Words by Kourtney Sappenfield, a psychology and criminal justice major from Indiana University who studied abroad in Florence during spring semester 2016.
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One of the first things that I always got asked when I got home from Italy was, “Did you participate in their culture?”
At the beginning of my trip, I didn’t think I would be able to answer that question. I was shy and completely out of my comfort zone. I was confused on how I was supposed to be outgoing when I felt so reserved about my new home. I also don’t think the language barrier helped either; I mean why does a Spanish minor choose to go to Italy, I don’t know?
Regardless, I slowly tried to adapt by incorporating as many Italian words as I could into my daily vocabulary, thinking that would help me meet locals. However, I don’t think my knowledge of “ciao” or “grazie” was enough. It wasn’t until CAPA introduced a brand-new program called “GANZO!” that they were organizing. If you signed up, a family could basically adopt you for the semester. I immediately emailed back with great interest hoping to get chosen. I knew this would be the perfect gateway for me to truly be involved in the Italian culture, and sure enough I was chosen.
I remember the day I met my “GANZO! mom.” I was full of nerves and had no idea what to expect. I remember sitting on the couches at CAPA waiting and then finally a woman walked in asking for me. Paola seemed very excited and took no hesitation to greet me and apologize for her poor English. I immediately felt at ease. Our conversation grew to learn more about each other and I even discovered how the family had lived in the state where I am from for a couple of years. I felt so distracted by our mutual interests and the fast-paced excitement of our conversation that my nerves ceased to exist. This feeling lasted until she abruptly stopped and invited me to dinner, which I was not prepared for since this was only suppose to be a welcome meeting. I couldn’t say no and I became increasingly more excited to meet the rest of the family, as well as have my first home cooked Italian meal.
Not only was the experience in general a step out of my comfort zone but there was one step more added when I realized that I would have to take a train by myself in order to get to their house. When I finally got to their house I was bombarded by hellos and hugs from the girls. Paola has three girls; Linda, Alice, and Sophie. I started to feel overwhelmed, however the feeling quickly subsided when I realized that the girls were feeling the same way about me. After a little bit of push from Paola, the girls started to open up and talk to me in English. I felt more and more comfortable and the girls were too as we started to learn more and more about weird and fun things from each other’s cultures. Except for little Sophie who couldn’t yet speak English. Though she knew that we could not understand each other, she would still come sit right next to me and speak to me in Italian.
The rest of the night consisted of me teaching the girls and Paola new English words as well as learning about their cultural dos and don’ts, not to mention a fancy sheet made by Alice with the English translation of foods that I could buy from the market. Oh and I can’t forget about the cool Tinkerbell movie we all squished on the couch to watch while eating some fantastic homemade pizza.
Not only was the first night the push I needed to get out of my comfort zone, but it was also was the first time I felt at home in Italy. I went on to visit them two times a week, bringing fun books to read in English as well as my Italian homework, which they loved to help me do because they would laugh together at my inadequacy. I learned more about the culture from the dinner table with Paola and her husband Marco than I ever could have from a book and experienced more of Florence there than I could from a classroom. I picked up Italian faster than most and it’s safe to say it was from my two little teachers who were patient with me even when I couldn’t pronounce the letters “gli.” I also learned the importance of food and how to make a mean tiramisu (not bragging, but it’s fantastic).
I am incredibly thankful for this family and the opportunity I was given to be with them. The girls helped me grow as a person, and as the weeks continued I stepped farther and farther out of my comfort zone. I wasn’t even the least bit scared at the playground with the girls when I was trying to speak Italian with all of their friends. Paola not only became a great friend, but also my Italian mom who did not hesitate to help me when I called her at 7 in the morning with a 101-degree fever. All in all I am incredibly thankful for them and hope to stay in communication.
Now, when I am asked if I was involved in the culture of Italy, I can’t wait to tell people the answer.