I write now a little less than a month before my flight home. It’s at this point in my stay that, when spending time with our now close-knit group of friends, someone occasionally mentions that we have less than four weeks together before we all part ways. Then someone else tells that person to shut up.
At this point, I’m familiar with Tuscany. But in that familiarity I find new things to appreciate, as my Italian and understanding of the local culture grow. I no longer find it strange that I eat pasta at least once, usually twice a day, but now I notice how, at the neighborhood pasticceria where most of us at the school go for lunch, the locals order things off the menu, like Mandarin speakers at a Chinese restaurant. Now that I’m better able to keep up with my host parents’ fast Italian, I notice my host father’s Sienese accent, which turns the hard ‘c’ into an ‘h’. I notice that I’ve made adaptations to a new environment, culture, language, and I wonder what adaptations I might notice if I stayed here for months or years more. In a recent conversation with a friend, who also studied abroad in Europe, he described the return to the states thusly: “its a jolting, dissatisfying change to go from a) a dynamic state of accelerated meaning-making (travel), to b) a bland, old-hat backdrop of meanings with which you are familiar.”
Of course, I have mixed feelings about going home. Now would be a great time to leave everything behind, stay with my Greek friends for the holidays, join a commune, see the million and one things I didn’t get to see in my brief time here. I thought I would miss the States, and I do, but I feel it won’t be the same country as the one I left. There’s a strong argument to be made that the country hasn’t been qualitatively changed by this election cycle, that the forces of sexism, white supremacy, and myriad forms of xenophobia have not just been present since the founding of the nation, but are the foundations of the nation. But, from my vantage point on the other side of the West, it seems that the transition from the implicit to the explicit has been a major one, a transition that has taken its toll on the people I hold dear in the Pioneer Valley. So while I would really love to abandon ship now, I know it would be out of the privilege of someone with freedom of movement, and of someone who is at relatively less risk under a Trump presidency than most of my friends. If I’ve ever felt any responsibility towards my country (which I consider to be an amalgamation of people and places, not a government), it’s now, especially as someone whose privileges have helped make this disaster possible.
I now write from home, the day after my return. Though it was only yesterday I took my final, sweaty, melodramatic walk through Siena to the bus station, it already feels so far away (3,969 miles to be exact). I couldn’t help but reflect on how four months is kind of an odd amount of time to spend somewhere. Do I really know Siena? Did I really transcend the typical tourist-type mindset (and writing) that I said I would when I applied for this blogging position? I felt like perhaps I did, when I said my final ‘ciao’s to the bartenders, fruit vendors, and friends of my host parents who I saw on my lugubrious ultimate trek. But almost immediately my pride dissipated when I realized I needed to check Google Maps to make sure I was on the right path to the bus station I had been to many times before. (In my defense, I was taking an alternate route to avoid a gauntlet of Christmas shoppers).
But still, I wonder about how ‘authentic’ my experience was. I don’t recall if my teacher
used the specific word on our initial Skype call in the Spring, but he certainly had some disdain for programs in Florence or Rome where students come back “not even knowing the language.” ‘Authentic’ is a term that gets tossed around a lot in Italy–everyone wants an Authentic Tuscan Chianti, or a stay in an Authentic Tuscan Farmhouse. At a performance piece that I saw called “Talking Shit,” performer David Glass joked that the English were buying all of Tuscany. The locals, too, seek the authentic, though perhaps less explicitly. One cattle ranch that I visited, though now well established, faced a good deal of suspicion when it first opened, as the locals didn’t trust outsiders to raise the local ‘traditional’ breeds of cattle.
Having grown up myself in a tourist destination, I can recognize how moot the question of authenticity is. It’s a term that continental Americans usually only use when we’re eating the other– authentic Vietnamese food, Italian food, etc.–but I can imagine the day when Cape Cod tourists book a stay in an ‘authentic’ Cape Cod beach house (because we all live on the beach, obviously) and only eat ‘authentic’ seafood. Airbnb is already attempting to spread this language out from European tourist centers, selling a way for you to actually “live there”, wherever ‘there’ may be. But while I don’t think simply forking over the money for a stay at someone’s apartment, or even a Tuscan agriturismo, buys you the authenticity of ‘living there’, I think there’s something to be said for the phrase. I ‘lived there’ in Siena not just in the sense that I slept there most nights, but that I made friends, learned which contrade had beef with each other, got annoyed by schoolwork and other petty things, had crushes, etc. I may not have met many Italians, but I played a part in a more recent tradition in the city of Siena, which is hosting students from all over Europe and the world who both become a part of the city and exist on its margins.
But now, having been welcomed back to the US by border security agents perusing the anarchist literature I had with me (“to keep me safe”), it’s as if I never left. Will I fulfill the promises I made to return someday, and will it also feel like I never left Italy? Will I go live in another country again and have myself another ‘authentic’ experience? I hope so. But for now all I can know for certain is that travel is weird, man.