When I applied to college in Singapore, I did not for a second imagine that two months into freshman year, I would be sipping red wine as I devoured my spaghetti carbonara in La Roma, Italy.
Rome was everything I imagined it to be: crisp, cold air, cobbled stone pavements, trees shedding autumnal gold and the constant pulsating vitality of a city that holds centuries of history within its walls. What I did not imagine, however, was that I would come back from Italy with a fundamentally different perspective with which I see the world.
The one thing that stood out the most was really how international the world has become. There I was, thousands of miles from home, in a beautiful city that I had only seen in movies and the Internet, and somehow, I found things to talk about with strangers that I will probably never see again. There was Phyll, the Nigerian lady who tapped my elbow on bus 75 to La Via Dandolo because she overheard me talking to Professor Hui in English. Phyll was starved for conversation; she said she had been living in Rome for 3 years and that she almost never got to speak in English because Italian was far more commonly used. She told me about her children, four and six years old, who were waiting for her back in Nigeria, and let me hold her baby, who was born away from home, in an adopted city across the sea, only a month and two weeks old. “His name is Exalt,” she told me. “As in to exalt the gods.”
On the train from Naples to Rome, I met another lady, whose name I do not know. She was a fashion designer from Salerno. She spoke a little English; she told me that she was working in Rome, but dreams of London and Paris. “One step at a time,” she said. We ended up talking about traveling, and it turns out that Santorini, Greece was on top of both of our travel lists! It’s funny how you can share these little nuggets of commonality with people seemingly a world away from you.
Then there was Erine, who plopped down next to me on a park bench while I was in the middle of a sandwich, on the Viale di Trastevere and started speaking to me in rapid Italian. I smiled at her mutely and just said “non parlo italiano” and she stared at me, crestfallen. After a few moments of silence, she turns back to me and says, “parlez-vous français?” And that is the story of how I ended up in a lengthy conversation in broken French with Ukrainian born Russian Erine, who had been living in Rome and working at St. Peter’s Basilica for the last seven years. Sitting there on that bench, long after she left, I was left speechless at these precious moments of human connection that could leave me smiling in a world so far removed from my own.
These moments of random friendliness – of the stranger in the Nirvana T-shirt who winked at me when he saw me wearing the same T-shirt, of the shopkeeper who ran down the street after me because I forgot to take my 20 cents of change, of the lady who saw me struggling with a selfie on the Pont di Sisto and offered to take the picture for me- these are what I will remember the most, long after I forget which emperor built the Colosseum, or which Pope commissioned the Sistine Chapel, and it really hits home the thought that had I been buried in my phone or my iPod, as I so often am, these moments would never have happened.
Beyond what I learned in an academic sense, this trip taught me a new way of looking at art, history, architecture and the world around me. It taught me that the world is such a beautiful place, if you let it be.