When the prospect of traveling to Europe first became a reality to me, I was a sophomore in high school. My school organized spring break trips through Education First tours, and that year’s excursion was to Paris and Barcelona. I was eating Italian food in a local family-owned restaurant with my mom when I brought up the idea to her. What I expected was a blunt “No, we don’t have the money,” but to my surprise, she assured me we would find a way for me to go.
What initially felt out of sight was now staring me in the face and could see my apprehension clear as day. I was young and, looking back, knew little about the world. I ended up going on the week-long trip, which consisted of new, sometimes scary, unfamiliar experiences: my first time on an airplane or a subway, an overnight stay on a train with dorms and bunk beds, a river tour of Paris, an elevator ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower, then a trip to the port, the Sagrada Familia and Las Ramblas in Barcelona. It also involved getting lost in the Louvre, getting picked on by the other kids on the trip, crying on more than one occasion and wearing the obligatory passport necklace underneath my t-shirt to avoid getting pick-pocketed.
Reflecting on this experience amuses me for several reasons. I'm from a very homogeneous, small town in Connecticut, which set me up for an abrupt culture shock; I was never good at history and knew hardly anything about Europe or its landmarks; I was a 15-year-old angsty teenager rife with naivety and insecurity and was an emotional grump for most of the time. My trip had the time span and impact of a flash-flood.
A couple years later, when I committed to NYU, I knew that studying abroad was not only encouraged but enforced, and, though I didn’t know where I would end up going, I knew I wanted to return to Europe. I felt as though I needed a do-over. I looked forward to it just as much as living in New York City.
I had taken four years of Italian language in high school, and, as a journalism and social and cultural analysis major, there were few places I could travel that would both meet my requirements and allow me to graduate on time. I ranked my preferences as Florence first, London second and Prague third. Realistically, though, Florence was the only option that would work, since I was familiar with the language and could place into the second level at least. I was accepted to NYU Florence for this spring semester, and began mentally and physically preparing myself to temporarily relocate to another country.
Again I faced financial difficulties, almost preventing me from coming to Florence. But, as I had been promised once before, we found a way.
I had heard about La Pietra Dialogues at the orientations, but I had no idea what it entailed. When I found out about a funded internship with writing as an option, I decided to apply with little certainty that I would receive the position. When I earned the internship, I was surprised, but immediately looked forward to starting. I had a chance to write, I was going to be paid, and I was going to be involved on campus. But what resulted most of all from this semester was an entirely new outlook on the world, on people, on Italy and on myself.
It’s almost impossible to properly articulate how much of a difference time and knowledge can make in one’s perception of the world. Just how much physical, mental and emotional growth as well as a few years of college can change your experience of something entirely. I returned to Europe with two years of liberal studies material in my mental library, as well as social and cultural analysis coursework and the study of news and its coverage. Then, I had the chance to transform that information into knowledge and apply it to my experiences.
Of all the other aspects, attending the La Pietra Dialogues and reading my colleagues work and research was the most important part of this experience. I had read the dialogue titles before applying, and though some of them struck me as particularly interesting, I was unsure if I would have the time or motivation to attend them. When covering them became part of my job, my usual disdain towards forced activities was absent, and I found myself excited and intrigued to see what the speakers had to say and what information I could learn about the world that would make me a better citizen and a better visitor to new countries.
The second dialogue I attended and the inspiration for my first article involved a photography exhibition called The Game by Mario Badagliacca, a documentary photographer whose work involves immigration and border issues, among other social and humanitarian concerns. The talk was particularly relevant to me, as I am taking a photojournalism course this semester, as well as a course on the history of immigration. I was able to witness the intersection of two different disciplines, learn photography techniques I could apply to my own projects and view firsthand the perils immigrants face when trying to enter Europe that I had only heard and read about in class.
I also have a particular interest in Jewish studies, both the history and modern-day issues affecting the Jewish community and Israel. This semester there were a few different dialogues regarding this topic, including one on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and one on the Judeo-Arabic language. Again applicable to my studies, as we discussed Jewish immigration and visited the museum and synagogue here in Florence, the dialogues also piqued my personal interest. I wrote an article about Judeo-Arabic, which was challenging as I had no prior knowledge of the subject, but rewarding because I now know about a somewhat niche topic that I had never previously thought about. I also attended the talk on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an issue that has always bewildered me. Through the dialogue and my own research, as well as reading the research of my colleagues, I can now say I have an understanding of the succession of events that led to the conflict and influenced the current politics.
The important thing I want to emphasize with these examples is that learning about the issues that are affecting the world around us makes traveling to new places completely different. This experience hasn’t been just a guided tour or a series of stop-and-goes on a bus to various landmarks. It has been a full immersion, one that would be so much less enriching had I not learned all I did.
I read an essay by Jamaica Kincaid from her book A Small Place about being a tourist and watched a corresponding documentary about tourism in Jamaica that struck me. In her book, she says:
"For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour."
I’ve learned that being a tourist and being a foreign person living somewhere new are two very different things. The more one educates oneself on what is happening and why in the places one is visiting, the better the experience is for both the visitor and the “natives”—the easier it is to feel like a citizen of not just one country, but of the world.