Remembering kindness

Reorganizing some of my files, I came across an article I had written over a year and a half ago, attempting to sum up my study abroad experiences for a writing contest. Having written on the topic of the “kindness of strangers” on more than one occasion, I thought I would share this short, but heart-warming little piece.

The Kindness of Strangers

There are many times in any given day when I think back to my semester spent abroad in Verona, Italy. As most people will tell you who have studied abroad, it is one of the greatest times of their lives, and one of the most rewarding. They are always more than happy to tell you some of their ridiculous stories, and even embarrassing moments. I have a fair share of stories of my own. But those are not the stories I want to share here. What I would rather talk about now are the times when it got hard, when I was down and lonely, wishing that I could just go home. It is at these times that I experienced the kindness of strangers. And so, I have a number of short stories to share, that together paint a picture of a kind and generous world. Although these people are no longer strangers to me, I was a stranger to them, and their kindnesses to me were always more than I expected.

Our group had only been in Verona for a month, a blur of activity and intensive Italian classes. Routine was starting to set in. But in early February my close friend Shannon decided to go on a weekend trip to visit a friend in Spain, and I didn’t know what to do by myself for an entire weekend. I thought it was going to be the worst weekend ever, I felt so lonely. After a long afternoon of Friday classes, and all my classmates talking about their weekend plans, I was soon in a melancholy mood. With nothing else to do, I wandered into a café I had visited once before with Shannon. I asked the bartender for a red wine, and sat down to have a pity party for myself. Except that the bartender Marco recognized me and started talking to me. As I thought about it later, I think he saw I was lonely, and tried his best to cheer me up.  He told me my Italian was good, that I was clever, and introduced me to all of his friends. They invited me to dinner and to a soccer game, and it eventually turned out to be one of my best weekends in Verona.

As the weather began to get warmer, I was planning several trips around Italy and decided I wanted to go to Rome for a weekend for my 21st birthday. My roommate Aline, who is from the Netherlands, felt adventurous enough to accompany me. She is generally a quiet and studious girl like me, but we each have our moments. We got along very well, but this was our first time traveling together. We got an early start on sightseeing Saturday morning and went to the Colosseum (of course), the Roman Circus, the Pantheon, and Castel Sant’Angelo.  As the latter place is right down the street from St. Peter’s Basilica, that was of course our next stop. By this time it was getting close to dinner-time, and the light was beginning to sink behind the colossal structure of the church. As we sat in the piazza admiring the scene, a feeling of homesickness came over me. As I wrote in my journal, “I’m in Italy, I’m sitting in front of St. Peter’s, it’s my 21st birthday, but I really just want to be home with my family. I started to cry and Aline hugged me and just made it ok.” And we sat together watching the people and the pigeons move around us.

I got more accustomed to life in Verona over time, and started to meet more people. On the suggestion of a friend back home, I found a tiny protestant Christian church to attend, just one room of a shop front in a quiet back street. I started going to Sunday services and bible study during the week. I made friends with the people as best as I could, with my limited Italian. One sweet old lady would talk endlessly to me about the weather and her children and grandchildren. Oftentimes I couldn’t understand what she was saying, and so I would just nod politely and she would take that as a sign to keep talking, in her slow, soothing voice, resting her hand on my arm. I got accustomed to the people, and they welcomed me in, but I rarely spoke up since my Italian was so poor. In early April I had both my wallet and my camera stolen from my purse. Without any credit cards or money, I was in a tight spot, and had to cancel a weekend trip I had planned to visit Prague. And so, I went to church on Sunday as usual. When I mentioned to someone that my wallet had been stolen, the pastor gave me almost $250 from the church’s funds in order to tide me over. They expected nothing in return and neither did they ask about it again, although I quietly repaid my debt later. And so I found God in this tiny church.

Of course there were other instances where strangers helped me or befriended me, and enriched my experience of the city, the country and its culture. And each instance touched me in ways that are difficult to describe. These disconnected stories remind me of how the kindness of strangers supported me, and gave me an experience I will take with me the rest of my life.

My First Printed Article: Italian Meetup

Since March of this year, the Oak Brook Italian Language Group has met once a month at the Panera Bread by the Oak Brook Shopping Center to share in their common love of Italian. Attendance at these meetings has steadily grown, doubling from five to ten at their meeting just this past week. As a part of the online networking site, The Oak Brook Italian Language Group is one of many active social and special interest groups from the website that meet in the Chicago suburbs.

Wednesday’s evening meeting at Panera brought together an interesting mix of people from the area, all interested in improving their language skills in Italian. Skill levels varied from the nervous beginner to the nearly fluent, and all had unique connections to Italian culture, whether through family, travel, or purely for enjoyment. Beginners in Italian listened in on multiple conversations, but inevitably, a more advanced speaker might coax them out of their shell. “If you don’t try because you’re afraid, you’ll never learn” said one member Pete Falco. Having studied language and Italian literature in school, Pete joined the group in hopes of maintaining his Italian.

For other members, this group may serve to help them practice what they’ve learned in class or on vacation. Many members have had the wonderful opportunity to travel in Italy, and meeting up with Italian speakers once a month is a great way to reminisce and share their experiences. Or on the other hand, many have Italian-American relatives and have grown up in that culture. One member said “If you miss Italy and want to speak Italian, this is the group for you. You will feel right at home, as if you are with friends in Italy”.

Not to scare off those whose language skills are rusty, there is always room for conversation in English. The point is to practice and improve, but also to enjoy conversation with new people. But as the saying goes, practice makes perfect! The next meeting is set to take place on July 8th at 6:30pm, at Panera Bread, 1600 16th St in Oak Brook.

Oak Brook Italian Language Group