She walks up a cascade of ancient Roman stairs looking slightly out of place, dressed in stonewash jeans, work boots and a thick coat reminiscent of the ‘Michelin’ man. A long ponytail neatly falls down her back, with a blue ribbon tied in her hair. It seems she has forgotten she’s already on school holidays.
She stops half way, turns and waves awkwardly. She’s feeling a little uncomfortable, almost ridiculous as she looks at the camera. Maybe she will never feel natural in front of the camera. In a close up shot, her 16 years are revealed. She is still a girl venturing from her homeland of Australia on student exchange to – Italy, Italia.
Leafing through her travel journal 20 years later, her unworldliness at that time is apparent. But she is gratified that she’d taken the time to carefully document the trip, pasting all manner of mementos into her journal – disco tickets, notes passed in class and lolly wrappers. Added to that, she still has a copy of the video her host father meticulously pieced together of her time in Italia. Sadly, the years have stripped away the corresponding music score he’d so thoughtfully chosen.
It wasn’t an accident that she’d studied Italian at school. She had purposely defied a long held family tradition to study French. She wanted to be different and it seemed logical, there were many more Italians in Australia to speak the language with than French. Not to mention she was besotted with Italian food, what better way was there to bond with people than over a bowl of pasta? However, when making this choice she would never have dreamed of travelling ‘in Italia’ solo just four years later.
To her host family, Australia was a long way away, colonial, and maybe a little uncouth. “This is an escalator,” her host mother carefully articulated to her. She giggled to herself as she waited to be asked whether she rode a kangaroo to school in Australia.
Against the backdrop of dramatic classical buildings and cosmopolitan European culture, she was from a different world. Yet she had come armed with an innocent charm, a sense of adventure and now a trusty guide and mentor – her host father. It’s amazing the opportunities that can arise and what can be forgiven with the flash of a smile. Unwittingly she greeted a school teacher informally. She might as well have said “G’day mate, how’s it going?” by her host sister’s reaction. However, the teacher didn’t miss a beat as she continued on her way.
Teenagers are the same the world over, they love to socialise, be accepted by their peers and have fun with their friends. Being a girl from a foreign and largely unknown land meant the intrigue was even greater. Notes quickly began being passed to her from around the classroom, as everyone wanted to know her. A flurry of social activities outside the school grounds started being organised.
Meanwhile her understanding and love of the language and culture blossomed as her host father patiently gave her expert tuition while acting as her personal tour guide across the country. He was a proud man, who reminded her a lot of her own father. He was reluctant to speak in English, but she soon realised that his understanding of the language was much greater than he let on. They developed a strong bond as he imparted his rich knowledge, all the while carrying several reference books for the rare occasion he needed to check his facts.
The effort her host father went to, to show her ‘his’ country was truly touching. However, she couldn’t possibly appreciate what he had done for her until she had time to reflect on the experience, upon returning home. As the countdown to her departure loomed, the enormity of what she had experienced and the people she met dawned on her.
It would be a long 14 years before she returned to her beloved Italia, this time travelling as a woman, with her husband by her side. Upon arrival, the vibrancy of the culture was so strong it was as though an over zealous relative had greeted her at the airport. This time there would be no awkwardness or girlish ribbons tied in her hair, her boots were replaced with ballet flats.
The main players were on hand to celebrate her host sister’s wedding and consequently her return. The world had become a lot smaller for her since her last visit. While her native country remained vastly different to this foreign soil, the differences were not that great when she was accepted as a ‘daughter’ and friend in both lands.