In the summer of 2000, I went to Italy for a month or so on a study abroad program. It was the first time I’d ever been out of the country! I kept a special diary throughout, in which I recorded my profound observations on cultural differences and the broadening effects of travel. My prose style at the time was especially direct and scrupulous. As I accurately observed early on in my narrative, “To be in a foreign country is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.” I then continued, “I used to wonder why people are supposed to put it on their resumes and why everyone made such a big deal out of it, but now I know.”
Before getting to Italy, I spend five pages describing the international wonder of JFK airport. If only I had known that in a decade, I’d be spending untold hours trudging angrily in and out of JFK via the E train.
The flight was seven hours and it was one of those flights that I’ve read about but never been on. I had my period and had to go to the bathroom three times. . . . All the flight attendants just spoke in Italian and everyone was talking in Italian and everything was written in Italian and it was just all so neat.
Immediately after getting to the dorms where we would be staying, I had a no toilet paper emergency, and after resolving that, I was somehow unable to operate the lock on my door. Here was my first interaction with real live Italian people:
Finally, I climbed the seven flights to the front desk and tried to explain what the problem was. ‘Mia porta non…non…,’ I said, motioning with the key. ‘Non é…uh, aperto, ma non chiude.’ Finally they sent someone down with me to check it. He took a pencil out of his pocket and ran it up and down the key. Then, the lock worked perfectly. Every time. He looked at me as if I were an idiot. ‘Open,’ he said, demonstrating. ‘Closed. Open. Closed. Open, closed, open, closed.’
By the time I’d figured that out, I couldn’t find my best friend or anyone else, so I ate dinner alone. I find this little anecdote representative of much of my life has seemed to go.
I don’t remember being particularly childish at 19 — if anything, I considered myself mature for my age at the time — but in this diary, I write and think like a 12-year-old. It’s humiliating to read; I couldn’t possibly share the worst parts. And on the whole, it’s a pretty boring read. I wasn’t a good writer or particularly observant, and I was too absorbed in learning how to have a social life to talk about anything else.
For example, here’s what I thought of Florence:
Anyway, Piazza Navonna v. nice w/ three fountains and a ring of restaurants w/ tiny dark kitchens, just a glimpse of wine bottles, pepper strands, and cheese wheels, and then tables all spilling out and ropes separating them all, though clearly really indistinguishable – much like Venice.
While each individual entry is dull, taken as a whole, the diary is accidentally comic because it describes a gang of college students bumbling their way haplessly through a foreign country and completely misunderstanding everything around them, while at the same time thinking they were expertly navigating an exciting adventure in their lives. Even the simplest things were beyond us. Some examples:
- For some reason, we couldn’t ever figure out how to get our tickets stamped properly on buses and trains, so after repeatedly getting fined $30 for not having done it, we became increasingly brilliant at pretending to be asleep just at the right time to avoid having our tickets checked, instead of just, you know, figuring out how to stamp the tickets.
- At one point, my friends and I spent an hour chasing some sort of mysterious thing around under the ocean, and when we finally fished it out, it turned out to be a piece of human shit.
- On a weekend trip, a very smelly and annoying itinerant man took up with us at a hostel and we couldn’t figure out how to get rid of him without being rude. We were Southern, and back then I thought I just had to be nice to any man who wanted to hang out with me. So all weekend as we went to discos and restaurants and the beach, we were accompanied by this random hostel-dwelling weirdo because ALL SIX OF US were somehow afraid to just tell him to bugger off.
- I was completely oblivious to the fact that my best friend was desperate to hook up with somebody on this trip, and so I am frequently a barely tolerated third wheel on her adventures without having any awareness of that fact. Lots of entries like, “J wanted to go into the city by herself even though it was the middle of the night. I couldn’t imagine why she would want to do that, but I couldn’t let her go alone, so even though I was so exhausted and she said I shouldn’t, I went along. Am excellent friend!” At one point, I realized that everyone else on the trip was (of course) banging with wild abandon and I was sincerely shocked and appalled. I continued to be a semi-professional cock-blocker well into my 20s.
- Similarly, one night some friends and I were camping at a beach where a lot of people were partying, and a friend met a man and went for a walk with him. I invited myself along, and though they repeatedly attempted to shake me, I was unshakeable. At one point, the three of us lay on our backs on a rock under the starry night sky and the man murmured a few lines of Shakespeare to my friend (hahahaha) at which point, I proudly rattled off several entire sonnets until they told me to hush up.
- I describe a number of conversations I had in broken Italian with Italians (mostly with men, late at night at clubs), and it is clear to me now that what I thought at the time was being said was not at all what was actually being said. I left these conversations feeling immensely pleased with myself for having had fairly in-depth discussions about various weighty matters in Italian. In fact, I was most likely speaking gibberish while the guy I was talking to was obviously just trying to proposition me.
I also enjoyed this account of our first time at a nude beach:
“Let’s go skinny dipping!” cried somebody. Everyone agreed, and then we stood around awkwardly.
“I just wonder,” said A, “if someone should stay with our stuff.”
“I’m wearing my bathing suit,” said E, stripping down to it.
“Yeah, so am I,” I added.
“If it was dark, maybe,” said L.
“Yeah,” said A. “If it was dark.”
“Or more secluded,” I added.
Finally, we all went in our suits.
On visiting a chapel at Assisi:
The monk led us into a long room with benches to give us a talk about St. Francis’s life and the Franciscan order. Then he let us ask questions — most people wanted to know the hierarchy of monkdom. Like, how do you get to be a really good monk and get assigned to, say, Assisi or the Vatican? How do they decide who goes where? Is the Vatican for monks like Broadway for actors?
At one point, my friends and I were camped out in an olive grove at night in the middle of nowhere, and I describe how a young man happened by and invited himself to camp with us for the night. He demonstrated a number of sleight of hand magic tricks, and then told us he was in a band and proceeded to sing the entire catalogue of John Denver at us while ignoring our pleas for him to stop. My friends snuck off one-by-one and went to bed. I was the last one left, and since I was (once again) too afraid to be rude, I sat with him on into the night as he got increasingly drunk off jugged wine and then screamed in my face about Hillary Clinton. This was back before women had developed a shared vocabulary for the omnipresence of men like this, and it’s funny to watch me struggle to articulate why this was so irritating.
We spent most of the trip staying up all night dancing at clubs and every afternoon, I snuck off to shame-study in private with the one other girl on the trip who actually cared about grades. Now, I have no idea why I cared about grades at this point in my life. I never had before, and I didn’t have any sort of career plan. I guess this was part of the six months of my life where I thought I might go to med school (before taking second year chemistry and realizing I was far too stupid). Anyway, this girl and I were in a constant panic about our GPAs slipping in the midst of all this partying. In the end, we managed it:
After that, C and I went and took S’s midterm. I was positive I’d bombed it. I went straight to my dorm room and sobbed, because I knew if I’d made a B in S’s class, it would ruin my whole time in Italy. . . . Then we ran into S in the lobby and he was grading our exams. He said he’d graded mine and I should be ashamed of myself. He said I got an A anyway, but as his best student, I should have done much better than I did. I was SO relieved.
What fun I was having!
Mostly, reading this now makes me feel kind of bad for myself at this age. Overall, I did have an amazing time in Italy. I thought everything was beautiful and exciting, and I remember this summer fondly. But I was also pretty unhappy much of the time. I didn’t fit in and I couldn’t keep up, but I wasn’t introspective enough to realize that. I didn’t like the same stuff the people around me liked, but it never would have occurred to me that there were other people I could meet and other options for how to spend my time, so I just worked really hard at doing what everyone else was doing and convincing myself I was having a good time. Man, being young blows! I wouldn’t go back to it for anything.
As part of my classwork, I had to keep a diary in Italian. Although it concludes before all the traveling we did at the end of the summer, I actually think it’s more representative of the trip as a whole than my private diary and also really funny, so here it is (translated from the original):
Italy is very beautiful and strange to be a stranger, but I enjoy talking with the people of Italy and charming to try talking to people who do not speak English.
We started the classes today. I was very tired because last night I went dancing because it was July 4th. It was very funny. Today, we went to Pesaro beach. It was very relaxing.
Today my friends are explored Urbino. We went shopping and took walks everywhere. To do errands, I had to speak to many Italian employees, which was good practice.
After dinner, we went out to the bar where the band played ‘blues’. Then, we went dancing to another bar. It is interesting that Italians play so much American music.
This morning I’m very tired in class. I need a double coffee. After class, I passed an email to my parents. Then, I skipped lunch and went to bed. I woke up for dinner. Then, my friends and I went to the square and talked to the waiter. He said that Italians are not broad-minded than the Americans. For example, Italians do not accept homosexuals.
Today, after class, my friends and I took the train to Rimini. When we arrived, we took the bus to the hostel and the woman at the information booth said we buy tickets on the bus. But the bus was crowded and we were out of reach the driver. Two men have those who come for our tickets and we have answered that we have not yet bought the tickets. The men fined each of my friends and I sixty four thousand lire.
We go to the beach near the hostel. In the evening, we danced in a disco.
Italians think that all Americans are rich. The Italians on the bus laughed at my friends and I, because they did not understand why we were broken up.
Today, we went to the Republic of San Marino. It is a beautiful city, but has many tourists. Italian employees are patient and friendly, but sometimes they are annoyed easily. Italian women are very beautiful and dress very elegant even if they climb a mountain.
Today I was late for the class. After the class, I went to the tobacconist to buy a phone card and the clerk shouted at me, because my money was torn, but I could not tell him that I did not rip it off. In the evening, we went to the square and ate ice cream. Then, we dance.
This morning, all the students took the bus to Venice. They stopped in Padua and my friends and I went to the basilica. First, we ate in a pizzaria. In Italy, waiters bring food quickly, but they bring the bill very slowly. Because, we are late and are afraid of losing the bus.
In Venice, we went to the hotel. Then, we went to dinner. In the evening, we went to the San Marcos Square and saw without the tourists and the pigeons. It was very beautiful.
I love Venice! It’s a beautiful city! Today, we went to the two museums and a church and shop for masks. We are everywhere in Venice. I bought a red mask. In the evening, we ate dinner at the San Marcos Square and then my friend and I took a gondola. Beautiful!
Early in the morning, my friends and I woke up. We looked at the basilica and the building. Then, I went to Rodin’s place. Afterwards, they took the bus to Urbino. Too little time! Goodbye, Venice!
Today, we went to the class. At a quarter to ten, I ate a custard. Later, I studied Italian. At six o’clock, we went to the class again. After class, I slept until the evening, when my friends and I went out to all the clubs in Urbino. But they were not a lot of fun because the music was ‘techno’ and the clubs were flattened.
Today, I slept until two o’clock. Then, I get dressed for the opera. I brought the blanket because it was cold. The work was very beautiful – and in the open air and the night sky with the wind and the moon adrift to the art. The mezzo-soprano was wonderful. The opera in Italy is different than the opera in the US because the Italian singers understand the nuances of the language.
Today I slept until noon. After lunch, my friends and I studied in the dorm. Then, we went to the bar and talked until dinner. Tonight, my friend and I went to the square, but it was cold and we sat in the bakery and ate the pastries and drank the wine.
Today I’m sick! I’m sick like a dog! I have a headache, I have a sore throat, I have a stomach ache, I get sick of all! After class, my friends and I sunbathed on the roof, but then I went to bed. I stayed here all day.
Today I’m still sick! I have class nice morning and afternoon. Among the class, I rested. I wasted two days!
Today I sent it better. In the afternoon, I studied with my friend for the exam at six. At night, all the students went to the center and we danced and my friend sang the opera at the square. She sings very well!
This morning, I have been very bad because I have also been ill. I did not go to the class. After lunch, my friends and I left for Cinqueterra. The trip has been long. In La Spezia, we eat in a pizzeria and we spend the night. The hotel shivered.
Today we took the train to Cinqueterra. And the most beautiful country I’ve seen so far. The mountains are beautiful and dive into the sea, such as sapphire blue and clear like glass. The city is fascinating. We walked through the first three and we swam in the sea. Afterwards, we camped under the olive trees and we met an Italian friend who sang and made tricks of prestige.
Today, we walked to the other two cities and drank a lot of coffee! We swam in the sea again. I love Cinqueterra and I do not want to leave tomorrow! Tonight, we camped at the campsite hiding. There are many Italian hippies here and tonight, they have the drum knobs around the fires.
Today, we went to Urbino. The trip was very long and we got tired and dirty. Finally, we have arrived. I lost my bag and I had to cancel my Traveler’s Checks. I’m tired!
Today, I went to the class. Afterwards, I ate my lunch and then, I cleaned my clothes. Also, I did my homework. After dinner, my friends and I went to the square for ice cream, but I came back very early. I talked to my boys and then I slept.
This morning I woke up early because I wanted to study for the exam. After class and lunch, my friends and I went shopping in Urbino. Tonight, my friend and I ate in a restaurant. The food is delicious, but the service has been so slow. Afterwards, I spoke in the square and then I went back home to sleep.
Today at two o’clock we went to Assissi. We have seen the very beautiful church of St. Francis. It is a very religious place. A monk spoke to us about the life of St. Francis. It was very interesting. I ate a pizza and ice cream.
Today I had three classes. I cleaned up all of my clothes. Tonight, I’ll go to the square. I finish my diary!
I would pay cash money to read the English journals.
When you share something like this, it makes me think (with some horror) about digging up my college journals, in which, if I recall correctly, I was similarly ridiculous but about topics like uh trying to decode WCW’s poetic foot and maybe pioneering a new prosody for the modern day, etc. Blech.
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I have to admit, I partly hung onto these diaries all these years just kind of assuming they were something to be proud of and treasure. Reading them is a real slap in the face — I definitely need to ensure they are destroyed before I kick off.
Oh, yes, the old “when I’m famous, these will provide a lot of insight into the making of a literary hero” feeling. I’m well acquainted with it. You can just ship these to me and I’ll see to their dissemination — I mean to their destruction — for you.