Maturity and growing up abroad

When I was planning my abroad experience, there were so many decisions that were difficult to make. Where would I leave the United States for? Where would I spend a year of my life? Did I want to go somewhere where I spoke the language?

The choice to stay with a host family was simple, straightforward, and relatively easy. Of course I wanted to stay with a family, learn more of the language and the culture. It was also a decision I made blind. As far as culture was concerned, I didn’t know much about the Italian family unit before I was actually living with one, and it never occurred to me to look into it.

I realized quickly that I was lucky to come from a big, loud family. The dynamic od the dinner table-hand gestures, talking over each other, every voice having a space-this was already familiar to me, even if the language remained a mystery.

What was unexpected was how I simultaneously gained an impressive amount of freedom and reverted to a child in the eyes of the adults around me. Twenty years old is not, by far, an adult in my mind, or in the mentality of my country. However, there is an expectation of adulthood on the horizon of twenty, an expectation of growing maturity and independence.

In Italy, in my host family, my age made me into a kid again, as did my status as a student. Things that had been my responsibility since I was fourteen became the domain of my host mom. My laundry was no longer mine to do. My constant offers to help put groceries away, wash dishes, do anything, were met with appreciation, but also laughter. My host mom tells me that I need time to enjoy myself and time to study. Then she catches me studying, and I’m told I’m taking school too seriously.

I’m expected to act less responsibly, which feels confusing. In the States, we are rewarding for our maturity because we are seen as one step ahead on what I lovingly refer to as The Path. The path is simple, familiar. It’s well-worn by the thousands of students like me trodding through it. High school, college, career. A straight path with well-defined expectations: enter college, pick your degree, graduate, begin you career, get married, start a family. Your choice in degree defines the other steps on The Path. Interested in business? Better start finding internships. Is music your passion? Start audition now. There is the sense that you’re already a little behind the curve, and that you need to start making up the slack. A clear expectation exists that you, at the tender age of twenty-two, exit university with a certain set of life skills and enter the nightmare labeled ‘the real world’. Moving back in with your parents is viewed commonly as a defeat of sorts, couple most likely with the inability to push yourself forward on that well-worn Path that beckons you towards that magic idea, Success.

Maturity and adulthood invariably hovers over university students, a requirement to move forward with your life. Everyone is a bit immature and we all shy away from the idea of adulthood a little bit, but we also know where we’re headed in the sense of The Path’s expectations.

In Siena, I’ve noticed the perception of maturity and adulthood as individualistic options. Transitioning from adolescent to adult is personalized, influenced less by the expectations of those around you. One of the sons in my host family moved out and has lived on his own since he was eighteen. The other still lives at home at the age of thirty-eight. Neither is viewed as a more valid option, just different choices.

Maturity becomes more of an expectation around your thirties here, an age during which most people on The Path are settling down with families. Expectations in general are relaxed, and while there is a rough idea of a path, no one is concerned about timelines. Or, at least, no one is obsessed with them in the way with which I am familiar. Maturity comes when it comes, as does adulthood, and you are given the time to figure it out.

Which means, at twenty, I’m still a kid. Yet I have this new, wonderful freedom. I can travel so far with so few limitations, and the number of authority figures in my life has shrank considerably. I could spend a weekend in Barcelona, hop a plane to London, and maybe even fit some time in Berlin. I have a freedom that requires independence, but the expectations of me also seem to undermine that independence. I am free to be a wild kid, which is relaxing, but jarring considering that, at home, I am independent only through the means through which I become an adult.

That difference, between freedom and independence, is the real difference between life here and life in the States. At home, freedom is earned through independence and self-reliance: adult qualities. Here, my freedom has grown immensely, but my independence is viewed as separate from that freedom, even a detriment to it. The freedom here is a release from expectations that I’ve grown up with, and the choice between responsibility and the pleasures of adolescence is open, yours to make.

Taylor Baciocco

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