Diary of a US student who chose to remain in Rome

My dad tapped his fingers, on the steering wheel, to the beat of some heavy metal song. My mom sat in the seat behind me, ranting about me making friends on the plane and sticking with them while abroad.

Meanwhile, I stared out the windshield and ignored them both. My tears blurred the cars that began to stack in front of us, as we slowly inched our way through traffic. Truthfully, I had no intention of going to Rome, and when my dad made a wrong turn, I thought this was my way out. I was going to miss my flight, and I could continue living my regular life.

For most people, change is scary. Leaving home is scary, but this fear is multiplied tenfold when moving to a new country, a new continent. The closer we got to the airport, the closer I got to my new life – five months away from my friends, my family, my job. Five months I would spend studying at Temple University’s Rome campus.

Unfortunately for me, I made my flight. It was a close call. I arrived at my gate only minutes before they began to board the plane. An overwhelming 4,358 miles, over 7,000 kilometers, lay between my hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and my new home in Rome. These miles I took in stride with airline food and classic American comedies. I knew that there was no turning back, but I was resentful and focused on 2 May 2020, the day I would be flying home.

When we touched down in Rome, I was exhausted. My brain struggled to comprehend the fact that I was somewhere I had never been before. For the majority of my first day in Rome, I was convinced that we were still in America. "Maybe they just took us on a really long plane ride down to Florida?" My only reminders of being in a foreign country were the airport signs written in Italian or hearing Italians speak their native tongue.

A Drive through the Countryside

Temple Rome had arranged for shuttles to pick us up from the airport and drive us to the living quarters. Six of us sat in the back of that shuttle. We exchanged names, majors and hometowns. Their information has since slipped my mind, but I will never forget that drive. The girl sitting across from me pointed out the window and exclaimed, “Look at those trees. They look like they’re from Africa.” She was referring to the Umbrella Pine trees that only grow needles at the top, but the pines fascinated all of us.

They were also a welcomed distraction from Italian driving. In America, we tend to paint Italians in this romantic light. Their food is romantic. Their wine is romantic. Their language is romantic. They are romantic, but the one thing in Italy that isn’t romantic is their driving. Italians are aggressive, fast drivers. Horns blare. Tires screech. Brakes scream. I have lived here for almost two months now, and I am just now starting to overcome my fear of crossing the street.

A New Home

When the driver stopped the car, I remember jumping to get out. Exiting that vehicle was the first thing that I was excited about, since landing in Rome. We were outside of our new home. There was the Residence, the place that I would call home for the next couple of months. Located near Saint Peter's basilica, in Rome’s downtown district, the Residence is a compound. Composed of five buildings and a countless number of rooms, I remember entering the residence and comparing it to a maze.

A man named Salvatore walked me to my room, he was polite and asked me in a thick Italian accent if it snowed in Philadelphia. I couldn’t understand him and made a complete fool out of myself when I said back: “Does it nose in Philadelphia?” He laughed at me, and I couldn’t help but think to myself that this was going to be a long semester.

Salvatore carried my bag up the stairs and lead me to my room, 306 – building three, floor zero, room six. When he opened the door, I was surprised to see a bed in my kitchen, which turned out to be a makeshift couch. The bathroom had a bidet next to the toilet. The bedroom was filled with three beds, and that was when I felt myself start to panic again. Three girls cannot share a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom. I kept reminding myself of that 2 May departure date and began counting down the days.

Wanted in Rome 

I was just becoming acclimated to my new apartment and my new school, when I had to introduce myself to my new job. Coming to Rome, I knew that I had an internship. I knew where that internship was, but I had no idea what I would be doing. I thought that I would be making copies or taking coffee orders, but I was completely wrong. 

Upon meeting my internship sponsor, I discovered that I would be writing articles that would actually be published. Most journalism students would do just about anything to have the opportunity that was presented to me, but I wanted to run screaming through the door. Before starting my internship at Wanted in Rome, the only articles that I had written were for class assignments. I had never written for a media platform. I’ve never been published, and I was convinced that I was in over my head.

Home Sick 

At the end of that first week, I broke down. I was overwhelmed with my new situation. School and work hadn’t started yet. We were only in the transitioning phase, and there I stood on the patio outside of my room crying like a baby. I begged my parents to buy me a ticket home. 2 May became an unreachable goal. All I wanted to do was cuddle with my dog and cry. I even missed my college roommate, whom I hadn’t gotten along with since freshman year. I was broken.

Learning to Live Again

I was beginning to feel like a robot, simply passing through the motions in life: school, work, eat, sleep. It was a lonely and exhausting cycle. Then, something changed. I made friends, something that I never would have thought would happen. I met amazing, inspiring people that I admired and loved to be around. We laughed over cones filled with gelato, planned birthday trips to Naples, watched terrible reality shows on Netflix and looked forward to trips together out of the country. They completely changed my life, and I will forever be grateful for them. As we go our separate ways, I hope that we remain in touch and see each other again.

Broken in Berlin

Sourced from a wet market in China, the COVID-19 virus, better known as the Coronavirus, began to spread worldwide. We, along with the majority of my peers in the Temple Rome program, weren’t worried about the virus. We are all healthy young adults capable of fighting off a disease that primarily, and unfortunately, affects elderly people, infants and persons with immuno-deficiency disorders. We all knew that we would survive the disease, if we contracted it. However, while the disease infiltrated boarders, an even more infectious hysteria spread across media platforms. 

It was Saturday, 29 February, when we got to the news. The CDC (Centre for Deaseas Controle) had just raised Italy to a Level 3 travel warning, advising against all non-essential travel to Italy. It was 13.00, and I was on a walking tour through Berlin. My roommate and I read the email together: “I am writing with some very unfortunate news.” Temple Rome was sending all of us home. My roommate and I tried calling our parents. My mom was at work. Her parents were ok with her staying in Europe, but the both of us were in denial. This has to be an April Fool’s joke.

Berlin became dull, and neither one of us were excited about the city anymore. Our being sent home was like a dark cloud that hung over our heads. I remember just wanting to sleep. When I finally got a hold of my mom, she offered me a solution: “Move to Spain.” I was baffled, and I thought that she would insist that I come home. Along with my roommate, a couple of my other friends from the program were in Berlin. We decided to meet up, support each other and come up with a plan. So, many countries were thrown around: the United Kingdom, Greece, Spain, Italy. Was Italy even an option anymore? We were all scared.

A Decision to Stay

I seriously considered leaving Italy and moving to a new country. I also considered going home, going back to work, hanging out with my friends. However, there was this voice in my head that told me that if I left Italy, I would regret that decision for the rest of my life.

Things had gone from bad to worse. Flights were being canceled, and the boarders looked as though they would be officially closed and soon. I was in Barcelona, at this point, in a constant struggle with myself. The news had ruined Berlin, and it was starting to affect my time in Barcelona, as well. One moment, I would tell myself: “You need to go home.” In the very next moment, I would remind myself of all of the things I would miss out on. I hadn’t seen the Colosseum or the Sistine Chapel. If I left, I wouldn’t get my free gelato. Most importantly, I would never have this opportunity again. 

My friend found a place for us to stay. The apartment was cheap and close to Vatican City, an area that I was extremely familiar with. I was sat in a pub, sipping on this unidentified drink mixed with Ginger Beer, when I started to have an anxiety attack. All of my thoughts started to whirlwind in my mind, and I knew that I couldn’t make the decision on my own. I walked out, and on the streets of Barcelona, I called my mom. I told her what was going on. I told her about my doubts, my confusion, my worries: “Mom, I just want God to come down and give me my answer.” God didn’t come down, however. She just made the decision for me. 

I was staying. 

A New Apartment and New Rules

My flight back to Rome was last Friday, 6 March. My roommate was officially going back to the States, a decision that conflicted with her parents’ previous permissions. Her plane was scheduled for departure on Sunday. We were both heartbroken by her parents’ decisions and planned a busy weekend filled with tours, gelato and packing. I was stressed with all of the running around, but in retrospect, it was probably one of the smartest decisions I made. 

My new roommates and I had only been in our apartment for less than 48 hours, when we got the latest update. The entire country of Italy was in lockdown. Hysteria had taken a strong hold on the government, and everything was changing. Museums, theaters, schools, nightclubs have been officially shut down, at least until 3 April 2020. Bars, cafés, restaurants, stores are being run on a strict schedule. If public spaces are allowed to be open, they are only open from 6.00 to 18.00. There isn’t a strict curfew for people. We can walk around whenever we want. We can go wherever we want, but it feels as if there isn’t anywhere to go.

Now, I spend most of the day stuck inside my apartment, writing or binge-watching shows on Netflix. Yesterday, I had the lucky opportunity to go grocery shopping, but all-in-all, I don’t regret a thing. I don’t regret staying. As much as I tried to fight Rome, in the beginning, I have since embraced her. My heart is in Rome. She is my new home, and I will never give up on her. No disease, mass-hysteria, school or government could ever change my mind. Italy will rise again, and I can’t wait to watch.