THE BLOG
09/23/2014 09:00 am ET

My Senior Year Abroad

After spending 355 days in Italy as a solo 68-year-old woman, I'm trying hard to "re-enter and recover" back "home" in Massachusetts. I spent my "Senior Year Abroad," and the experience was a wonder.

In the past year I lived in Florence, in Sicily (on the island of Ortigia, connected to the city of Siracusa), in Rome and in Spoleto (a medieval mountain town in Umbria). I met ex-pats from the States and from the UK and from Australia and from South Africa and more who have chosen to live in Italy and I have met and befriended native Italians. I traveled around Central and Southern Italy, drinking in the beauty and the culture and the history and the food. I marveled at the art and the architecture and the artifacts of old (really really old!).

I consider myself very, very fortunate to have had the opportunity to live my "senior year abroad." My adventure started at the suggestion of my son who told me, "You can do anything you want, Mom -- why don't you take a year off and live somewhere else?" I still consider that invitation to be an incredible gift in so many ways. In Italy, I had so many many highlights -- and some lowlights too, of course. I don't quite yet have room in my head for all of them and need to contemplate them all slowly, trying to remember, re-live and learn.

My story is very personal, of course, but also somehow I think it is also universal. I realize that I took some risks, that I needed to navigate in a foreign landscape with a foreign language and with foreign people, and that I had no guidebook to direct me so that I had to learn about myself and my needs and fears (all of which were real and could loom very very large).

Some of the real highlights, for me, were seeing performance art in historic venues -- I saw 'Agamemnon' in the Greek theater in Siracusa (performed in Italian), 'Carmina Burana' in the Roman Arena in Verona, and many wonderful music, dance and theater performances in Spoleto during the terrific 3 week Festival dei 2Mondi. I really loved these multi-dimensional and emotional experiences and continue to be amazed.

In Italian, which I can speak in a basic kind of way, I know two tenses (Italian has a gazillion -- or at least about 20 -- tenses!). So, one phrase I still love and think to myself constantly is "piano, piano," which of course means "slowly, slowly" and "lightly, lightly." These are good bits of advice for me.

I now wish I understood more idioms in this picturesque and colorful language. I have just enough basic knowledge of Italian to want more and to obsess about getting it right -- which I do rarely. I can, however, barely understand what is spoken back to me. My listening skills are challenged by the various regional Italian dialects and accents as well as by the speed and the complexity of the words. But somehow I managed and I also managed to make friends, which was, by far, the best part of my adventure.

I love the Italian language. Here are some other favorite words:

Girasole -- means "sunflower," and the Italian countryside now is filled with fields and fields of large and gorgeous sunflowers. The word literally means "sun turner," and that is what the flowers do all day -- whole fields of sunflower faces follow the sun's rotation all day. And, in case of rain, the flowers droop and sag and generally look really quite miserable, just the way I can feel in the rain! The sunflowers are used for oil and seeds, and the season is near its end now.

Andiamo -- means "Let's go!" and is usually said loudly and joyfully.

Prego -- means "You are welcome" or "After you."

Permesso -- means "May I?" and is used to ask permission to pass (through the crowd to exit the bus, for example).

Grazie and Grazie mille -- 'Thanks' and "Thanks a million" -- Italians, I found, expected a "grazie" and also appreciated it, often responding, "Grazie a te, Senora" ("Thanks to you, Senora").

Here are some other lasting impressions I am contemplating -- I have so many lessons to learn about myself from this adventure, and the process is challenging and evolving.

1. Italy is still smelly, messy and dirty.

2. I have really learned the value of friends and guardian angels and community.

3. I can do it!

4. I have learned to acknowledge some of my body and aging issues -- damn!

5. I was faced with daily challenges -- as I am in my "reality," of course. Apparently, there is no 'easy' anywhere

6. Kiko (make-up and skin products from Milan) is fabulous and reasonably priced! Other shopping opportunities are sublime, but not necessarily reasonably-priced.

7. Living in Italy is very challenging. Running a business in Italy is fraught with complications. Choosing to live and work in Italy is to place yourself voluntarily into a system that teems with layers and layers of rules and regulations and incomprehensible bureaucracy and policing.

8. And the food -- some of the best I have ever had. I'm still fantasizing.

9. I am a writer!

I have a lot to think about, to learn, to write about what an amazing year I have had.

Now I have to figure out the rest of my life ...

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