It was an extremely hot July morning. Actually, not just “an”; it was the extremely hot July morning that would have changed my life forever. I was about to leave my city, my country, my continent, my life for something completely unknown. A true leap of faith. After 16 years in Europe, I was going to be an exchange students in the United States of America.
The most I knew about this immense nation was from two sources: Peanuts and Bruce Springsteen’s songs. Not a great deal, as can be guessed.
I passed the whole airplane trip from Amsterdam to Memphis thinking “Oddioddioddioddioddioddioddio”, staring at the airplane on the tiny screen in front of me getting closer and closer to my destination. “I don’t even know how to say toilet paper in English! What am I gonna do?” The old lady sitting next to me looked at me frequently, genuinely concerned. I was sweating like a marathon runner. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t listen to music. I didn’t watch a movie. I didn’t read. I didn’t even think. At that point, I was thinking to myself: "Where’s al-Qaeda when you need it?”
Eventually, the airplane landed. And there it was, with its “spacious sky and amber waves of grain”. America. Something so utterly different to my culture that I couldn’t even begin to fathom. And yet so similar: Europe and America are not like mother and daughter, no: we’re like two twins separated at birth. The differences are huge, but deep under our fundamental values are the same.
Anyway, talk about culture shock. I hadn’t slept in 24 hours, and America was as delicate as a meth-addict with a baseball bat who knows you’ve just won the lottery. The people, the smells, the drawl, the huge size and quantity of every single thing around me… and I hadn’t even left the airport!
Everything played out like a stereotypical movie.
The first person I had contact with was a member of the study abroad association, and he was the typical 6’6’’, 350 pound black man with hands as big as shovels and kind eyes. Thankfully he was not facing homicide charges, or I would have been starring in The Green Mile within my first minutes in the US.
Then I met with my host family, who had a car as big as some Roman buses, three kids, two dogs, and lived in Small Town, U.S.A.
The car trip from the airport to the town I would eventually call “home” was through spaces so endless I was overwhelmed. In Italy a person is overwhelmed by the power of mankind and its engineering, but as a newcomer to the US you are the dry leaf in Mother Nature’s tornado.
My first meal was a drive-in (never seen one before in my life) at McDonald’s.
The house was typically American, with front and side doors, the American flag hanging in front of it and an enormous lawn.
The only thing I needed was to get an apple pie smashed in my face and Uncle Sam-themed bed sheets.
My exchange program had been swapped with a plot from The Simpsons.
It was just the beginning, and I loved every minute it.