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A mid-study abroad crisis

About two weeks ago, my parents, aunt and uncle came and visited me in Rome (or should I say, they used me as an excuse to take a trip to Europe).  It was a fantastic visit—besides just being happy to see them, I got to show them around the city that I’ve gradually been able to call my home.  I got to take them to the best restaurants and gelaterias that I’ve found.  I got to brag about how much knowledge I’ve been able to pack into my brain here and let them know their money and son aren’t going to waste over here.  I got to show them the great off-the-beaten-path places I had discovered over the past two months.

And that’s when it hit me.  When I told my parents goodbye in the St. Louis airport, I said “See you in two months (for the visit)!”  I’m here for four months.  Two months is half of four months.  I’m halfway there.  As in, I’ll be home in two months.  WHAT!?!

Yeah, it’s pretty hard to comprehend that I’ve been here for two months now already.  It certainly doesn’t feel like it’s been that long yet.  Or, does it feel like it’s been longer?  I can’t really tell.  By this point, I’ve become so absolutely assimilated into life here—even if I haven’t completely mastered the Roman bus system or the Italian language—that time has passed by extremely quickly.  Yet life has become so normalized that I often forget I haven’t lived here long and wont for much longer.  Two months are gone, and if my experience is correct, the next two will fly by faster.  So with all that realized, I’ve undergone a bit of a “mid-study abroad crisis.”  Thoughts of leaving Rome with regrets about what I missed filled my head as I realized what I hadn’t seen yet.  I’ve only been to two of the major basilicas of Rome!  I haven’t seen any catacombs!!  I still haven’t been inside the Colosseum(still not sure how that’s happened)!

I think now the initial panic has calmed down, but the interest remains keen.  The great thing about studying abroad is the absolute wealth of opportunities at your disposal.   Some seek to take advantage of their European position and skip around the continent to the major cities—London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona.  What I want to do though is make sure that I know Rome before I leave.  Whatever you choose, I think it’s important to note that obviously, like most things in life, it’s going to take some gumption.  In order to get the most out of your experience, you’re going to have to work outside of your comfort zone, go the extra mile and any other idiom that expresses this thought.

As my initial panic set in, my thoughts turned big and planned:  I have to go to this museum, take this bus to here and see this monument, go to this restaurant,etc.  But the beautiful thing is, to see, sense, feel, experience something sensational doesn’t mean you have to do something massive and organized.  You just need to adopt a little spontaneity and then have the chutzpah to act on it (that’s where the gumption comes in).  Whether that manifests itself in going to a different café and ordering a new type of delicious pastry, booking that trip to Torino you’ve been tossing around your head (that’s what I did!) or just deciding to go get purposefully lost in your own city on a lovely Saturday afternoon (did that too)—it doesn’t matter!  Just as long as you’re doing something!

This very evening, I was headed to the library to work on a presentation.  As I walked into Piazza di Santa Maria, which is adjacent to my apartment, I realized that I had never been inside the church which dominates the square:  Santa Maria in Trastevere.  It happens to be one of the oldest in Rome (try 1700 years old) and probably the first church mass was ever held in.  So I put off work, spontaneously (see?), and walked in.  I’ve been to a lot of churches, and I expected the same:  eerie yet beautiful silence, gorgeous frescos, etc.  But there was some sort of late night mass going on (I’m not familiar with what it might’ve been), and a choir was singing a beautiful tune accompanied by melodious organ in front of a large crowd seated in the pews.  And all of this in front of shimmering golden medieval mosaics cast in a nearly 2000 year old building.  I was absolutely overcome, and the scene’s awe-inspiring beauty actually brought me to tears.  I couldn’t help but feel this sense of magic, warmth and hospitality.  I’ve never been inclined towards organized religion, but this!  This, I thought as a humble observer of religion,is what it can be:  Warm, communal, inviting…but with an overarching and pervading aura of a long and tradition-heavy history.  I could so easily, and romantically, imagine the early Christians gathering here together for the first ever mass, full of love and dedication.  And then they would’ve continued to do so for the next 1700 years until the present day.  When I stepped back outside into the piazza, a full moon in a cloudless sky glimmered overhead as I started off to do my homework.

So!  That was just a flicker of spontaneity that I acted on, and look what happened!  Just imagine if you really tried…

Michael Tolan is an student blogger from Carleton College, studying abroad with API in Rome, Italy.

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Learning to Learn: A Study Abroad Conclusion

Michael Tolan is an student blogger from Carleton College, studying abroad with API in Rome, Italy.

It’s hard to believe, but my time in Europe has come to an end.

Although it’s cliché to say, the roughly three months I’ve spent here has just absolutely flown by.

That first day when I deliriously walked around Rome in my jet-lagged stupor seems both incredibly distant and remarkably contemporary.

I can clearly envision those first few days when everything seemed so foreign (literally, it was of course, because I was actually in a foreign country), new and exciting—the grocery store which was located in the basement of a clothing store, how there are an incredulous amount of excellent gelato shops everywhere, how this city is so ridiculously old (that actually continues to excite me, the nerdy Classics major that I am)—and it seems like it was all…well, not three months ago at least.

Three weeks, tops.

On the other hand, when I really stop and think about it, I’ve seen so much, tasted so much, been a part of so much, met so many interesting people, and had so many experiences, both profound and simply entertaining and light-spirited.

I’ve also learned so much.  I’m not going to list off every single thing that I’ve learned over the course of these three months—I’m not sure there’s room enough for that, and I’m not sure that I’m worth that much of your reading time.  But I do want to impart what I feel is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned while abroad, and that is (and this is very meta) quite simply to learn.  It sounds weird, I know, but bear with me.

A study abroad experience affords one with an incredible amount of opportunities to experience greatness, to have meaningful interactions with other people from your culture and from another one, to see incredible sights of new and interesting parts of the world.  But far too often, I think, we simply ooh and ahh over a cool site, take our picture with it, and then leave.  Or meet someone really interesting, say “Wow, that was awesome!” before going on our merry way.  I know I’ve done this, and I’m sure others have as well.  When we do this, though, we can let potentially transforming and powerful events simply wash over us, never taking anything more away than a great memory or a sweet picture.  What I suggest is that we take time to stop, reflect and take stock of what’s happened (or still happening, for that matter), because oftentimes we can take something much greater away than memories of pictures.

Now, don’t get me wrong; pictures, memories and souvenirs are all great and important.   And not every experience you have at home or abroad is going to merit all this introspection I’m talking about.  That great gelato you had at Old Bridge by the Vatican might’ve been really, really good (It is.  Seriously.), but it wasn’t exactly “life-changing” (I admit though, it was close).   What I’m saying though is that our experience can be defined by more than just the experience itself or its memory, but what we learned about ourselves or the world around us based on that experience.

I’ll give an example; When I was in Torino over Thanksgiving, I meandered up to this church overlooking the Po River and the large and spacious Piazza Vittorio Veneto, bustling with life on a chilly Thursday evening, unaware of the major American holiday.  It was a beautiful sight to say the least.  But instead of just snapping a picture and moving on, I stayed a bit longer.  I thought about how absolutely ridiculous it was that here I was, in a place as exotic sounding as Torino, Italy on Thanksgiving Night looking at the Po river and life go by.  How much had changed from one year ago, at the Thanksgiving of 2011.  How I would have never expected to be in Torino, let alone Italy, at this time one year ago.  And then I thought about if things have changed this much in one year, who knows where I’ll wind up over the course of the next year?

These are just a few of the questions and thoughts that popped into my head during this one single short moment of reflection, and they were so powerful, so meaningful to me.  And that’s what I think the most valuable lesson I’ve learned here is.  I’ve learned to stop for a moment and learn—learn about yourself, learn about how far you’ve come, learn about the world around you all in these moments of reflection.  They don’t even have to be these big, triumphant experiences—they can happen in mundane times too.  Nor do you have to be abroad to have them.  I’ve just learned all this while abroad, and I plan on applying this lesson throughout my life during my last two weeks here and the rest of my life.  The experiences that ultimately stand the test of time for us are the ones through which we’ve gained something greater and powerful—and I’ve certainly had my fair share of those during my past few whirlwind months here.  And for that, I’m so grateful.

The Eternal City?

I have come to Rome this fall having thoroughly dissected and studied the city, its culture, its language and its very being for nearly half my life. I’ve taken countless classes and tests, written dozens upon dozens of papers and analyses. But, of course, the Rome I’ve studied is the Rome of 2000 years ago. The Rome of Julius Caesar, of Augustus, of the poets Catullus and Horace, of the historians Tacitus and Polybius, and the philosophers Seneca and Cicero. You know, the people who spoke that dead language that you dreaded studying in high-school. The one you stopped taking as soon as you finished your language requirement or realized Spanish was not only easier, but more applicable. Latin. Ew…

I am one of those rare people who actually enjoyed inflicting pain upon myself and continued Latin and Classical studies into college, and have declared as a Classical Studies major. And so, the decision to study abroad in Rome makes perfect sense. But the Rome I’ve studied so thoroughly is clearly not the Rome of today—the ruins of old physically situated meters below the modern city. And the Romans I’ve learned about are certainly not the current Romans who inhabit the city, as trendy Gucci and Prada products have long since replaced the typical toga.

People call Rome “The Eternal City”, and have been for thousands of years (thousands! That’s SO old!). The notion seems simple enough—Rome has limitless layers of history and yet constantly remains relevant in the modern world. But what I want to do as a study abroad student here is to really understand this concept. As a lover of Classics who doesn’t think that modern society is that bad either, I’m interested in seeing how the two intersect and pop up.

One of the first aspects that struck me was the physical aspect. Sure, they don’t use the Forum Romanum for selling your various daily wares, and the Circus Maximus is a dog park best known for a Metro station, but now and then you stumble upon something like this:

It’s really nothing special for a Roman. A building in the piazza using ancient columns for its structure, and the ancient Roman street clearly visible from below. But that’s actually really wild to me. It’s all so seamless—history and modernity all blended into one. Every day when I walk outside my apartment in Trastevere and into Piazza di Santa Maria, I look up at the beautiful Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome. Many of the materials from this building were from the nearby Baths of Caracalla, an early 3rd century structure. The city’s very structure is a combination of really old things, taken from even older things, with new things built all around them. Very general, yes, but you get the picture.

I’m sure I sound super nerdy going on about this recycling process, but it’s something I’ve been fixated on. We just don’t see this in the United States, and I’m pretty sure we don’t see this anywhere else in the world, either. Rome, and the Roman state, was essentially the founder of our western civilization. And the Rome of today hasn’t just tossed that fact by the wayside, nor has it become a city of novelty, outdated and entirely dependent on events that took place 2000 years ago to thrive. Rome is simply just chugging along, proud but driven forward, a conglomerate of thousands of years of history and modern trends. It’s as if the city itself is humbly shrugging, saying, “Oh, yes, I guess there are modern apartments that originate from the Middle Ages above the Augustan-age Theater of Marcellus. But it is Rome after all.”

It’s one of those things that I hope I never get numb to, something that never ceases to impress and amaze me. Rome is indeed ageless, an eternal city with an eye carefully looking back at its many pasts, but also one towards the future.

Michael Tolan is an student blogger from Carleton College, studying abroad with API in Rome, Italy.

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