As I sit to compose the words that encapsulate how it feels to be back at home in East Tennessee, I am at a loss of words. During the past month, I traveled with a stellar group from King University to study abroad in Italy. Needless to say, it was a grand experience that presented a lot of "firsts" in my life - my first time flying on an airplane, my first time walking on foreign soil, my first time speaking and applying a different language than I am accustomed to - and the list goes on. Not only did I travel and study in Italy, I became completely immersed and dwelled there for a few magical weeks.
After graduating from King with a Bachelor of Arts degree, I traveled to Italy exactly one week after commencement ceremonies. We arrived in Rome International Airport on the bright, sunny morning of May 9th around 10:00 am after a grueling ten-hour flight across the Atlantic. After going through customs and grabbing our luggage, we hopped on a bus that took us from the airport in Rome to a picturesque, medieval town called Montepulciano, Toscana - our "home away from home" to study and live for the next two and a half weeks.
As a photographer, I have made leaps and bounds that have empowered and enriched me both artistically and spiritually. For one, I played it safe and left my best, award-winning equipment behind and took only the bare necessities to photograph - my novice Canon T5i camera body and a 24-70 mm general purpose lens with a polarizer filter. I also used my iPhone to snap candid moments on the fly since it was close at hand.
I lived in a small flat with two girls who became close friends over the course of our trip. Luckily I had a small room to myself - simply furnished with a twin bed, one dresser, a wooden chair, and a small walk-in storage room adjacent to my bedroom. I unpacked my suitcase and put my clothes away before heading back out for a walking tour of Montepulciano and dinner at Trattoria di Cagnano, the restaurant where we dined most evenings after a full day of classes and other activities.
After a few days, I slowly began to emerge from the heavy fog of jet lag. I was surprised at how long it took for me to realize the concrete truth of being over 4,800 miles away from home - six hours ahead of time. Each day became better and better - my eyes soaked in the new sights that Montepulciano had to offer. I quickly learned how not knowing a few Italian phrases was a great hinderance when ordering coffee at cafés or going to the market or asking for directions. However, I swiftly learned small, simple phrases to get me by. Sometimes it was painfully obvious that I was an American - a foreigner in a strange land far, far from home.
I took all four classes offered to us within the trip - my favorite courses being "American Writers At War and in Love" taught by Professor Brandon Story and "Travel Photography" by Professor Lee Jones. Surprisingly enough, I learned a great deal from returning to the bare basics of photography. I also summoned the courage to approach strangers and ask for their portrait. I leapt out of my comfort zone and was generously rewarded with fabulous results.
One day during our first week, Lee told us to go out and photograph a stranger. As we wandered about the piazza, a small, elderly man walked up to the café and sat down at a table, watching our group go about taking pictures as he quietly smoked a cigarette. You would have hardly noticed he was there at all. My attention was drawn toward him; it seemed obvious that he had had a long life filled with fascinating stories to tell. I debated on whether I should approach him and ask to take his picture. Finally, I settled on it and walked towards him and said softly, "per favore, fotografia?" He did not say a word, but his eyes visibly lit up, and he straightened his back and puffed out his chest, posing for his portrait with pride and joy. He only spoke Italian, so communicating with him was quite a hurdle. During my stay I did see him a time or two after I took his portrait. He was a kind, quiet, grandfatherly man. In spite of our language barriers, we were still able to make a connection and say "ciao" to each other in passing.
Within the first week or so I was able to fall into a routine. It was fairly easy to get up early and rises for classes with the prospects of excellent coffee made fresh daily by an Italian barista and a breath-taking view of the Tuscan landscape as we sat on the terrace discussing Hemingway, modernism, and A Farewell to Arms.
On our first weekend in Italy, we traveled to Florence for a half day. During this time we toured the Galleria dell'Accademia where Michelangelo's David is housed as well as the Uffizi museum.
During weekend traveling I found myself in Venice. We stayed in a three-star hostel in Marghera on the mainland and traveled to the island by taxi on Saturday. In spite of my exhausted state, I was amazed by the beauty of Venice, relaxed by the balmy breezes and vibrant colors of the canals. The highlight of our day was undoubtedly a river ride on a gondala just before sundown.
For the next two weeks, I fell into a comfortable routine in Montepulciano. After such a tiring, whirlwind adventure traveling to northern Italy the weekend before, I settled on staying in the little town for some much-needed rest and relaxation before traveling to Rome on the last leg of the trip. Montepulciano was my favorite place to be - though the hills and valleys possess an exotic, unique beauty all on its own, Montepulciano deeply reminded me of home. The shopkeepers and locals were kind and friendly and welcoming to tourists; the low, horizon-hugging mountains and lush greenery brought me comfort and peace. If I could choose a place to live abroad, Montepulciano remains high on my list - its charm, beauty, and deep history enchanted me.
Traveling to Europe was truly life-changing. Italy is no longer a "distant country my eyes have never beheld" - it is a real place with real, hardworking people who rise early and open their shops and run businesses each and every morning and greet American tourists with smiles and a friendly "ciao!"
On returning to Tennessee, I have a much deeper appreciation for my home and life here. I am blessed each and every day, surrounded by loving friends and family who I hold close to my heart. I treasure my memories of Italy greatly (and am already missing it a great deal), but I pray that one day I will return there and have the courage to visit new places and relish in more traveling experiences. I took over 3,000 images during my stay, so this post is just a drop in the bucket - a little sneak-peek for your enjoyment. In my free time I recorded in my journal and read novels and explored Montepulciano. I have learned more about myself as a Christian woman and as a professional in the field of photography through this journey. I wouldn't trade my time studying abroad in Italy - it has truly been an experience of a lifetime that I will remember forever from the tiny moments to the grand wonders that stole my breath away.