When I pictured my year abroad in Italy – long lunches, aperitivi in historic piazzas, wine tours in the Chianti hills, hopping on a train to wander along the cobbled streets of distant towns with terracotta-tiled roofs – I knew perfectly well that the reality of it would be a far cry from my imaginings. I just didn’t realise quite how different it would be. Before Covid-19, it had never occurred to me that the year of my dreams could become a literal impossibility.
In April, moving abroad did not seem viable. I was convinced that I would be spending the third year of my degree at home in the UK, learning remotely. But then five months later, my (many) suitcases were packed and I was on a half-empty flight to Florence, petrified by the thought of what the year might hold.
I spent my first two weeks in Italy in self-isolation, alone in a colleague’s vacant apartment. After meeting my host mother at the train station and being shown around the flat by a neighbour, I was left on my own, and I cried. I was exhausted from two days of travelling, everyone spoke in a heavily accented Italian that I struggled to understand, everything was different – the complete absence of a kettle (Italy, why don’t you like kettles?!) hit me harder than you’d think – and on top of it all, I had to spend my first two weeks locked inside. I wanted to go home. I couldn’t help but think, if this is the way it is going to be all year, in and out of lockdowns and quarantines, why am I here? What is the point?
Although the situation has worsened since the middle of September, when I first arrived, I do not regret coming to Italy this year. Choosing to live with a host family was perhaps the best decision I made – I have adopted the local way of life, sitting down every day for delicious lunches and dinners that last for hours, eating pasta to my heart’s content. I’ve even made a new best friend: espresso. My host family have been so welcoming and caring, and the constant exposure to Italian is doing wonders for my comprehension and language.
Working as an English language assistant in a secondary school and being able to share my love of literature with the pupils has been incredibly rewarding. I spent my first month teaching my students about my favourite novels and writers, and I feel such joy when my students are able to engage in lively debate about a new topic.
But it is not all sunshine and roses. This is my sixth week in Italy, and as I am writing this I’m self-isolating once again, after confirmed positive cases in one of the classes that I teach. Half of the time that I have spent abroad has been spent in isolation. There are so many teachers in quarantine that my school is having to send entire classes home, because there are no staff to take their lessons. More and more students are quarantining, and more and more classes are being taught virtually. A new decree states that 75% of secondary school teaching must be done online, and so Google Meet has become our classroom. Whether I will go to work next week, or whether I will teach English classes from my bedroom, is uncertain.
Bars, cafés and restaurants close at 6pm. Arrivederci, evening aperitivo. Gyms, cinemas, theatres, all closed. I kiss goodbye to the prospect of hip-hop classes at the local palestra. And since the government’s strong recommendation is to travel only for reasons of work, school, health, or absolute necessity, my mini tour of Italy is off the cards (for now).
But I refuse to see this as a lost or wasted year. I have been given an unparalleled opportunity to live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, to absorb Italy into my blood and become italiana for the year. And yes, it may be a real struggle, and there may be days when I think it would just be easier to pack my bags and go home, but I am learning and growing so much that to leave now would mean that the six months of stress, tears, and painstaking organisation that brought me here would have been for nothing. Understanding the barista or the shop assistant or the clerk when they speak to me from behind their masks might seem impossible, but every day I find it easier to say, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m not Italian, could you repeat that please?’. Not understanding everything isn’t embarrassing, it provides more opportunities to learn and to talk to new people.
Sure, I might not be able to go to Rome for the weekend, to experience Italian nightlife, or even to go out for dinner with a friend, but I can still experience Italy and its rich culture. It is currently olive-harvesting season here in Tuscany – maybe I’ll be able to lend a hand and take part in a great local tradition. I’ll go to the Saturday morning market and try some of the local specialties that everyone has been telling me about: porchetta, roasted pork stuffed with garlic, rosemary, fennel and herbs; or bomboloni, soft dough that’s fried, sugar-coated, and filled with cream.
I could find a walking route in the local countryside – we’re surrounded by beautiful hills and mountains that are often shrouded in a heavy fog in the morning. Who knows, maybe by the end of the year, I might even have made friends with Sting – he lives somewhere around here…
Something that I’ve come to realise is that I like to be prepared. I like to have a plan, to be able to envision what is to come and thus ready myself. Covid-19 has thrown the capacity for foresight out of the window so I have to take things one day at a time, rather than focusing on what might happen next week or next month, or next year. Things don’t always go to plan, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I just have to make the best of it.