My mother and I had just come back from the notary’s office. We sat down in one of my favourite coffee shops and the realisation that she had vouched to pay back my scholarship if my academic performance wasn’t up to par terrified me. I thought to myself “What a gesture of love, to be so painfully aware that we could never pay back that kind of money if I failed, but to put yourself on the line anyway.” It was a kind of love that went beyond all prudence. My mother had been the one who encouraged me to apply for the scholarship in the first place.
I was so overwhelmed by the paper trail that had been building up over the past couple of weeks. The Centre for International Cooperation requested an official invitation letter from the university that would be hosting me. I hadn’t received it yet, despite many calls and e-mails sent out into the Italian administrative void. Sat next to my mother, I began to cry over the uncertainty of it all. I was putting so much energy into preparing for something that might never happen because of one stupid piece of paper. I was exhausted and I had lost hope.
Mum said it was okay to give up if I felt like it. She promised nobody would mind. The problem was, I would have minded. I had become intent on leaving, living abroad for a brief window of time, learning the language and working closely with the Centre for European Modernism Studies in Perugia. All of these prospects were so attractive that the location was entirely secondary to me. I could not even imagine how beautiful Italy was as I rubbed my red eyes.
Three years ago, several towns in Umbria had crumbled in the aftermath of a series of earthquakes. It seemed that the universe was sending me a sign, and the sign said STOP. Time had gone by in a flash, it was now Christmas Eve and no formal letter of invitation had arrived. Everything seemed pointless. My departure, which had been scheduled for January, was no longer certain. I went to bed feeling defeated, but I woke up believing in Santa Claus. The missing document was in my inbox on Christmas Day. Part of going on a journey like Erasmus is trusting that things will sort themselves out eventually, especially if they’re administrative issues.
I like to think that all my fears made my arrival in the town which I would call home for the following 7 months all the more extraordinary. Sure, I had googled it, but I had no idea what kind of life it would give me. I didn’t even know what my new apartment would look like as my uncle, who spoke Italian, was the one who had made the arrangements with the landlord. The town stole my heart in the blink of an eye and I was so earnestly in love with every set of scale, muri and acquedotti that every time I took a walk I got butterflies in my stomach. I had never been anywhere so unashamedly beautiful. Jasmine bloomed in every courtyard, jazz roared as summer rolled in. I chose my favourite café, pizzeria and spot in the library and maintained them religiously.
The first person I spoke Italian to was Chiara Sola, during the oral component of our Italian language placement test. She squeezed me in with the advanced learners, although I only knew how to use the present tense and how to say I was hungry. Every class with her was full of laughs, and while she caught on pretty fast that I was obnoxiously shy, she pushed me until I became as fluent as I could have possibly gotten.
The rest of my professors were no less memorable. I’ll never forget how I walked into Sandro Gentili’s Literary Criticism class speaking beginner’s Italian and he, with his infinite patience and poise, asked me to stay on and read Dante with everyone else. He loved having foreigners in his class and he explained everything so clearly that even a Martian could have understood what he was getting at. Carla Vergaro taught us linguistics, and her final exam was tough. I thought it was my last chance to tell her how enlightened I felt by her class, so I wrote her a little note at the end of my paper, turned it in and ran off to Passignano sul Trasimeno for the weekend. On Monday, she asked me to come to her office to discuss my final grade, but in reality, she had answered my note on the exam paper and wanted me to read her reply and stay for a chat.
My host university was nothing short of exemplary, it stimulated, motivated and inspired me. I never worried about my mother having to pay back the scholarship. I put in the work without thinking about it. I was truly in love with everything I had learned and I had access to so many amazing resources that I could never get my hands on at home.
I know that a lot of people like to pass Erasmus off as something akin to a vacation. I’m not sure that moving somewhere new is enough to change someone’s life. I’ve always found education to be pivotal. When people promote Erasmus+, they like to reminisce about their Friday nights and weekends. I’d like to go against the grain and show you that I had the time of my life studying. Thanks UniPG Lettere!