All days are numbered. Days left until the weekend, days left until you see someone again, days left until an important date comes around, or until an important deadline stares you right in the face, days elapsed since the beginning of a new relationship, a new baby or your PhD, days until you leave, days until you return. All days are numbered, but you realize it most blatantly when you are forced to count them.
89 days in Italy. That’s what I filled out on all my Italian paperwork, and that’s what I told the Immigration Officer when he asked me how long I would stay. For the next three months, my apartment is in a small town called Rovereto in northern Italy, in the province of Trentino. My new office door unlocks with a long iron key that looks like something you would find at an antique store, and my new lab-mates are people who were strangers to me only a handful of days ago. For the next three months, getting to my street will involve turning left at the vineyard instead of turning left at the Metro station, and instead of hearing traffic and snowplows, I will hear lots and lots of church bells.
Why did I suddenly transplant myself to Italy? Besides my long-standing love for this country and culture, the purpose of my stay is academic: my mission for the next three months is to collect data for my PhD project, while collaborating with a research team that is interested in the same topics and methodology as I am.
Although I haven’t moved to Italy for that long a time, the process of leaving and the feelings that arise when dealing with all that is new and uncertain are probably largely the same whether you leave for three months or three years. I remember how similar it felt when I left for Europe for two years for my Master’s degree. I am writing this post for international students or for people who find themselves moving to a new place for their studies or their jobs and who, at some point or another, may have shared these experiences or thoughts.
The weeks before my departure were insane. I was working around the clock, preparing everything I needed to run my experiments in Italy, and making sure I had all the files and equipment I would need while abroad. This, along with trips to the Italian Embassy, paperwork, correspondences with secretaries, supervisors and landlords in Italy, travel plans, errands, family-time, “see-you-soon”s and packing (and obviously re-packing, because the first attempt of packing for two seasons is always over-ambitious and over-weight).
After months of planning, the date I had put on countless forms, e-mails, and bookings – the date that was at the tip of my tongue because everybody I spoke to inevitably asked me when I was leaving – suddenly crept up on me and finally fell within the expiry date of the milk I just bought. Suddenly, it was my last weekend in town for a while, my last night in my own bed, and in front of me was a big adventure and a whole lot of brand new, not only in my surroundings, but in my academic life and personal life.
Leaving for a new place is really like uprooting yourself, out of your comfort zone and away from all those little things that, in all their simplicity, have a familiarity we take for granted until we are away. I am sure some people are affected more than others, and certainly some people adjust more easily and more quickly than others. I am also sure that some people (ahem…yours truly here) try to plan things in advance and try to work out possible scenarios in order to reduce the anxiety of all the unfamiliarity that’s ahead. But the truth is, you can’t plan all that much. You can scrutinize the map, check the weather forecast while making packing decisions, look at images of the town, ask your host supervisor or landlord all the questions that come to mind. But at some point, you have to take a deep breath and a leap of faith. And…jump.
I don’t know about you, but once I’m at the airport, with family behind me and security ahead of me, my travel-mode kicks in. Ready or not, you get into that mode and you keep moving. There is an invisible line that marks the end of Home and the beginning of Away, and past that invisible line, you start to adapt, because you have to.
One of the things that struck me the most when I was an international student during my Master’s degree was how huge every city felt when I first arrived. The degree was a joint-European degree, so I lived in three different cities: Milan, Groningen and Berlin. Every few months, I had to move. Find a new apartment, apply for new visas, get a new student card, make new friends. And every single time I moved, the new city – even Groningen, which is a small town in the north of the Netherlands – felt big and confusing. Arriving in Rovereto this time was no different. Everyone I spoke to would stress how small the town is, while a voice in my head disagreed with them. This place feels anything but small.
I remember how much angst I felt when I first moved to Italy during my Master’s. I had never been an international student, and I had never lived on my own. I had never realized how loud and constantly present the narration in my head was, and I desperately wanted to fill the space with sound – any sound, even Italian TV which never seems to have anything good on. I had never felt such debilitating anxiety in the legs; I felt like a puppet on strings, with weak knees. To this day, the “alone in a new city” nervousness goes straight to my knees, and is very different from the “I have to give a talk at a big conference” nervousness which goes straight to my stomach.
The tasks comprising the first few days are almost always the same: get over jet-lag, unpack, make the apartment feel a little bit more like your own space, figure out the various keys and how to lock/unlock the various doors, connect to the internet and check that your Skype account has enough credit, find your bearings in the neighborhood, determine the closest bus stop to the campus or get yourself a bike, find the nearest supermarket and local bakery, have a successful interaction with at least one local in their language, with as many exaggerated gestures as you need to rely on to be understood, and sort out any remaining bureaucratic details. You try to get used to the unfamiliar sounds in your new apartment, and try to override your brain’s automatic ways – funny habits you didn’t even realize you had, such as turning to the right when you exit the bathroom to go into the kitchen (which is actually the bedroom in your new place) or reaching for the light switch where it would have been at home.
The good news is, what is new and unfamiliar can only remain new and unfamiliar for so long. You get into the rhythm of your new surroundings, start to feel safe and at peace in your new space. You find your favorite coffee shop, your favorite bar and your favorite series of streets to stroll down. You learn to be your own best companion, to enjoy that voice in your head and to listen to it rather than trying to drown it out, because it has been telling you that you are happy and inspired, not lonely and homesick. You realize your possibilities are endless, and you are doing something wonderful for your career and for yourself. You make new friends, go for lunch or aperitivo or supper with them. You take day trips and, if you’re like me, you take hundreds and hundreds of photos. You work hard, because you are in a new environment and you needed that. You make every day count, because your days are numbered here.
And you realize, all of a sudden, when you least expect it, that the city has grown smaller.