THAO WILLIAMS | BOLOGNA, ITALY | POST 2
Featured image: Castello Estense in Ferrara
TW: mental health and sexual harassment
Almost two months into my adventure in Bologna, Italy, I’m still very wary of my adjustment to this place.
First off, there’s the constant presence of the language barrier. I’ve taken Italian since sixth grade, but I’ve never been really confident with speaking. Obviously, this experience is not too unique, but I don’t know. I feel like my past teachers’ ears are ringing every time I butcher the subjunctive or accidentally speak in the third person. It’s not I am hungry but instead she is hungry. Communicating with my roommates has been so mind-boggling… sometimes I’ll understand and be able to communicate, but other times I’ll be on a completely different planet of understanding, let alone a different page. The various accents, dialects, and speeds of speaking throw my understanding into a blender and then double strain it so that I can only seem to understand “Ciao” and “Come stai?”.
The problem for me is that my improvement in Italian seems to falter after a certain point—usually right after learning the basic vocabulary again. My program, while decent on some fronts, has proven kind of inefficient on raising my awareness of colloquial Italian language. While I can have a great conversation on really serious topics like World War II, racism, sexism, or the Middle Ages, my basic communication often flounders. Ordering food becomes an anxiety-ridden process, and translating numbers to pay is way worse than any calculus class.
Next up in Thao’s anxieties whilst abroad is my struggle to find mental support. After everything that’s happened here in Bologna, unsurprisingly, I’ve been looking for a decent counselor. The issue is, according to one of the counselors I’ve met with here, Italy is a bit behind in its understanding of mental health. For Italians, so I’ve been told, reliance is placed on one’s family members to provide the emotional and mental support they need. While this is definitely a vast generalization, it’s seemingly unfolded in my own family. My mom, for example, has such a limited understanding of mental health and instead relies on her large extended Italian-American family for everything. But alas, this does not really help me, especially as I try to adjust to place where the support system I know and love is a good 4,500 miles away. The issue that resurfaces time and time again is that I thought I was doing fine before coming here. I was in a better mental state, thanks to my wonderful Metcalf counselors, and I felt stable. It’s not that I feel unstable here. I’m fine, I’m not at risk. I just had something sort of life-changing, other than the dramatic shifts of just living in a new country, happen to me.
My mental health is not faltering here, it’s just in a different state than it was at home. And that’s to be expected. And I’ve tried to find the support I need here, it’s just been a bit more difficult than I would’ve expected it to be. My program did have one contact for an English-speaking counselor but… she didn’t really suit my needs, instead wanting to focus on my ever-present but manageable depression versus the traumatic situation that really needed attention. And that’s not her fault; she is not trained to handle sexual assault. I next sought out a cross-cultural counselor, who, whilst very sweet, is also not equipped to provide the support I need. While the cross-cultural counselor could handle my inquiries on racism and my internal questioning of my identity as a Vietnamese but culturally Italian-American female, it was still soooo difficult explaining what I did need. Vassar has more than graciously offered a hand, through SAVP and the International Programs Office’s support, but I’m still trying to navigate the mental health resources here.
Besides the ever-present language barrier and my difficulties finding mental health resources, my time here has been pretty enjoyable. My vegan diet has included the most delicious foods, including a radicchio risotto that was honestly the most incredible rice-based dish I’ve had in my entire life, as well as a wine-poached pear that made me not wish I was eating the dairy-rich cake and gelato my companions got. I finally figured out the bus system in Bologna, so my leg burn is a little less painful on days I don’t feel like walking. In my visit to Ferrara I got to visit a moated castle! Also, I climbed a slightly scary tower that was on top of a dungeon. But that’s all for now, guys!