Friday, January 6, 2006: A herd of bedraggled, jetlagged American students arrives in Italy, wide-eyed and expectant. At the airport, we’re met by the energetic members of the Umbra staff, and with suitcase(s) in hand, we commence our journey towards life, liberty, and the pursuit of property (for those whose luggage didn’t quite make the transatlantic jump). For these students, la dolce vita has just begun.
As eight chartered buses take us to Perugia, the excitement builds. The bus is eerily silent; some people are dozing, others sit with faces glued to the windows, entranced by the scenery flying by. After a few hours, the bus begins its winding ascent towards the center of town. A testament to the leisurely Italian concept of time, Christmas decorations still hang in the streets, lighting our path: prickly stars of white light piercing the cold night air. And suddenly, we’re in Perugia, the medieval hilltop city we’ll be calling home for the next four months.
How does one describe the experience of smelling, savoring, soaking up Perugia? We’ve already met quite a few Americans who say they’ve been seduced by this place, and it’s no small wonder. To succumb to the labyrinth of ancient cobbled streets, to surrender yourself to the melodic sounds of the language…this is what it means to live here. Perugia seeps into the soul.
But lest we get too carried away in mystical revelry, let’s not forget the intrusion of a few harsh realities: Why are shops closed between 1 and 4 pm daily? No laundry machines in our apartments? Heat for only eight hours a day? Our time thus far in Italy, like any time in a foreign country, demands some level of adjustment, a willingness to accept the inevitable inconveniences of a vastly different culture.
When we disembarked at the Rome airport one week ago, eyes glazed and muscles aching, we were all strangers, vaguely exhilarated and mildly terrified, completely unaware of what lay in store. Today, after a whirlwind week of orientation, moving into apartments, blossoming friendships, cultural immersion, daily language classes, cioccolato, vino, and (of course) pizza, we know this town a little better. We’ve all become better navigators, thanks to the brilliant pocket-sized map included in our Umbra orientation packets. We’re starting to be able to do Euro-Dollar conversions without the help of a calculator (though not always with pleasing results; see US government with complaints).
Students and staff have cooked and eaten together, and copious amounts of pictures have been taken. By now, most of us have ordered a cappuccino at an Italian café, even those with limited language skills. And the girls have become quite skilled at fending off amorous Italians. Our daily routine has started to sink in and feel like normal. But then we pause to take a peek out our balconies, and what do we see? A lush valley of green and brown, speckled with warm rosy homes, an occasional church steeple cresting the skyline; hillsides bathed in rural rainbows of gold and crimson and burnt orange, with massive mountains looming in the distance beyond. No; this is most assuredly not normal. Some sights remain unconquerable, defying capture by all digital conventions, equally inexplicable by prose. And we are lucky enough to be in this place.
It seems merely a trick of memory that little more than a week ago, we were living in the US, engrossed by McDonald’s, satellite TV, and central air and heat. Each day here provides a new opportunity for travel, growth and exploration, for memories to be made and chances to be taken. I wake up every morning, look out the window, breath a sigh of incredulity, and laugh at my life. Spring semester 2006, Perugia, Italy…get ready. The adventure of a lifetime awaits.