Convergence / Divergence

Alex Cherry Food & Sustainability Studies, Perugia, Italy


January 17, 2017
Bottleneck: A term for a place where the size of some sort of vessel reduces drastically, only letting through a few small particles, rather than the full system of floating debris that occupied the larger previous space.

Beginning a journey in another country is very difficult to think about, let alone explain in fifteen hundred words. The biggest questions: What will I do? How will I do it? What will happen to me that I can’t control? There are so many possibilities, and so little knowledge about what sorts and types of experiences will appear. Even though I have traveled to Italy before, and actually to the very same region (Umbria) in which I will be studying, I haven’t the slightest sort of idea what sort of life I will lead there. Even though I’ve already looked up the nearest rock climbing gyms to the city center (there are two!), and even though I have been studying the Italian language for the past two and a half years at Tufts, I have no idea whether or not I will be able to partake in the same activities and interact with the world in the same way that brought me joy and excitement in Boston. Will I go climbing three times a week, like I do at home? Or will I find some other activity where I can both stay active and make friends? Will I make a few close friends, or a large group, or none at all? It’s impossible to say.

I can foresee any of these possibilities happening, but what’s most likely is that things I could never imagine will in fact be what comes my way. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have goals, or ideas of what I want to get out of the experience, just that they have to be sufficiently broad and vague that I can accomplish them no matter what my environment feels like.

My List of Goals:

  • Become fluent or at least close in Italian. This will require going out and speaking to locals, making friends in pubs and learning the slang and informal as well as formal speech methods that I haven’t been exposed to in a classroom setting in the U.S.
  • Create some sort of map of Perugia without using the Internet. I’m not sure about the medium for this yet. I am also not opposed to using the Internet as the medium, such as creating a map using some online program like GIS. But all of the data I put into the map must be of my own extraction, from moving around and finding things and keeping track of them in the real world.
  • Without trying, make friends. Or don’t! Social anxiety is a killer. For most of my life, I’ve known how to make myself happy by doing the things I enjoy, and keeping an open mind and exploring the world around me. But sometimes, this can get a little lonely, and the gifts of comfort, food, and different perspectives I can give to and receive from other people are some of the greatest joys of the world. So it would be wonderful to make some great friends with whom I can share this incredible experience, but if I don’t find other students who I feel very connected to, I would like to remember that forcing relationships where people don’t naturally connect just leads to anxiety and unnecessary discomfort for me. I want to remember that there is nothing wrong with exploring alone, and I can always return to my wonderful social network at home after this semester. Making more American friends isn’t as important to me for this experience as learning about and discovering hidden aspects of a completely different culture, but if it does happen naturally that I make some American friends, that would be great as well.
  • Figure out some sort of job or life direction post-graduation. Studying food and sustainability at the Umbra Institute could open the doors to some incredible opportunities for me in fields that I’m very interested in, so I just want to keep my future in mind at every step, and being conscious about what I can use from this experience.
  • Travel. I want to use this time in central Italy to travel to many different places around the country, Europe, and the Mediterranean. Maybe I’ll go to Egypt and visit my friend studying abroad in Cairo? Or perhaps Israel? Maybe Istanbul, Morocco, Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Portugal, or Norway? Only time will tell!
  • Eat well, cook some amazing food, and learn some great new recipes, without losing touch with where the ingredients come from. Over the past year or so, I’ve become vegetarian, read many great books, and taken several incredible classes at Tufts about our food systems. Studying this in classes at Umbra and practicing it in my day to day life by shopping for groceries and cooking for myself every day, in Italy no less, will be an incredibly valuable experience if I remember to take advantage of it.
  • Remember to have fun! This experience is so unique and this is one of the only times in my life I’ll be this free and uninhibited- I have to remember to take immense advantage of this, and I’m sure that I will anyway. It’s going to be such a blast!

I write this on a train from Padova, Italy, a small but vibrant city about 30 minutes outside of Venice, to Perugia, a small hilltop city in central Italy where I will call home for the next four months, studying Food and Sustainability at the Umbra Institute. For the past nine days, I have been fortunate enough to have a wonderful solo adventure through Austria and Northeastern Italy, seeing and learning about so much.

I flew into Vienna on the 28th of December, and I spent three days there learning how clean and vibrant a wealthy and well-managed modern European city can be. Highlights included the Music Museum, which had cool, interactive sound-space and psychology exhibits, the incredibly fast and efficient public transportations systems (metro, bus, streetcar, bike-shares, and more!), and sitting in beautiful early 1900s-era cafes, sketching in my notebook the different characters I observed chatting with each other about religion, politics, and the meaning of life in at least five different languages all around me. The city is definitely worth a visit for anyone who can afford it!

From Vienna I took a high speed train (with free wifi!) to Salzburg, in the foothills of the Alps, where I stayed at the lovely home of a friend from Tufts and a few other of our mutual friends for New Years and a few extra days. In Salzburg, we explored so many wonderful things, but the biggest lesson I learned was that although I enjoy traveling alone very much, traveling with a small group of diverse and openminded friends can be just as enjoyable, since everyone brings something new and exciting to the table and I don’t have to sacrifice my curiosity about all of the strange stimuli of a new environment. Highlights of this leg of my journey included a visit to a natural history museum and a trip inside a salt mine in the middle of an Alpine Mountain. Most of all, was spending New Year’s Eve with many friends, new and old, Austrian and American, where we took a gorgeous snowy walk to the lake and gazebo where parts of The Sound of Music was filmed, celebrating with lit torches and champagne and fireworks everywhere. Definitely one of, if not the best way to spend New Year’s Eve that I could imagine!

After we said our goodbyes in Salzburg, I took a beautiful train ride south through the Alps to Padova, Italy, where I stayed at the home of a divorced high school biology teacher named Alfredo who I met off of the online community Couchsurfing. Alfredo was also hosting two American Fulbright scholars stationed in Germany named Rory and Erica at the same time. From Padova we visited Venice and Chioggia, a small fishing town similar to but far less touristy than Venice. Even though each of the four of us was quite strange in our own ways, we somehow all came together for three days to form a sort of little family, very comfortable with one another and sharing food and alcohol. Highlights from this section of my trip included seeing the Jewish Ghetto in Venice (the first and arguably most historically important in Europe), getting a haircut using only Italian during a beautiful sunset in Venice, and eating fried sardines and baby cuttlefish while drinking apple spritz apertivi at ten in the morning at a fishermen’s bar in Chioggia with Alfredo, Rory and Erica.

Now, I’m headed to Perugia, where the big one, the main plot of the story will begin! I can’t wait.