Italy has always been on my travel bucket list. As a child, I wanted to waltz through those cobbled streets, stand in front of the Trevi Fountain, watch the sunset descend over a Tuscan vineyard and be ferried across a Venetian canal like a princess. In 2015, I managed to make two of those dreams come true.
Through an incredible AIESEC internship, I spent six amazing weeks in the Italian countryside educating local high-school children about important human rights issues like gender stereotypes, domestic violence and child marriage. While the students weren’t always enthusiastic about their classes, they were more than happy to discuss Indian customs, debate Italian vs. Indian life and introduce me to some fantastic Italian musicians. Peppered with broken English and mixed idioms, those impromptu pop culture discussions showed me not only a different side of the students but a different side of myself.
Rather than feel conscious about being alone in a new city or handicapped by not knowing the local language, I felt free. I felt open and fearless, like I could try anything or say anything without the fear of judgement. That ‘language’ barrier gave me the confidence to find my voice.
In addition to the complete lack of judgement, there was this sense of matter-of-factness and automatic validation in every interaction. Unlike back home where I have had to justify my love for American country music, in Italy the students just accepted it and then introduced me to an artist I might like. While this might sound trite, that simple, easy interaction gave me more confidence in myself than years of positive self-talk had.
So many aspects of my life that I take for granted were so fascinating to them that I began to look at those things in the same light. From the Indian education system to the number of festivals we celebrate to the way the sunlight slants across trees in Mumbai, I began to look at everything with wonder and pride.
One of the traits I loved most about the Italians was their culture of compliments. They’re so matter-of-fact about using words like brava (good), bella (nice), bellina (pretty for a young child) in casual conversation that I don’t think they even realize how complimentary they sound to an outsider. When you come from a culture that is not based on compliments, that little boost you get with every brava or bella is everything. It can turn your whole day around or elevate it to another level.
Somewhere among the compliments and the validation and the blissful freedom to be unapologetically myself, I found everything I’d been chasing somewhere on the other side of the world, without even realizing it. I glimpsed incredible fragments of a life I could have. A life of wonder and magic and contentment.
One I began to crave and am hopefully starting to create.