Going abroad, looking within: A personal essay

Photo of a fountain in Florence
Chris Yunker/Creative Commons

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As I pounded back my third vodka red bull in an overcrowded, sweaty dive bar to a soundtrack of T-Pain, I found myself falling back into an all-too-familiar routine and momentarily forgot where I was. Then my eyes fell from the blonde athlete I was flirting with down to my hands. In between my fingers lay not my usual nighttime accessory of a freshly rolled — and legally bought — joint, but an untouched cigarette. I wasn’t at Kip’s or Spats but halfway across the world in Florence, Italy.

I, like so many American students before me, came to Italy this past January expecting to be transformed on a semester abroad.

Even with all the growth I’d undergone in my three years at UC Berkeley, I often felt like an overgrown child masquerading through campus. I couldn’t quite figure out when I was supposed to finally become the adult I’d be for the rest of my life.

After all, how could I? There were too many clubs to join, too many classes to take, too many ideas to fall in love with. Each time I tried something new I marveled at how I had gone through life without it; every week I proudly declared my life somehow transformed by that novel I finally powered through, that film I saw or that lecture I heard.

One program after another promised a life changing adventure in Florence: birthplace of the Renaissance, home of Dante, Galileo and the Medici. I was ready. Ready to become the cultured adult I knew I could be: one who could tell wines apart from each other by something other than their price points, confidently speak another language and effortlessly assemble an outfit.

I’m not the only one to think this. Italy is the second leading study abroad destination for Americans and welcomes nearly 37,000 students every year. To put that another way, that’s approximately the entire undergraduate populations of Berkeley and Stanford combined.

My first weeks abroad could be described eloquently as a journey of self-discovery and realistically as a hot mess.

It felt like GBO in a parallel foreign universe. Lifelong friendships were forged in under 24 hours and local phrases and greetings were quickly absorbed into everyday vocabulary; there was tiny, cramped housing to move into and new bus schedules and maps to memorize. And classes that had seemed captivating during registration suddenly seemed less stimulating in a foreign and unfamiliar classroom.

Thrown into unfamiliar territory, I — and seemingly every other American student — found a refuge that reminded us of home: partying. Venture through the city center on any given night and you’d find it to be taken over by drunken Americans. Orientation leaders had even warned us that going out to clubs like Red Garter didn’t count as immersing ourselves with local culture. Guess where you could find at least half the program every Monday? Red Garter.

The virus, it seemed, didn’t care that I hadn’t completed my Italian hero’s journey.

It was all part of the experience, I had told myself; what better way was there to connect with a local than by riding on the back of his Vespa at 3 a.m.? Even though I was behaving like an unhinged teenager, I spent days anxiously wondering when my transformation into adulthood would finally occur.

One Wednesday morning, I skipped class to stand in front of Botticelli’s “Primavera.” I knew I couldn’t leave Florence without seeing it. As I willed Venus’s beauty and maturity to wash over me, I spotted my own reflection in the glass gazing longingly back at me.

There was my problem. I was acting like a passive recipient waiting for the Botichelli’s fluid brushwork and Venus’s radiating beauty to somehow transform me through osmosis without actively participating in such a process. I’d fallen back onto the college party girl identity I’d traveled across an ocean to move past because my fear of change was so much scarier.

​And then, just like that, after I had my epiphany in the Uffizi Gallery, coronavirus descended upon Italy. The virus, it seemed, didn’t care that I hadn’t completed my Italian hero’s journey. It was heartbreaking to leave a new life that was just beginning to take shape, but I knew I was lucky that I had a safe, loving home I could return to at a moment’s notice.

The chaos of the world caused me to undergo the kind of huge existential crisis one can only have at the ripe old age of 21. My life was suddenly involuntary cut off from all the things that had given it any kind of meaning. Friends were no longer a quick walk away, potential romantic prospects weren’t waiting for me at the nearest bar, and my host mom wasn’t there for dinner every night. If I didn’t know who I could be in quarantine, did that mean the entire identity I’d constructed for myself was dependent on others?

It seems ironic that the huge transformative experience I thought this semester would bring ended up actually happening, only it was a purely internal experience. I thought all the traveling I was embarking on would teach me more about myself, and it had, but this quarantine has taught something more important. I’d never truly learned how to exist within myself in the silence and claustrophobia when the only available trip is one to the nearest grocery store.

As much as I hate how I sound like a “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” cliche, I learned I had always been running off to far flung places and connecting superficially with strangers because it was easier than learning to cultivate the most important relationship I’d have for the rest of my life: my relationship with myself.

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected].