I stepped off the plane at Fiumicino airport in disbelief. The warm breeze on that beautiful August day brought with it a wave of emotions that I’ll never forget feeling. I couldn’t believe I was actually in Rome, and that I would be spending the next four months of my life there. I felt both excited, and completely insane; I didn’t know anyone like me who had studied abroad, making me feel like I must’ve been crazy to take such a huge leap into the unknown.
The months leading up to my flight to Rome were difficult to say the least, and full of challenges. I had been working six days per week, with some shifts up to 13 hours long, just to save up enough money. I was also working through a debilitating breakup from a five-year relationship with someone I swore I’d marry. I was having a tough time learning to love myself, and working through different emotions on a daily basis. I spent my days laughing with friends and going through the motions, but spent my nights doing some serious inner work, crying my eyes out, and facing too many blunts. On top of all that, my best friend and I were apartment hunting, freaking out about whether or not we’d find a place to live, and to find someone decent to sublease my room while I was gone; I had to drop some serious cash on this, only a month before leaving to Italy. My body remembers the stress of these times as I write about them. Some may think I went to Rome to runaway, but I was really running towards myself. My soul was begging for a new experience away from everything that was comfortable, so this trip was an essential part of my growth.
Now you may be wondering why I picked Rome. The culture had always attracted me, and it’s one that I wanted to explore. As a kid, I would always tell my mom I’d move to Italy and marry an Italian - man or woman. Plus, as a huge foodie, there is no better place to study abroad than Italy.
There I was, in Rome’s Fiumicino airport, reflecting as I waited for my ride to my new Roman home. It was a hectic day at Fiumicino. It was the day after the 2016 Olympics had ended, and the Italian team was just arriving from Brazil. There were tons of people in the airport holding up signs and chanting “Italia! Italia! Italia!”. Every chant was like a pinch to my skin to let me know that I was awake, and that this was not a dream - I was really in Italy!
I was picked up at the airport by students who worked at The American University of Rome, the school I’d be attending in a week. The ride from Fiumicino to the city was an interesting one. I was on the van with two white girls, one of which would not stop complaining about nothing, and bragging about how much she’d traveled, and how her parents told her to make as many international calls as she wanted to, because they could afford it. “I remember when I went to Germany, my phone bill was higher than my hotel stay for five days, and my parents were totally cool with it,” she said. I rolled my eyes and made a mental note of reason #101 why I wanted to launch The Soul Flight. I believe people who have not had the opportunity to travel, have a greater appreciation for these experiences, and view them from a different lens. Plot twist: That same girl ended up going back home a week later; I shook my head as I watched her attend Trump rallies on Snapchat.
I tuned her out, and focused on taking in the sights outside the van. We didn’t drive through the city center, but I was just as amazed by the average things like the motorbikes and tiny cars parked in the street, the pharmacies that all looked the same, and the graffiti - so much graffiti, which I wasn’t expecting.
It felt so great to arrive at my new apartment. I thought it was going to be a tiny place with dorm-style rooms. Although my bed was tiny, somehow more narrow than a twin-sized bed, the apartment was not; it was beautiful! We had a nice big kitchen with a balcony and a washing machine, a cozy living room, three huge bedrooms, and two bathrooms. The building itself was full of students and local, Italian residents. I was exhausted from my nine-hour flight, and from changing to a time zone that was six hours behind. Nonetheless, I showered, got dressed, and went out to explore.
The blanquitas from the van wanted to have lunch with me, but luckily the annoying one lived too far, so I ended up hanging out with the other girl, whose apartment was right up the block from me. We walked around aimlessly, and had our first Italian pizza al taglio (pizza cut into rectangular pieces), which wasn’t great, because we got it from a kebab place, which are actually very popular in Rome. I immediately figured out that if you ask for pepperoni, you’re going to get a pizza with red peppers, because the pepperoni pizza we know, does not exist in Italy. I’m sorry for breaking your hearts, but Alfredo pasta is not Italian either. My first gelato however, was to die for. The moment the first bite of creamy gelato dissolved onto my taste buds, my romance with gelato began - one that would contribute to my 15-pound weight gain. It's a good thing I got to Italy with tight abs.
We were both in awe of Rome’s beauty, and we hadn’t even seen the center of the city. We lived in Trastevere, a charming, somewhat quiet, residential neighborhood, that was close enough to the center that we could get there in 20 minutes by tram, but far enough that we could feel like locals, and dine at low-key, affordable, and amazing restaurants. After a few hours of walking around with the nice girl I had met, jet lag took over me, and I had to go home and take a nap - or pisolino as Italians call it. My body felt so heavy, as if I had a rope wrapped around my waist, by which I was dragging a pick-up truck. I had never felt that tired in my life, and continued to feel that way for a week.
When I got back to the apartment, I was greeted by my five new housemates. I was most excited to meet Gina, my super chill and funny roommate, who also goes to FIT. Gina and I met through a Google Hangouts group chat, and decided to room together out of the fear of getting stuck with a shitty roommate. Gina has had roommates from hell, and I had never lived with students before, just my very clean best friend. My other housemates were students from The American University in D.C., two of which I loved and ended up getting really cool with. The other two, whom Gina called “the vegan” and “the sick one”, were actually really sweet girls, but I hated them because they were dirty. I grew up in a Dominican-cleaning bootcamp, a.k.a. my mother’s house, where I learned to make a bathroom sparkle at age 10. They would leave dirty dishes over the weekend while they were away on trips, always left the kitchen a disaster, and the bathroom looked like a war zone - there were even dirty panties on the floor. We had a cleaning lady come by once per week, a luxury I had never experienced, so I was extremely grateful. Just a few hours after she’d clean, we were back to square one. I held back the urge to strangle them, and wrote this kind note instead:
That night, after the best nap of my life, I went to have dinner at a nearby restaurant called Osteria Pistoia. There I met Bruno, a really kind and welcoming, older Italian man. I had read that customer service is not great in Italy - which is true only to some degree - but Bruno defied that stereotype by giving me excellent service and making me feel at home. I ended up going to Osteria Pistoia every monday night by myself, to enjoy a nice glass of wine, eat delicious pasta, people-watch, and chat with Bruno, who spoke zero English by the way. That night, I ate Amatriciana, my favorite pasta dish, which is traditionally made with bucatini pasta, and a homemade tomato and pork sauce. At Osteria Pistoia, they topped it off with bits of crispy bacon, which induced a major foodgasm.
That night, I woke up in a cold sweat, trying to figure out why my bed, and the whole room appeared to be shaking. I thought Gina was doing something weird, but I looked over and she was knocked out cold. I decided I was bugging out, and went back to sleep. The next day, I found out there was an earthquake of a 6.2 magnitude, not far from Rome. The weirdest thing was, the earthquake happened in a city called Amatrice, the city that created the dish I had devoured the night before. I felt so guilty, like it was somehow my fault that this tragedy had happened. The Italian Red Cross, with the help of restaurants all over Italy, held a campaign in which for every plate of Amatriciana ordered, €2 would be donated to help the people of Amatrice. Let's just say Amatriciana became a top choice for me when going out to dinner.
I spent my first week in Rome trying to nap off the jet lag, going on missions to find the school with Gina and some of the other girls from FIT, exploring Trastevere by myself, and eating tons of pizza and gelato. I also went on a school trip to Ostia beach, the first beach I’d ever seen with black sand. People were staring at me, and I stared at them. They weren’t used to seeing a curly-haired girl with a big butt and thigh tattoos - whose race was seemingly unidentifiable; I wasn’t used to seeing golden old people who were topless and wearing tiny speedos. I felt beautiful anyway, and took in the experience.
The truth is, if you're a person of color who is traveling abroad, people will stare at you. However, I choose not to see this as a negative thing, even if it makes me uncomfortable at times. We are beautiful, and truthfully, there aren't enough of us traveling the world, so naturally, people will want to stare at our beautiful curls, curvy bodies, and melanin-rich skin, but that doesn't mean they are judging us. It took staring at other people, with a puzzled look on my face, for me to realize that people staring at you, is not necessarily a bad thing. In the end, we are all just learning about each other however we can.
My next few months in Rome were amazing! I traveled to places I knew nothing about, met amazing people, learned to speak close-to-fluent Italian, and met a beautiful Roman man whom I hold close to my heart, and is actually coming to New York to visit me very soon. Stay tuned, as I share all of these exciting experiences from my time studying abroad.