Senior Camryn Daniels spent the second semester of her junior year, Spring 2022, studying abroad. Here, in the second of two blog posts she wrote, she recalls her experience in Rome, Italy.
By Camryn Daniels
My first apartment in Italy was not very good. It was a small, temporary housing situation made for four, with seven people expected to live in it for three and a half months. The kitchen could barely fit one person, and the “couch” was a stiff futon with a quilt over it. The laundry room was cramped with a washing machine shoved in front of an out-of-order toilet. My roommates and I looked at the place sideways, but accepted it with open arms, happy to finally be in Rome after 24 hours of international travel. In a way, this apartment set the tone for the rest of my semester. It wasn’t perfect, but it was ours.
We made the most of it, spending hours cooking dinner one by one, and communing in one of the bedrooms instead of the living room. Eventually (and thankfully), we moved into a new apartment. Our second apartment was a humongous, almost humorous improvement. If they had this apartment sitting around, why the hell were we in the last apartment in the first place? I digress. Five of us moved about a 10-minute walk away to a street called Via Catone. We had an elevator that was on the verge of breaking down, but never did. We all had our own room and bathroom, except two of my roommates who had to share. We had a big kitchen, but with minimal counter space and no dishwasher. It wasn’t perfect, but we were grateful to call it ours. In hindsight, a common theme was forming by this point.
A week after arriving in Rome, classes began. Our program was barely functional after going from 30 students in the fall to over 200 in the spring. Overfilled classes made field studies difficult to coordinate. Covid ran through the program like the tomb raider (not me and my friends, though, mashallah). Students who lived far from where we had class had to beg to be reimbursed for transportation costs. We had knowledgeable and highly qualified professors, but the rest of the program made it hard to appreciate the good parts. The attendance policy alone was enough to make it known to me this program was less than ideal — one absence was two percentage points off the final grade, unless it was a field study, then it was four percentage points. Even if you’re sick. If you aren’t in the hospital or you don’t have a positive Covid test, your absence is not excused (which is probably why half the student body contracted Covid. No one stayed home when they were sick because they didn’t want their grade to fall so dramatically). The program was extremely frustrating, but only enough to make good jokes at the program’s expense, not enough to make us return to the U.S. Not perfect, by any means. But ours. Ours to criticize to our hearts’ content at the end of every day.
The city bus was not always reliable, or clean, and sometimes barely had space for you to get on. But when it did come on time, and when you could get a seat, it was great. Except for when you get fined for activating your ticket 30 seconds too late. The metro was extremely reliable; it comes every three minutes and never changes route. However, if you don’t get comfortable putting your elbows to use, you will ride it to the end of the line. The crowds on the metro can be insane, and you have to force your way out. I got very comfortable with the elbow + “scusa” (“excuse me”) combo.
International travel had its pros and cons, too. Pros: €5 plane tickets (Rome to Nice, one way), short flights, experiencing a new culture and country. Cons: European TSA, Ryanair, running into people from your program, white women with box braids. Because of the pros, and despite the cons, I’m so thankful for my memories from my weekend trips. Growing up in the United States makes it hard to conceptualize how big the world is, and it’s difficult to notice the extent of this lack of perspective without actually leaving the United States. While the West has undeniable influence in many European countries, it was still a breath of fresh air to experience an environment that is non-American.
One thing that I wholeheartedly expected to be perfect was Italian food because Italian food has an amazing PR team. Maybe it was the unbelievable amount that I ate that makes me feel this way, but it was only okay. Undeniably, it was healthier than American food, but at the end of the day, it was just pasta. I remember, on my first night in Rome, my roommates and I went out to eat. I got a bowl of cacio e pepe and said out loud, “this is literally the best meal I’ve ever eaten.” But, then again, I hadn’t eaten since being on the plane from home. The most memorable and amazing dishes I ate were at non-Italian restaurants. The Indian, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, and Colombian food we sought out were incredible and a much-needed change from margherita pizza. And the restaurant staff was actually nice to us.
Being Black in Rome is one thing I don’t want to claim as being a quirky but lovable part of my semester. Racism is seemingly a topic that burns the tongue in Rome. It was barely spoken about during the program, and when it was, it was done so shallowly that I had to make sure it had even happened. My program used metaphors and similes to discuss racism as to not face it head on with students. To me, it seemed like they touched on the subject because they knew they had to, but did so in the most passive way possible. During orientation, we were told if anyone was “mean” to us, to walk away. We were advised to not be confrontational. Some staff members even skipped the race part of the presentation.
Despite the passive way racism was approached during orientation, it was not passive in real life. Every day, at least once a day, I thought to myself “there’s no way I’m the first Black person they’ve ever seen.” If you’re Black in Rome, people will stare at you. And not a passing glance. They will watch you walk toward them, and turn around in their chair to watch you walk away. They will examine you from head to toe. At the grocery store during checkout, they will toss the plastic bag at you, even though you literally just watched them hand it to the person before you. If you’re unlucky, they’ll grab your hair and laugh about it with their coworkers. People may take a video of you and your friends on the metro, and slow pan the cell phone like they are directing a documentary for Sundance. Maybe, on a late night gelato run, a skinny Roman boy wearing a parka even though it’s 65°, will serenade you with a slur. From mine and my roommate’s experience, the overt racism is not passive. The covert, systemic racism and the xenophobia is an even bigger conversation. Living with a different vibe of racism for the first time is uncomfortable, to say the least, and frightening to say the most. But even so, because of the Black and Brown people I was fortunate enough to surround myself with, I did not feel as alienated as I would have without them. The community I was fortunate enough to find myself in made it bearable.
As cliché as it sounds, I learned more about myself, my identity in this world, and my views on life last semester than I have in my whole life. It’s hard to articulate, but I can feel it very strongly, and hope the feeling stays with me forever. I wouldn’t trade those three and a half months for anything. If my life was a book, it would be a very pivotal chapter for me; last semester was a whirlwind of emotions, with highs and lows. My time in Italy, all of my experiences there, it’s all the same as our first apartment. It wasn’t perfect, but it was ours.