I think my Travel Writing professor knew how my class was going to feel after study abroad when she assigned the reading of Florence in Ecstasy by Jessie Chaffee. It tells the story of an American woman named Hannah who goes to Florence, Italy to conquer her eating disorder in a new setting. One of the habits Hannah develops to tame her disorder is making a daily list in her head of everything she ate.
When I came home from a semester of studying abroad in Florence, I also found myself making lists in my head, but they were not of food. When I took a walk in my Massachusetts hometown for the first time in months, my mind immediately started listing every difference I saw between Chicopee and Florence: no cobblestone streets, no tall buildings, no tourists and no hourly church bells ringing.
With all the differences I observed between the two cultures, there were also some similarities I noticed. This caused me to feel, as Hannah did in the book, like I was in two places at once. This feeling occurred when I met up with a friend just a week after I came home. We took a 45-minute drive to Northampton to get myself out of the house as I had trouble adjusting to being home. It helped me feel like myself again, reminding me of the excitement of traveling to a new place.
But every time I looked around, I wasn’t in Northampton anymore. I was somewhere else.
When we parked on the roof of the parking garage, I saw a church tower and immediately thought of the Duomo, the famous church in Florence. When we walked around the small but lively city filled with humble shops, I suddenly felt like I was in Dublin, Ireland, one of the places I traveled to while abroad. Then I saw the hanging star-shaped lamp I saw at my hostel when I was in Paris. Then we passed a restaurant that had falafel, a food that was on the menu at my favorite restaurant in Florence. Street performers. Pizza shops. The list goes on.
Like Hannah, I’ve been experiencing a feeling of displacement changing from one lifestyle to another. Some would call it reverse culture shock. Back in Florence, I walked a mile everyday into the city to eat, study and discover new places. Now that I’m home, I find myself struggling to even put one foot out the door due to the record-breaking cold temperatures and snowstorm. So, I find myself staying inside for most hours of the day, seeing nothing but the familiar.
Don’t get me wrong; being with my family again has been nothing but a blessing. But coming home to things that haven’t changed after I just saw so many life-changing things? I feel like a square block trying to fit into a round hole. I don’t feel like I fit in the way I used to. I feel different. This has caused me to isolate from my friends a little.
It brought upon a fear that my friends at SNHU got so used to my absence while abroad that they would forget about me when I get back. I’m even afraid that none of the things I just experienced within the past four months were real. That it was all just a dream.
So, I go through my photos and I read my travel journal. I reflect on how I went from being an insecure New Englander who had never been to another country to a confident traveler who’s been to four. I was so afraid to talk about my dreams to people before I left. Now dreams will become the main subject of my conversations.
I think of how I can’t wait to tell my friends stories of my adventures and show them the endless possibilities in life. Then I remind myself that I just lived in a foreign country on my own for four months, and I am more than capable of taking on the challenges that lie ahead of me as I prepare to graduate.
I think my travel writing professor knew how my class was going to feel after study abroad when she assigned us that book. But I also think she wanted us to have hope that the end of studying abroad wasn’t the end of our travels or our dreams. Why?
The author of the book is a member of my school’s alumni. She too studied abroad in Florence, then returned to complete the book under a Fulbright grant just years later…