Before I even stepped off the plane to begin my J-Term adventure in Italy, I knew my entire perspective of the world and myself would change. I’ve been surrounded by people exactly like me for my whole life, and it just seemed natural that senior year should be the time to step outside of my comfort zone and do something completely new. It’s not as if I hadn’t wanted to immerse myself in a different culture, but I never had the opportunity before this study abroad experience. As I sit and reflect, I realize I couldn’t have dreamt up a more perfect month in Europe.

I spent the first three weeks of my month in Italy taking the theology course “Pilgrimage in Italy: The Christian Experience” and I spent the last week traveling to Venice and Paris with four other women from my program. Our program directors were a high-spirited Franciscan priest, the Rev. McMichael, who liked to name drop Justin Bieber and Gossip Girl to keep us on our toes; and a wonderful little nun, Sister Joanne, who we instantly wanted to adopt as our grandmother. Because this was a pilgrimage, we spent our time in various cities in Italy: Rome, Assisi, Florence, Siena, Cortona and Grecio. I woke up at 7 a.m. every morning, often after only five hours of sleep, with the mantra, “My time here is short. Make it count.”

Life didn’t seem to be real as we explored Vatican City, sun bathed on the steps of the Colosseum, and walked through the narrow streets of the little medieval towns. We wished for love at the Trevi Fountain, appreciated artwork from B.C., ate gelato on the steps of the Pantheon, had masses at the tomb of St. Peter and St. Francis, and experienced Florence nightlife unchaperoned. We all fully embraced the Italian lifestyle: the long and late night dinners and early morning espressos, and the simple feeling that life was one big, happy party.

After we finished the course, five of us loaded up our backpacks and ventured off to explore more of Europe. We spent less than 24 hours in Venice, but managed to squeeze in a romantic gondola ride, shopping for venetian masks and murano glass, and getting lost exploring the river roads.

Then, off we went to Paris, which was beautiful, but, in all honesty, I didn’t feel that the city lived up to all the hype. We hit all the tourist spots: the Louvre, the Love Lock Bridge, the Arc de Triomphe. We ate crepes, stayed out until 5 a.m. with some friendly locals, and spent way too much money on meals. Of course, we took pictures from all possible angles at the Eiffel Tower day and night. I had an uplifting confessional at Notre Dame Cathedral, where a priest explained to me an important truth: when we build relationships with others, we also build our relationship with God because friendships bring light into each other’s lives.

The best night in Paris was when travel plans allowed us to reunite with six other friends from the trip. We had a fantastic time wining and dining under the Eiffel Tower and catching up on our European adventures. Despite the magic, the stress of traveling had taken a toll on us, and we were all ready to go back to Rome for two last, bittersweet days before flying back to balmy Minnesota.

Now that we are all back home, and my last semester of college has officially begun, I feel as though I’m going through some sort of grieving process. I expected to have difficulties when I left, even though I was only gone for a month; I would miss my family, my roommates, my friends and the comfort and routine of my life at St. Thomas.

What I did not expect was to become so attached to a country and the 29 other students that I would have so much trouble coming home. But, this is life! You have all kinds of wonderful experiences and life-changing moments, and then they are over, and you go back to normal routine. This trip was just a sliver of my life, but the memories and my growth are a reminder that you can have great experiences wherever you spend your time as long as you are with people who make you happy. I hope to live the rest of my life as a pilgrimage, taking time to reflect and grow into the person I’m meant to be, and I would not have come to this realization if I hadn’t taken the opportunity to study abroad in Italy.

Rachel Murray can be reached at murr4214@stthomas.edu

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