I moved robotically off the plane, wondering if everyone had a handbook of How-To-Travel that I would receive at any moment. Until then, I would follow the others into the next security check.

Ireland. I still haven't seen anything of Ireland other than the lights of Dublin in the middle of the night, but I found solace in the smiling faces of their security. My first transcontinental feeling of "home" was found in the cheeky employees at Dublin airport who helped me to laugh. They also helped me to understand that people from other countries, other cultures, well - they laugh, too.

Shock was an underestimated factor when new flight attendants walked toward gate 103 and took off their raincoats. They were blonde. It was at this moment I felt alone for the first time, wanting to share my foolishness and humor with someone. Wait, the flight attendants you started with do not stay with you the entire time, like chaperones on a class trip?! No, Francine… And I suppose that makes sense, they’re just jobs, like my own at home—there are no international babysitters to make my transition any easier. This was unsettling as I settled into my window seat on the plane. The teenaged looking Irish boy who sat to my right said he was going to Rome for a “Holiday,” and I thought what holiday is it that I am unaware of? Then I remembered hearing in the New York terminal from a couple of chatty Connecticut kids, of the differences in words, and that holiday could mean our “vacation.” I don’t think I acknowledged what he said until this realization, almost two minutes later, to which the moment had passed and he gave me a confused look—my first awkward language barrier encounter. Sleep would help.

Finally landing and walking off the plane (this flight was the kind where the stairs to the plane unfold and you walk right off onto the ground) I felt like royalty, until I had to stand next to a man on a crowded shuttle bus who kept his arm pit right in my face. Everyone scattered after getting their passport checked and I hadn’t felt more alone in a long time. I was on my own. This was it. I was so focused on the actual getting here that I hadn’t thought much about what came after. And the fact that most people did not speak ANY English was immobilizing me as I stood in the middle of the floor just beyond getting passed the passport man. I had to exchange money, and when she handed me back almost $200 less than I had given her, my hands were shaking as I wondered where the hell the 1 Euro bills were and if I could have some. She handed me coins but told me she couldn’t change my coins to Euros because they were the government’s property (I still have so much change with me, but I give my nickels and pennies away to my new Italian friends, as souvenirs- they LOVE it). I didn’t really understand anything that was happening, but panic was rising as people began to form a line behind me, mixed with this need to find out if I was getting ripped off.

I wasn’t, as I later found out from the cab driver who helped me find my bags and get me to my hotel for the night in Fregene, a small town right outside of Rome, vicino il mare (translation: near the beach). At least he said near the beach, when actually I was right ON the beach. I put my bags down, rejoiced that there was wi-fi for the first time since I had left my house, and took a shower. After eating some oreos from the day before to hold me over since I couldn’t even think about dealing with trying to find food in another language– I took my sneakers off and walked the few hundred feet to the shore, as the sun was setting.

My stomach finally settled and I thought of God. Not sure exactly how this will unfold once I get settled in Tuscania, but, staring out on the sea on the desolate beach near Rome, I feel like I'm going to be better thank okay.

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