Charleston – okay, America – the Beautiful

There’s an old conceited saying that I’m rather fond of.
Charleston is a peninsula where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean.
Charleston really is the most beautiful city in the world. All semester, my new friends in Perugia had to put up with me boasting, both in English and Italian, about my hometown. When we met someone new and began talking about travel or where we were from, I would inevitably pipe in, “You should visit Charleston, South Carolina. È la città migliore nel mondo. It’s the best city in the world.” It kind of became a running joke, but I’m serious. Home is not the best just because it is a comfortable security blanket, surrounding me with dear friends and family. It is the best because every natural backdrop is stunning and the people are friendly and the weather is perfect…and my heart is never quite as content or quiet as when I am sitting on a bench looking out over the marsh.
Before I left for Italy, my advisor gave me this bell curve to demonstrate the emotional roller coaster of a study abroad student.
It looked way too scientific to be accurate, with the honeymoon stage, culture shock, and adjustment; life isn’t that predictable, I thought, but it surprised me. I remember week by week passing in Italy and comparing my experiences to that graph. It’s like I was following the predictions of a growth chart right on target. I saw everything in Perugia through rose-colored glasses, until I did not. When life is different from the norm, no matter how easy or exciting it may be, it becomes challenging. I missed the luxuries of home, I missed Mama’s encouragement, I missed normality. Every day, I was blindsided by another ignorant American faux pas I made in Italy. On good days you laugh. On other days, you just get sick of it. Like the way Italians complain – no, that’s not right. They whine. Often. Nothing is ever as it should be, and these fully grown, supposed adults, yell at each other all the time. It got old. Eventually I adjusted to life in Perugia and the Italian way, though, and I learned to appreciate, adopt even, certain parts of their culture.
This time two weeks ago, I was on a plane returning to America. In the first forty-eight hours of being home, I embraced all of the things I had missed so much about Charleston. First, the weather. When I stepped off the plane, it was 70 degrees outside, and then remained perfectly humid, creeping into the 80s, for the next week. Plus the weatherman told me the temperature in Fahrenheit. Only in Charleston is it necessary to rock shorts in December.
Then, there are these views.
Which, by the way, I went to by driving directly in a car. Public transportation is great, but it does not – nor will it ever – beat a car. Back to the marsh. I do not tire of this view, and, given my jet lag, I was not tired in the morning, so I awoke early to watch the sunrise from the Pitt Street Bridge in the Old Village. The fog didn’t cooperate, but it’s still beautiful. It remins me of a naturally gorgeous woman still groggy from a deep night’s rest. She would be stunning with a little makeup, but she is already lovely. My heart melts for the radiance of the Lowcountry.
 The first person I saw that morning waved to and greeted me. He was some middle-aged man walking his dog, but he still said, “Good morning,” like any gentile southerner. Strangers have been saying hello every day since then. There’s a reason Charleston is the friendliest city in the country. The only time people wave in Italy is to get someone’s attention.
I’ve got a lot more luxuries to write about, but when I think about it, they’re not really limited to Charleston. So I concede. My hometown is still the best, but I just have a greater love for all of America now. Even the bad, commercialized, materialistic focus it has. I don’t care. I’m glad to be back. A month ago, I dreamt of the day when I could use a dryer again. It was as good as I imagined. Same goes for the dishwasher. Wow; what an invention. Other little indulgences include deliciously fruity, unseasonal food, like the first thing I ate when I landed in the Philadelphia airport.
That’s right. That’s a chain brand Chik-fil-a salad with all kinds of frutis that should not be available right now. It is also dark green. Not this insalata mista iceberg lettuce with one tomato nonsense.
That night, I unpacked my stuff, and there were drawers for my clothes and shelves for my books. Why? Because America has space! Lots and lots of uncramped room for all of our personal bubbles. Alright, I’m getting a little dramatic. But we do like things big. Like coffee.
Oh yeah. That is the smallest available cup of chain brand Starbucks Skinny Peppermint Mocha, accommodating the season and my American Splenda health whimsies.
The wireless on my laptop automatically connected and hasn’t dropped since. All I have to do to print something is press the button, and boom. There it is in the office. I slept in my own bed, on an amazingly comfortable, springless mattress. I ran for miles on paths because running is condoned in America. Then I ate fattening Christmas food, because that’s what you do in America in December, and I am American. You run, and then you eat; ‘tis the season. Those first few days, if there was a way to literally hug America, I would have. Italy is not even a third world country, but life is still so different.
Now that I’m back, I’m sorting cultures out. Some things are external, like not saying “Ciao” to people when I greet them. Mainly, though, the issues are inside. I have a greater appreciation for the American luxuries I have returned to, but I also miss the simplicity of Perugia. I have been shocked by the materialism of America. Yes, I admit it. I like to shop and buy practically anything I want. But I also realized how little one really needs, and I want to maintain the simpler lifestyle I adopted there.
I’m learning to take longer breaks and spend time with friends, something my roommate Abby really taught me to do as we lived together for a quarter of a year. I’m trying not to beat myself up for not being very productive, for not keeping a quiet time with God every day and not blogging in over two weeks. I’m trying to enjoy time with family and not freak out about my future. Surrounded by longtime friends with a deep and evident love for God, I’m figuring out how and when to (or not to) verbalize the Gospel. Italy didn’t wreck me into the faith crisis I experienced in Cambodia. I am Christ’s daughter forever, of this I am sure, and I never intentionally hid my relationship with Jesus. In fact, I relied on Him almost every day in Italy, and there were times when I saw Him do some really beautiful things. Maybe, though, I unconsciously tempered it.
The truth is, my whole semester in Perugia feels like a time vat right now, totally disconnected from any other experience I have ever had. I left Charleston in August with few responsibilities and no stress, and I returned to the same scenario, the same people, even the same weather, three and a half months later. It all feels comfortable and familiar, yet strangely odd. I am perplexed in ways I struggle to articulate. Being abroad definitely changed me and forced me to grow up a little more. Whatever happened, I do think it was for the better, but I’m still searching for some very important clarity keys.
I have a lot of questions and a lot of thoughts I’m obviously still working out, but I’ll keep you posted. Italian stories are definitely not over. I finally had the opportunity to experience day-to-day life in a foreign city, to live in another country. I made friends there I know I’ll keep, and together we set out on many adventurous weekends.
Could not have asked for a better semester with greater people.
Where did you go in the fall?
I will treasure these memories for the rest of my life. For now, though, I am struggling through “readjustment,” the last part of this strangely accurate bell curve. I am grateful to be back in this city and this country, for the happy familiarity of Charleston and the easiness of life in America. I am grateful to recuperate in the midst of hugs from longtime friends and the relaxing pace of winter-break nothingness.
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