The summer before my jr. year in high school, I took advantage of an opportunity to be an exchange student in Italy. It would only be for the summer, but it was really a no brainer for me. I thought, a summer away? A summer surrounded by people that don’t know me? A summer where I don’t have to pretend? A summer away from kissing my mother’s ass? SIGN ME UP!
So, my parents drove me to the airport, and put me on a plane. I was 16 and didn’t know a single soul. I wasn’t traveling with a friend, I didn’t have a chaperone…just ME. It was the most freeing experience (and terrifying!) of my life. I waved goodbye and didn’t look back. I will never forget the freedom I felt the second that plane took off. What a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders! It was amazing.
Then I got off the plane in NYC to switch planes to get to Rome. Navigating my way through a huge airport at age 16 was a bit difficult, I had not flown many times prior to this…but I found my way, and buckled my seatbelt for a long flight to Rome. I couldn’t stop smiling! Sure, I was excited to see a foreign country. Sure, I was excited to meet my 16 year old “sister” that I was going to live with for 3 months. Sure, I was excited to be on such an adventure! How lucky was I?? But what really made me smile, was knowing I was FREE.
I landed in Italy, and walked off the plane and looked around for someone holding a sign with my name on it. It was then that I realized, I still had to interact with people. They may be NEW people, who didn’t know me, but was the real me good enough for them? If it wasn’t for anyone at home? I decided to give it a try anyway. I made a vow to myself that I was going to be Me. The REAL me.
I met a few other American students and we all traveled together to the hostel we were going to spend the night in before we all got on our individual trains to head to our host families. We sat down to dinner at the hostel, and there were big jugs of wine on the tables. WINE. I was 16…I felt like such a rebel when I poured that first glass. And then another…two glasses of wine made my inhibitions fall away and I had such a wonderful night. Talking to all these new people, not even worrying about them liking me…I was liking myself.
When I first met my new “family” the next day, I was struck by how serene they were. How connected. There was now thick tension in the air. The mom and daughter walked to great me at the train holding hands…I couldn’t remember ever holding MY mom’s hand unless it was for safety reasons when I was a kid…It just struck me instantly how close they were. It was obvious that they shared a bond, a love, that I would never have with my own mother, and it made me sad…
I had such an amazing summer…and the experience changed me forever. I gained more self confidence on that trip, then I ever would have if I had not gone. I had a long way to go in that department, but I got a huge head start! There were a few scary times on the trip that I wasn’t sure I was going to find my way home, but I did. I made it through those situations on my own. At 16. In a country where I didn’t speak the language (more than a few key phrases…). It was very empowering.
I came home a new person. SO excited to tell everyone all about it and share my experiences with everyone. Show the pictures, tell my stories. I had a vision in my head of everyone sitting at my feet waiting to hear more…wanting to hear more.
That is NOT what happened.
See, my sister left for college while I was gone. So, even though I had been in a foreign country, all by myself, that summer, to my mother, was the summer that my sister went away to college. She listened to my stories, sure. But never asked questions…never looked excited for me…never asked to see the pictures. I had to pretty much shove them under her nose. It was very disappointing. I guess my expectations had been too high.
And my friends…well…all I can think of, is that many were jealous. Something happened while I was gone. I got back, and all of a sudden no one was talking to me. No one was calling…I finally asked one of my friends why it seemed everyone was mad at me, and she told me, “It’s a shame you were gone all summer. We all really bonded while you were gone.” It was such a blow.
So all that freedom, that new found self confidence…was wiped out in the first 2 weeks I was home. I longed to go back, I wished I had signed up for the whole year. But now I was home. My sister was gone. My friends were not really friends any more. I had to forge a new path for myself. Again.