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Viva Viterbo!

October 27, 2016
by Abigail Melton '17

You’d think there would be a lot to miss out on in my junior year of high school. Not being at Madeira would mean not getting to experience the label of being an upperclassman, the beginning of the college process, or my first prom. Yet, I decided to ignore these milestones and give up my school, my friends, and my own English-speaking family for nine months right in the middle of high school. I was lucky enough to spend the year living in Viterbo, Italy with a host family and going to school with fifty other Americans in a medieval palazzo.

I knew about the program School Year Abroad, SYA, because of my sister. She followed the same path five years ago in Beijing, China. As soon as she got on the plane, I told my 12-year-old self that I would never follow in my sister’s footsteps; I was tired of being compared to her and I was going to create my own path.  Evidently, that didn’t go as planned.  The summer before sophomore year, I fell in love with the idea of living in Italy, despite the fact that I had always been awful at learning languages and was terrified of switching schools and meeting new people.

My interest in the idea grew until I decided it would be worth it to fill out an application. A few months later I was accepted and started getting my head around the idea. The months-long anticipation was hard, but finally, on August 29th, I waved goodbye to my parents, alongside my new classmates, and boarded the plane. Although the next 36 hours were probably the most important, I can remember very little of them. The flight took off at 9:00 pm and the excitement kept us all awake through the seven-hour flight. By the time we de-boarded in Rome, took the two-hour long bus ride to Viterbo, and gathered at a hotel outside of town to meet our host families, I was so tired and overwhelmed that my memories are blurred together.

I may not be able to remember it clearly, but that day I met my host mom, Eva, host father, Paolo, and two little sisters, Claudia and Carlotta.  Throughout the year, I got increasingly closer to Eva, as she provided much needed comfort from amongst all the changes I was experiencing. She brought me soup when I was sick, picked me up from school when it was raining, and made sure I was calling my real parents every week. I played volleyball with my little sisters every night and dutifully sat at the dinner table every night, gradually fitting into the rhythm of my second family.

Naturally, my first major challenge was overcoming the obvious language barrier.  Upon arriving in Rome, I had to confirm with my classmate how to say “hello” in Italian.  My family was just about as good at English as I was at Italian.  The beginning of the year was filled with many hand gestures and conversations via google translate at the dinner table.  Thankfully, I picked it up faster than I did Spanish or Chinese, and after a few weeks I was able to make enough small talk to get through dinner.

The beginning of the year was scary and uncomfortable to say the least, but now, after having time to reflect on the year, I have more stories than I could ever type in a blog post.  I’m happy to return to the Madeira campus with a new sense of confidence and independence that has served me well in the process of re-adjusting to my life here.  My junior year was unforgettable, and although I may have missed out on Founder’s Day and Thanksgiving dinner, the once-in-a-lifetime experience I had outweighed it all. I would say Madeira really prepared me to go abroad for a year and I think it would have been a lot harder if I had gone to another school.  I'm really excited to be back for my senior year and get to back into the rhythm at Madeira.