By Patrick Tobin, FFE 2013-14
Wouldn’t your nerves make you feel nauseous to the point of not eating breakfast if you were about to meet the forty or so people that you were going to spend the next year of your life with? Well, that is exactly how I felt that morning at the airport, even though my mother persisted, pushed, and nearly pummeled food down my throat. Rain started to fall; as if I had received some sign from God, I told my mom that I should pretend to get violently ill and then I could just go to community college in the fall. She and the 20,000 dollars she paid didn’t want to go along with my plan. I took a few deep breaths, and then went on into JFK.
My heart raced a marathon as I tried to slyly look around to see if I recognized anyone; in reality, I was as sly as a four year old trying to play it cool after taking a cookie from the cookie jar. No sign of anyone yet, I thought to myself as relief soothed my fumbling hands. Honestly, I was probably more anxious than necessary. Out of forty people, there had to be at least one that would be my friend. That I could get along with. That I could kind of get along with. That I could at least stand near in silence. Forty was just too small of a number; the odds were not in my favor.
But hey, I normally get along great with people! From playing with everyone on the playground to saying ‘hey’ to everyone in the hallways, I can be very personable, if I do say so myself. Even in elementary school, I was one of the select few to be chosen as a ‘Buddy,’ which basically meant that I greeted the new students and helped them make friends; so I was the living E-Harmony of young adolescence. Weird, huh? I remember one time when my Guidance Counselor, a very pale woman, with bleach blonde hair that always wore black started to talk at the annual New Friends Lunch. She always looked like you could have pulled her out from an Audrey Hepburn movie. I’ve always had the ability to get along with people. I once even considered putting small talk as one of my strengths on a resume. I welcomed these new situations and people into my life as I welcomed Christmas, birthdays, and my sisters being out of the house. It was all of those years of being a Buddy that prepared me to accept small forms of change, but, it failed to prepare me to adapt to a large shift in my life. Never had I been nervous about new situations with new people, until now.
I approached the baggage-check, where everyone was supposed to meet, swearing up and down due to forgetting the HAZMAT suit for the nuclear factory meltdown that was about to take place right in the middle of JFK. Then, I saw them. The familiar faces gathered around in a small circle, only about four or five in number, idly talking to one other. Fear took over my senses. My heart raced. Somehow, and for some strange reason, I kept getting closer. And closer. Close enough to the point where I was just in the bubble of conversation. Stealthily, I cleared the elephant in my throat and introduced myself. Going well so far, I thought, as I sighed in relief. All of the years of being a Buddy had paid off. The small talk was like the autumn rains in Florence, constant, which washed away the fears of rejection that I faced. I got to know more about the people that I was speaking with. One girl was actually from the same hometown as me. They all seemed like genuinely nice people. That was not what I was so worried about. My concern was the fact that I would spend a year with forty acquaintances rather than friends. Personally, I believe there is a large difference between acquaintance and friends. Acquaintances are the leaves of a tree, they can leave at anytime; friends are the roots, they are people that help you grow and are with you forever; people that I left back in Pittsburgh: Dani, AJ, Chelsea, and Savannah.
The usual routine for the five of us was to go grab some dinner, head back to Dani’s house, talk for hours, and then fall asleep. Every time we were all together, at least one person cried from laughing, one person complained how their stomach was hurting from laughing, and the rest had pain in their cheeks from laughing. Every weekend the five of us would spill our deepest thoughts and share our darkest secrets. One night, during phase three, we started to talk about the dreaded topic. College. The word sent silence throughout our non-stop conversation quicker than any parent telling yelling at us for our normal ruckus would have.
“Guys, I do not want to go,” Savannah finally whispered. None of us made eye contact as the silence spread like the Black Plague. She had said exactly what no one else dared to say for the last two months. Going for college meant leaving our family of the five of us. The more time that we spent together, the more we learned about each other and more importantly ourselves. Dani went over to her and wrapped her arms around her neck. Then AJ joined. Then Chelsea joined. I stared at my closest friends. The difference between them and myself was that I would not be able to see them. I wouldn’t be able to come home on the weekends, or for holidays. At the end of that summer, I would get on a plane and not return until the following May. I found myself thinking back to that night, reliving each moment in my head, as I was on that plane.
We arrived in Florence, Italy after a six-hour plane ride from JFK to Frankfurt, a six-hour layover, and then another two-hour plane ride to Florence. We then headed to Tuscania, a little town three hours from Florence, for orientation. Orientation was a whole new way of meeting these people. I became acquainted with more of the forty people that I was going to be with for the next nine months. No one wanted to get too personal; no one was sure if they had reached that ‘level’ yet. Until one night, a bunch of us went to play soccer in one of the parks. At first, we just kicked the ball back and forth. But then, more people started to join and we changed the game. You had to kick the ball quickly and sprint to the person you kicked it too. Before anyone knew it, there was a mess of American teenagers kicking and running around this small, quiet park.
At one point I said, “Ohmigod, you guys, my stomach hurts from laughing so hard!” Then, I knew. I knew that I was going to find friends here, not just acquaintances. I had so much fun playing this deranged form of soccer with everyone. From that night on, everyone started to become more personal with everyone else. I shared so many details about myself, that I’m sure that some of my friends here in Florence know me almost as well as my friends back in Pittsburgh. I’ve only been in Florence for a little over a month. I look back at the dread and despair that I felt first when coming here and laugh at how silly I was. I knew how to get along with people, being a Buddy taught me that. I knew how to become close with someone; Dani, AJ, Chelsea, and Savannah had taught me that. All it took to make friends was some small talk and a game of kick-sprint soccer.