By Audrey Sinclair
During my first week living in Trastevere, a neighborhood in Rome, I took baby steps into the new culture. Visiting local bars for a coffee or stopping into the supermarket in an attempt to grocery shop for a couple meals felt like a huge task, but it presented me with opportunities to get to know my neighbors and learn if they really were so different from myself.
After visiting the cafe situated below my apartment enough times to feel relaxed next to its intimidatingly large pastry case and lengthy drink menu, I began to make conversation with the bartender. These conversations were brief, but warm. Despite the language barrier cutting our conversations short, his wide grin and friendly attitude allowed me to feel welcome in a way I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to.
“Caffè, and… is this Nutella?” I asked, pointing to a pastry stuffed with a chocolate filling.
“Oh yeah,” said the bartender with a smile. He snatched up the pastry from the case with metal tongs and presented the snack on a plate for me, then clicked his tongs at me and grinned.
“Grazie,” I said with a chuckle, and turned my attention to savoring the treat in front of me. It’s easy to blow off this type of interaction in my hometown, as my head is usually in a cloud of stress and worry, and everyone else’s is, too. At home, I work at a gas station with a deli and coffee shop in it, where it is my job to make sure everyone gets in and out of the store and back on the road as quickly as possible. I rarely have conversations with guests.
My visits to coffee bars and sandwich shops couldn’t be more different here. Even if I don’t have the nerve to strike up a conversation with my server, I can count on there being other patrons beside me exchanging a few words. Being in the atmosphere of friendly, natural chatter allows me to realize that there are still places in the world that are kind to strangers and warm to guests. Maybe it’s not the foreign cultures that are exclusive and cold. Maybe it’s my own.
I thought my semester studying abroad in Rome would be impossible. After being surrounded by news and gossip stereotyping other cultures and using them as an easy target for blame of our problems, one could expect a visit to a foreign country to be as effortless as to a trip to Mars. However, spending these past few weeks in Rome has felt natural.
I breathe in deeply, absorbing the culture around me. From the food to the fashion, I am surrounded by beauty too big to fit into these sentences and immersed into small, wholesome moments of inclusion with strangers that feel too delicate to try to grasp on to, fearing I might shatter the moment like glass. Spending a short time in a place far from home has reassured me that underneath all of the violence, inequality, and injustices plaguing the world, good people still exist and these good people will still be here tomorrow.
I worried endlessly about my first time traveling to a country that is separated from my own by an ocean. Surely, the culture would be different, and so would the people. I had no idea what to expect, other than that it would be, simply, different. People told me it might even be dangerous. In the weeks leading up to my departure, a ball of anxiety settled in my gut as if I had somehow swallowed a rock. Witnessing the then-President-Elect, now-President riding a campaign of fear and hate left me feeling unsure if this trip was a good idea at all. A man so embarrassing and unjust encouraging millions of people to use patriotism as an excuse to hate those who are different and other than ourselves mixed with other countries rolling their eyes and turning their backs on America seemed like a certain recipe for disaster. I anticipated four months of walking around with my gut full of anxiety, weighing me down.
Instead, the Italians have accepted me as one of their own with open arms and rich cups of coffee. My shame and travel anxiety no longer plague me. I know that when I go to the bar downstairs, the bartender will serve me with pleasure and the other patrons will make a space for me at the counter, whether I know how to speak Italian or not.