We are down to four days remaining until our return trip across the Atlantic. Major grocery runs with the roller bag have ceased, and our landlady has visited to conduct our final business and to say our “arrivederci’s”. We have tallied our remaining cash in euros, planning more carefully now to spend it on short-term food and last-minute souvenirs or gifts. At least one suitcase is packed, and bags are filled with clothes and shoes to be donated to local charity. Winter finally set in last night as a cold front is now bringing wind and our first hint of snow (sleet or graupel, call it what you wish). The Christmas market is in full swing in the town center, and strings of lights and decorations line Viterbo’s main shopping corridor, Corso Italia. It’s a good time now to take stock of our own decisions and judgments to see how we fared, now with hindsight to reflect upon. What worked well, and what not so well? What decisions reflected veritable brilliance? Good luck? And bad calls that we learned from? Here is a running list of our own lessons learned after our first semester abroad:
Congratulations for a Job Well Done (through planning or dumb luck):
- Prior to our departure to Viterbo in August, we placed set amounts of euros into separate envelopes for items including the first month’s rent and deposit, train and taxi fares, and a few other fixed costs. When it was time to pay, we removed the designated envelope without having to worry whether we had enough cash. In Italy, cash is still preferred for many transactions. One envelope, I remembered this morning, was for “emergency backup” cash, containing 100 euros. We took this on early trips around Europe in case our credit and debit cards didn’t work, to avoid running completely out of money. This not only provided a safety cushion for travel, but allowed for a nice final surprise this morning when I recalled that we still had the 100 extra euros stashed in the envelope!
- For cell phones, we purchased two basic, inexpensive phones after arriving in Viterbo. We decided to use the “pay as you go” plan, whereby we simply visit the nearest Vodaphone or Tobaccheria store (no kidding) when we need to add minutes. We pay cash, and they add a set number of minutes to our phones. This was a simple, inexpensive, no-hassles approach to providing phone service in Italy. We (Linda and I) immediately added the USAC staff members and each other to our phone contact lists, and consequently never had to remember our own phone numbers (I placed my own phone number in the contact list as well). Using our American phones turned out to be a big hassle, and didn’t work as predicted (eventually Linda’s Droid phone started magically working, but we still don’t know why).
- Not having a car had its benefits, though the “car issue” also appears in our second list below. As for the bennies, the costs and hassles of owning or leasing a car for four months were eliminated with the decision to rely on mass transit and foot power. This was made possible by a related good decision to find an inexpensive apartment within close walking distance to the university and the train station (two of them). More suburban living would have required a car. Instead, we enjoyed a medieval life style within a walking city that is now 800-plus years old. At least four grocery stores of various scope are within walking distance, and probably more that we did not patronize. Restaurants, university functions, classes, casual shopping outings, and festivities in town were all within easy reach of our centrally-located apartment. The train took us everywhere via a 1.75 hour trip to Rome and to connecting trains or the airport. In these ways, we did not miss having the expense or hassles associated with a car.
- Having a reliable, strong internet connection in our apartment was a high priority for us, and we worked with our landlady to provide it. Upon inquiry in August, internet was connected to our apartment for a small installation fee, and a reasonable 20-euro monthly fee thereafter. We have since learned that few if any of the student apartments were provided with internet, necessitating that they find alternative and sometimes unreliable services elsewhere. With decent internet, we were able to communicate regularly with friends and family, and I was able to get work done efficiently, both for classes here and for projects and obligations back home. Both of us learned to use Skype well, for visually communicating with Linda’s family, and for my occasional academic meetings. And, without any viable TV option here (we don’t watch much, anyway), it was useful to check out various internet news sources and download a few favorite TV shows onto the computer once in awhile. I at least caught up on my newest favorite show, “Suits,” so now I won’t miss out on the story line upon returning home… More important, I rarely needed to use the USAC office computers since they are typically in use by staff members for more pertinent tasks. I only needed the USAC office computers to print class materials on Wednesday afternoons, and I accomplished this during Pausa Pranzo, when everyone else was away. So, I like to think that I avoided bugging the busy staff because we had decent internet. This was one of the best decisions we made, and it has paid off wonderfully. It is, in short, well worth the planning in advance to secure such a connection to the world.
- We planned in August to take many of our clothes on a one-way trip. Much of our wardrobe here in Italy is not coming home with us. This was Linda’s brilliant idea, and it is paying off now that we are taking stock of all that we are packing to bring home. We purposely packed older clothes and shoes, with some exceptions, expecting that they would be donated at home within a few months’ time, anyway. So, why not bring them to Italy, use them, and leave them here? Indeed. We have three or more bags of clothes and shoes prepared for our landlady, who will take them to a local charity after we leave. In place of all that empty suitcase space are gifts and souvenirs from our European adventures!
- On a related note, a few weeks ago we shipped one large box of souvenirs and gifts to Arizona and asked our friendly neighbor to look out for it on his doorstep. Not knowing if it would take a month or more to get through Italy and customs, we shipped it early. To our surprise, it arrived within two weeks, so will be waiting for us upon our return! The 100-or so euros and language barriers at the post office were – in our estimation – well worth the benefit of reducing all of that weight and space in our remaining luggage. By shipping one box and leaving many of our old clothes here, we may take less baggage home with us than what came with us in August!
- It was certainly wise for both of us to take an introductory Italian language course prior to our arrival here. Although it would always be better to gain more competence with the language, for my own time and effort this was a perfect match. An attempt to become fluent in the language would have been over the top, as it would have been to take further Italian courses. I did not feel I had the time or energy to devote that much effort, given my “day job”. Both of us picked up more of the language as we interacted here for four months, and my introductory-level Italian was just right for “getting around” Viterbo and Italy as a whole. Sure, fluency would be nice, but not realistic in my case.
- Although perhaps stating the obvious, it was a wise decision to plan on traveling around Europe as much as possible while enjoying our convenient proximity. To my moderate surprise, most of the students learned to do so as well. While being sure to keep my top priority of teaching in focus, there were plenty of opportunities each week, and during various national holidays, to “light out for the territory” and take our chances with various train systems and so-called discount airlines (we now have experience with Wizz Air, Ryan Air, Easy Jet, Vueling, and Brussels Airlines, for better or worse – though most were fine once learning their own internal protocols). Although exhorbitant taxes and fees prevented us from enjoying the advertised “discount” fares as we might have hoped, seeing places from Britain, The Netherlands, and Belgium to Hungary, the Czeck Republic, and Poland would not have been feasible had we not been living here for four months.
Things We May Do Differently Next Time…
- We probably did not need to ship two large packages to Italy prior to our arrival in August. We first shipped a large box, followed by an actual soft-sided suitcase. Both were addressed to the local USAC office here in Viterbo, and both contained a wide assortment of convenience items that we imagined would be used during our stay – everything from dish towels and wash clothes to scotch tape and finger nail clippers. The main bulk was taken up by the bed comforter and winter clothes and jackets that we decided to ship in advance. While that part was probably wise, many of the household goods were, on hindsight, not necessary. The prohibitive cost of shipping these items was not offset by the savings from not buying them here. And, neither package arrived in Viterbo until one- and two-months respectively after our arrival. They got caught up in customs, and we had to pay an additional fee here to receive one of the packages. A good thought initially, but certainly not worth it!
- Renting or leasing a car would have provided certain benefits, even if renting a car once every few weekends. Our freedom and mobility were certainly reduced from not having “wheels,” and otherwise routine trips to a major shopping center on the edge of town required a 40-minute bus ride and often a taxi to get home when the buses didn’t show up when we thought they should. Though all of our daily needs were met within walking distance, our typical American freedom to “move about the country” whenever we wished was severely limited. There are towns and sites around Viterbo that we likely would have visited had we rented or leased a car. Still, did the “bennies” of not having a car outweigh the cost of freedom? We’ll leave that for others to decide.