I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Italy twice throughout my four years in college – I spent five weeks in Pisciotta, a small mountaintop town near Salerno, and a semester in Florence, the cultural mecca of Italy. I hold both experiences very close to my heart and fell in love with both places for different reasons but I feel I need to make a case for venturing off the beaten path and going to a small, unknown (to tourists, at least) town.
In the summer of 2014 when our huge bus pulled into the central piazza of Pisciotta, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It seemed as though all of the residents had come to see the spectacle of college students spilling out into their town and a bus making a 15 point turn so it could go back down the winding hills that we just rode through. After realizing how small and seemingly ordinary Pisciotta is, I was nervous that I would be missing out on “real Italy.” But, I found out that’s exactly what I got.
Our program was structured in a way that was perfect for experiencing our surroundings. My typical day went like this: wake up, get dressed and head to the piazza for a cup of coffee and a croissant. Then report to class until lunch time and afterwards rush to the sandwich shop before the town shut down for siesta (this is no joke – one time we ran out of toilet paper during siesta and had to use our friend’s bathroom). After napping, we’d head down to the spiaggia (the beach, which was in walking distance!) until it was time to come back to town for dinner and hanging out in the piazza or in one of our apartments.
Throughout the five weeks of this routine, I fell in love with Pisciotta. I have never in my life experienced more kindness or felt more welcomed by people I just recently met than I did in this town. The owner of Bar Germania frequently gave my friends and I fresh fruit straight from the tree. And let me tell you, it was 300 times better than anything I’ve ever gotten from a grocery store or even a farmer’s market.
There was another time that I was sitting on these steps near a woman’s house and she came outside and invited me in. Although she didn’t understand English that well and I understood her dialect of Italian just about the same we spent an hour together, watching a show that was basically Napoli’s Got Talent, and looking at pictures of her family. She told me about her late husband and about her son and his wife and their children. And although I met local people in Florence as well, I never experienced that kind of immediate intimacy with them as I did with this woman who invited me into her home off the street.
Caryn, myself and another girl that went to Pisciotta returned to the town the following year. Our friend Francesco helped us find an apartment to rent and the family who rented it to us invited us into their home for coffee as soon as we arrived. Even a year later we still hadn’t become fluent enough in the Pisciottan dialect to have in-depth conversations with anyone, but we shared laughs nonetheless! We were lucky enough to be there for their Easter reenactment of Jesus being crucified. The entire town came out to see it.
All these moments that I really cherish from Pisciotta could have never happened to me in Florence. Going to such a small and isolated town kept me from getting distracted and focusing on just doing and seeing as much as possible: it enabled me to slow down and make true connections, with the students I was there with, the people living in Pisciotta, my myself. I was able to really become acquainted with the city and have a more authentic Italian experienced, as opposed to Florence where most of the people I met were also study abroad students or Italians in bars/nightclubs. That summer was a truly magical one and I will always be grateful to Pisciotta for that.
So, if you have the choice between an extra day in Rome, Florence, or any of the big cities and a smaller town a little ways away, take the chance for connection. Get lost in the side streets and meet new people. Gli Uffizi will always be there, the Vatican will always be there; but the interactions with the people you will meet when you take time to explore may not.
Ciao for Now,