The first day of orientation began on a Monday, which was fitting since I was feeling the Monday Blues in the form of jetlag and anxiety about the next four months. I felt more at ease after moving into my apartment and meeting my roommates—a fellow IES Abroad student and one of the Resident Assistants. Our apartment has a stunning view of the Basilica of San Domenico that could rival that of any 5-star hotel, and it’s accompanied by my window’s clothesline, which gently reminds me that I’m not visiting Siena, but living in Siena. I’m going to hang laundry and buy groceries, and it’s somehow going to be infinitely less mundane when I’m surrounded by architecture from the Middle Ages and a view of the Tuscan countryside.
The ease of routine, and the comfort that comes with making a place your home, was still a far-fetched concept at the beginning of orientation. The welcome dinner that Monday night, and all subsequent group interactions throughout the week, was dominated by frantic, get-to-know-you conversations. Where are you from? What are you studying? Why did you choose Siena? Beyond the basics, the real friendships began with funny stories about getting lost in the Florence train station or wandering the Pisa airport after a re-directed plane that didn’t bother to announce the destination change in English. I’m so thankful that IES Abroad directly invests in building friendships throughout the group—from an orientation winery trip to dinner reservations with the RAs, there’s always opportunities to create new friendships outside of the people you sit next to in class. While orientation week was filled with uplifting moments like these, I couldn’t escape the steady anxiety of wondering if I would ever feel comfortable here.
Possibly the worst moment of orientation occurred over aperetivos. While our entire program was enjoying plates of cured meat and fresh cheese, a few of us arrived after everyone had been seated, and the only available table was an entire room away. My small group of three kept conversation over the vibrant laughter of our program from across the restaurant. This singular jolt of loneliness quickly grew into a persistent drum in my head that questioned all of the positive interactions I’d experienced that week. I missed my friends back home, the familiarity of my college life, and the security that comes with being a junior rather than a freshman. I genuinely wondered if this moment was going to define my next four months in Siena.
This fluke interaction accurately summarizes orientation week for me. I felt constantly torn between opposites: confidence in the friendships I’ve built with my roommates while feeling isolated from new connections within my program. Rival emotions still prevail as I reflect upon orientation two weeks later. I feel like a tourist when I take photos of the frescos on the University of Siena’s cafeteria walls, but then have flashes of pride when I wind through Siena’s streets without feeling disorientated. Sometimes, I’m horrified that I decided to study abroad without speaking a stitch of Italian; other times, I can’t imagine a better setting to learn a new language.
Grappling with the realistic hardships of studying abroad does not negate the incredible experiences I’ve already had. I love practicing Italian when I order at restaurants, cooking dinner with my roommates, and exploring various cities in Italy during the weekends. Orientation taught me how to prevent bouts of loneliness from overstaying their welcome and overshadowing positive experiences and emotions. While none of the difficulties of studying abroad have gone away quite yet, and the view of San Domenico still makes me linger by the window, I have a favorite grocery store and go-to pizzeria. Every day, Siena feels a bit more like home, and I cannot imagine being anywhere else.
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<p><span style="font-size:13.5pt"><span style="font-family:"Helvetica",sans-serif"><span style="color:#333333">My name is Brooke Fakhoury, and I am from Southern California studying abroad in Siena, Italy! I’m a junior at the University of Richmond, majoring in English with a minor in History. Other than reading and writing (both in and out of the classroom), I enjoy hiking, cheering on my favorite soccer teams, and eating pasta. After graduation, I plan to stay in the East Coast since I’ve grown attached to my winter coat and would hate to retire it so soon.</span></span></span></p>