The Basilica di San Petronio in Piazza Maggiore, BolognaSophie Aitken

On the first night of my year abroad in Bologna, Italy, I was on the phone to my friend Corey, who was at home watching the new series of Upstart Crow on BBC Two. The theme tune of the sitcom, set in Shakespearean England, made me nostalgic for home. Corey rebuffed me, “Oh come on, 1600s Stratford-upon-Avon isn’t home!” To which I replied, “It’s more home than this is!”

It was only a joke, but it feels like an appropriate opening image. Because truthfully, looking around the small room that was to be my home for the next ten months, I really did know more about Shakespearean England than about the city I’d just moved to. I was struck by a feeling that would return multiple times over the next few weeks: what the hell was I doing here, and why had anyone thought it was a good idea?

The first few days, luckily for me, were spent with family. My parents had taken the opportunity to fly out with me, stay for a couple of days, and then swan off on holiday to Naples. The real challenge came when they’d gone, and I was left to face this unknown city, armed with Apple Maps, the WordReference app (yes, I’m still using it – daily) and a semi-convincing belief that after two years of a Cambridge MML degree, I must be able to survive this.

Something I learned quickly was to celebrate little victories, like successfully communicating my address to a taxi driver, or obtaining an Italian tax code despite the office only opening for an hour on Thursdays. The lack of regular opening hours here has become a running theme. Another of the first things I did, bad as it may sound, was book my Christmas return flight. This was partly because Easyjet had a sale on – but knowing that I’d be going home in 87 days also made the whole thing feel more manageable.

“I’ve never felt as British as I have in the last two months”

I went to a language exchange early on, too. I was given a Union Jack sticker to indicate I spoke English, which made me feel oddly patriotic. I know this probably (definitely) isn’t the aim of the year abroad, but I’ve never felt as British as I have in the last two months. There are some things about the UK I really miss, and one that I still can’t shake is the taste of Doritos. They’re not sold here, but on the plus side, my local Carrefour shop does have a decent supply of Pringles.

On a slightly more serious note, when October hit and everyone went back to Cambridge, things got temporarily trickier. I was on Messenger and made the mistake of scrolling through uni group chats, and it was like watching a party I went to every year going on without me, my invitation lost in the unreliable Italian postal system. Realising this wasn’t going to get me anywhere, I muted them all – I never usually get FOMO, but I had to nip this in the bud early on.

Getting new ID brings home the reality of studying abroadSophie Aitkin

Over time, I began appreciating the fun parts of my new life rather than pining for what I was used to in Cambridge, and the awkward but amusing situations kept rolling in. I was mistaken for a French person at the yoga class I joined, and couldn’t understand why – then realised I’d been wearing a jacket with a pin-badge of France on it. I became somewhat of an unwilling ambassador for the UK and surrounding areas in my small Dutch class, being quizzed by the lecturer about the early invaders of England and the marshlands of Ireland. And I could write a whole separate article about the Italian version of Bake Off (YouTube it).

“I’m not gaining as much in Italian fluency as I’m losing in English”

The Italians I’ve spoken to so far have been admirably generous with their comments on my speaking ability, and I’ve learnt some pretty niche vocab from yoga – the Italian word for ‘big toe’ is nothing like either the word for ‘big’ or ‘toe’. I have observed though – only half joking – that I’m not gaining as much in Italian fluency as I’m losing in English, essentially just making myself a less appealing candidate for English speaking jobs if I can’t find one that uses my languages after graduation.


Mountain View

A year at home, abroad

Joking and despair at my employment prospects aside, I have picked up some life lessons that I think are genuinely important. First, and this is one Cambridge definitely doesn’t teach you, that it’s OK to mess up. I’ve come a long way from questioning my entire language ability when the person on the checkout realises I’m English. Second, that it’s easy to feel like you need to be having a life-affirming experience every weekend, because it’s meant to be ‘the best year of your life’, when this is just unrealistic. Not everyone ‘finds themselves’ on their year abroad, and that doesn’t make your experience any better or worse: it is just another year of your life, spent in a different place. Finally, that Italian Netflix is hugely superior to the UK version: they have all seasons of Friends and House here. But if my year abroad project supervisor is reading this, I only heard that from a friend. I’m deep into my long translation, I promise

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