A brief note from EA: After last week’s post “Trees Never Meet” we got a lot of great response over Zoe’s idea that “perhaps friendship is the ultimate test of whether your ‘service has impact.’” I thought we’d take today to dig in to the idea of friendship a little bit more. When traveling, studying, or living abroad, we are always having an affect on those around us whether we are intentionally “serving” or not. Likewise, the culture we immerse ourselves in will have an impact on our lives as well. So please enjoy this piece on what it means to simply be in a community foreign to your own.
Today’s post comes from Katharine Hurley, a graduate student at Merrimack College studying for a Master’s degree in Higher Education with a Student Affairs focus. She dreams of someday holding a professional job that allows her to intertwine her passion for international cultures with her love for helping others. In addition to traveling, Katharine also adores writing, reading love stories, painting with her younger sisters, spending time with friends, running and laughing.
Take me back to a world of endless possibilities, of beautiful people, of culture, and of life. Take me back to Florence, Italy.
Two years ago, I was preparing my Thanksgiving dinner, which would be shared amongst new friends and family members of Florence, Italy. As I gathered goods from the marketplace in preparation for dinner, I frequently found myself in a state of graceful reflection. I realized that my study abroad experience had differed from others. Originally, I was encouraged to select Florence as my study abroad destination because I had family-friends living there, who could look over me. However, prior to my trip, I had never met or spoken with these Florentine family-friends. Nevertheless, I was excited to do so because this Florentine family had welcomed my grandparents into their home nearly forty years prior.
Let me take a moment to reflect upon my grandparents’ story, which highlights the beginning of my recognition for the beauty of cross-cultural communication. My grandmother had been studying Italian language and participated in a pen-pal arrangement. She was paired with a girl of similar age who was studying English language in Florence, Italy. Their connection proceeded through progressive letters in high school and then into adulthood. The two became best of friends through their letters of shared stories about marriage, children, life and death. Several years later my grandmother and grandfather embarked on a trip to Florence to meet my grandmother’s pen-pal, Mariella Cambi. “She was my best friend and essentially my sister,” my grandmother recalls. Mariella and my grandmother continued writing letters and embarking on adventures to each other’s countries for many. Unfortunately, Mariella passed away fifteen years ago but their beautiful bond was far from over as I embarked on my study-abroad experience to meet Mariella’s daughter, Paola and Paola’s daughter, Alessandra.
The Cambi family welcomed me with open arms, just as they had done for my grandparents so many years prior. Upon meeting the Cambi family, I knew very little Italian. Fortunately, Alessandra studied English in her school and often helped translate amongst the family and me when it became difficult. However, the struggles for communication were still apparent. I spent the most time Paola. It was difficult to communicate and at times frustrating because I greatly desired to learn about her mother, Mariella. This struggle helped me to realize the beauty of international communication in its most pure sense, which exceeded beyond cultural, societal and language boundaries.
Paola and I met frequently at local cafes, local shopping districts and at her home to bake. Without even realizing, our ability to communicate with each other strengthened significantly. It was not because I was getting any better at speaking Italian, either. Paola and I were able to communicate through hand movements, face expressions, tones of voice and laughter. Most of the time I had no idea what she was speaking in Italian, but I knew what she was saying to me. One of my most recalled memories is of an afternoon that I had spent at Paola’s home. She was teaching me how to bake an apple pie. Paola spoke in Italian of the necessary ingredients and their required measurements to make the pie. This, of course, made the baking process much more difficult than usual. However, aside from my miserable cutting job, in which I sent a dozen apples flying through the air with a bad cut of the knife, we were able to create the most delicious apple pie I had ever eaten! I acknowledged that beneath our communication problem of language barriers was the beauty of pure human connection.
I was able to share and further develop this new found understanding with my grandmother and mother, who were able to visit Florence about half-way through my trip. Before I knew it I was boarding the plane to go back home. What a predicament it seemed because after studying in Florence for nearly six months I felt that Italy was my new home, something I could have never imagined upon my departure from the United States. This surprise led me to understand the beauty of our world. Such a beauty, I learned, becomes most relevant when you least expect it.
Paola, was able to come spend time with my family in the United States last winter. It felt great to reciprocate the welcoming that her family had always offered me. I translated many of her statements to my family; it was not the Italian language that I was translating, as I am still not very good at speaking Italian, but the pure human connection that can supersede all boundaries when one is able to become vulnerable, take risks, and communicate through the simple acts of living and being.