The truth about comfort zones

Eau Claire study abroad student shares her experience about her time spent in Florence, Italy

More stories from Hailey Novak


Editor’s note: Novak worked at The Spectator as the OP/ED Editor last semester. She is now studying abroad in Florence, Italy.
Before my departure to Florence, Italy I was continually told to push myself and step outside my comfort zone to make my time abroad more authentic. It was the same thing I’ve been told since I was young. Try new things, make new friends; it sounded so obvious and easy.

Everyone was quick to tell me that my time in Italy would be nothing short of amazing, awesome, wonderful and any other related adjective. In many ways, they’ve been right.

On the other hand, no one told me that at some point I wouldn’t just feel out of my comfort zone, but completely uncomfortable, lost, confused and on the verge of breaking down.

During my first five weeks in Florence, I’ve been faced with experiences that most study abroad students before me had failed to acknowledge. Sure, they talked about the pizza and the gelato (the locals cringe when hearing these are the symbols of their home country), but they didn’t warn me about the less glamorous aspects.

For example, traveling solo. In an attempt to visit my friend in a city south of me, not only did I manage to get on the wrong train, which took me to Rome instead of my destination, but I also had to cough up 100 euros as a fine for having an invalid ticket.

When I got off the train in Rome, I struggled with my broken Italian to attempt and find where my supposed connecting train was. No one understood me, which wasn’t a complete surprise, and when I managed to correctly pronounce the city I was trying to get to, the looks were less than reassuring. One woman even laughed at me before walking away.

This was the point where I surprised myself by coming as close as I ever have to experiencing a panic attack. Tears streamed down my face as I struggled to catch my breath.

I slumped against the wall outside the ticket information office and watched people walking past me, staring at the American girl blatantly losing it in the middle of the train station. Thankfully, out of all the emotions I was experiencing, shame wasn’t one of them.

At this point, I really believed that I would have to sleep in the train station, considering my wallet was empty of all the cash I had brought, and my debit card was being conveniently denied at the ATM.

Eventually, a woman was kind enough to come up to me and ask in English what was wrong. She may as well have been God.

After an unmeasurable amount of generosity, two more trains and four hours later, I arrived at my friend’s doorstep in Tuscania. I was exhausted but happier than I imagined to finally see her.

I would be lying if I said this has been my only trying moment of my time abroad.

There’s been unexpected waves of homesickness for my friends, like the McDonald’s’ dollar menu (pay ten dollars for a McDouble meal and you’ll feel the same way) and the simple luxury of knowing how to get around.

It’s hard not to let the negative experiences get to me while I’m here, especially considering everyone back home is constantly asking me every day how much I’m loving it.

While study abroad may be wonderful and amazing, I understand now it also needs to be uncomfortable first so that these words can live up to their true potential. Experiences like traveling by yourself for the first time feel more satisfying when they don’t just fall from the sky and into your lap.

I experienced this firsthand one evening of my visit when we drove to a small town outside of Tuscania on the coast called Tarquinia. I found myself standing on the beach of the Mediterranean Sea at four in the morning, looking up at the constellations, which I realized I hadn’t been able to see since leaving home because of the bright city lights that obscure the sky in Florence.

I inhaled a breath of the chilled air and realized the frustrations I experienced prior to this moment were necessary because without them, this moment might have felt less surreal than it truly was.

So, this is me telling you, future and current study abroad students, in the mix of all those enticing adjectives, you may also feel extremely uncomfortable, and that’s okay.