An American in Rome: One Man's Experience Living in Europe for Two Years

Vatican City (Image: Christopher Czermak,  Unsplash )

Vatican City (Image: Christopher Czermak, Unsplash)

Living in another country is something I have thought about often. I've visited a handful of countries already, but the closest I've come to "living" abroad would be the six weeks I spent in Argentina a few years ago — and I hardly think a month and a half really counts.

No, to get the full-blown experience of living abroad, I'd say you probably need to spend at least six months in another country, getting the full works in: going to work or school, living in an apartment or a flat, walking unfamiliar streets every day, interacting with locals, making new friends and discovering new things about yourself in the process.

Recently, a very good friend of mine had the chance to do just that, except he quadrupled my (arbitrary) six-month requirement, spending two years living in Italy. Studying to become a priest, my friend, Alex K., will continue going to school in Rome at the Pontifical North American College for another two years, but right now he is back in Michigan for the summer and he was kind enough to spend an hour or so telling me all about his European adventures over the last couple years.

From his introductory run-through of the Italian language through countless travel opportunities that have seen him to Poland, Greece, Austria, and many other places, here is what he had to say.

Prior to moving, what did you expect living in Europe was going to be like?

AK: “You know, I honestly don’t think I had any expectations, because I really didn’t know what to expect. Just never having been out of the country before ... I really didn’t know what to expect because all I ever knew was the United States.

“So getting there, it wasn’t like, ‘Wow, this is vacation!’ It was like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re going to be here for two years and then go home and then be here for two or three more — this is, like, home for a while.' Moving there, it took a little while to appreciate all the good that Italy is. I didn’t know any Italian. I went into Italy knowing nothing about Italy, other than people there liked pasta. That was it.

“Actually, I will say this: if I had one expectation, it might have been the fact that I expected the food to be like Olive Garden, and it’s not. But otherwise, I truly had no expectations.”

Alex (right) and a fellow seminarian outside the Roman Forum in the central part of the city

Alex (right) and a fellow seminarian outside the Roman Forum in the central part of the city

What was your impression over the first few weeks?

AK: "The thing I remember most clearly was walking out of the airport and seeing so many people smoking cigarettes, and being like, ‘Wow, this is nuts.’ There’s no 'you gotta smoke 20 feet away from the door' or anything. You could smoke where you want, when you want, and it was like this feels like 1955 or something because everybody’s smoking. All the Italians are dressed really nice too, men and women both.

“I think, too, within the first few weeks, when I moved into the North American College, the seminary, what really struck me was the guys that I was studying with — just very genuine, very real men, who were desiring to be close to the Lord and desiring to serve the people of the United States. I think, for a lot of us, for most of us, getting there was like a culture shock, because it was like these people are clearly not what we’re… They’re very different from Americans, in a good way, but it just took a little while to grow used to the culture that was there, to just kind of be thrown in.

“Getting to Italy, it was like, ‘Wow, these people are really different, and they don’t even speak the same language.’ But also, they just culturally are very different. They are very emotional people; they kind of get frustrated and angry really easy, where Americans, especially in the Midwest, we kind of tend to be more passive or 'Mr. Nice Guy.' We won’t tell you when we’re bothered, but in Italy, if you’re annoying someone, they’re going to show you very visibly. Coming from the Midwest, I think that was a challenge, getting used to not taking everything so personal."

How long did it take before Rome felt like a kind of home away from home? Or did it never progress to that level?

AK: “The first time it felt somewhat like home was after our first Christmas. We’d been there for five months and the first Christmas I went to Prague, the Czech Republic. They speak Czech and I really didn’t know that language, so that was even a little more intimidating. Thankfully, most people are able to speak English there, so that was easy. But not being able to speak Czech, when we’d go to the daily mass everything was in Czech, whereas we had just kind of gotten used to everything being in Italian.

“After being in Prague for about a week, we came back to Italy and that was the first time … I felt like we understood the culture and could kind of, I don’t know… We felt like we belonged after that first Christmas.

“So that was the first time, but I think honestly it was at the end of this school year. Even coming home now ... it was like Italy has really been a home to all of us. I think it’s amazing how long it really takes when you live somewhere to understand a particular way of life. I think going back this fall it will really feel more like a home, like I understand the people and the culture.”

The Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, also known as Angelicum University, where Alex attends daily classes during the school year

The Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, also known as Angelicum University, where Alex attends daily classes during the school year

What is one thing culturally about Italy or Italians themselves that sticks out to you?

AK: “The Italians, they drive as if there were no lines on the road. So you kind of just drive all over, wherever you want, and even just having empathy for that rather than it being a frustration … like that’s neat that that’s how they do it and it makes sense to them.

“The seminary doesn’t like us to (ride mopeds). Some guys do it, but they had so many accidents. If you come to Rome, you would see. People don’t drive in between the lines, they just drive wherever is convenient, so they’re just constantly driving all over. Rome — and Italy — driving is more intuitive because you’re not stuck to the box; you’re paying attention and thinking a little more as you’re doing it.

“This happens all the time (too): guys are riding regular bikes and people will open their car doors and guys will fly over their bike handles. Like all the time. And it’s super casual. They’ll come back to lunch and say, ‘Yeah, I flipped over my handlebars today.’”

How often would you interact with locals? How would you say Italians feel about Americans; what is their general attitude toward the U.S.?

AK: “We would talk to Italians every day. At the universities, most students speak English, so we would speak English and Italian both conversationally. Some Italians really love the States, they really love kind of the idea of what the founding fathers did. They appreciate that we have a lot of the freedoms that we do and also just how prosperous we are as a country was something they were always impressed by.

“However, I think at the same time there are some Italians who — or not even just Italians, but other people I met from other countries — their impression of Americans were everything they would see in the movies and hear in the 'Top 40' songs. So as far as drinking and partying and stuff, they would just kind of assume that that was how everybody lived.

“There’s a good chunk of them that what they do know from the States comes from MTV and, like, songs and stuff. But there were also some that were more skeptical (of America), and I think one of the biggest questions you’d get, too, is people would ask about Trump. To some Italians, I think Trump comes across very… They don’t know how to read him. He’s very outspoken and he seems very crass, so I think they … are intimidated and would say, ‘Does he really think this about immigrants or this about people?’ or ‘Is he a jerk?’”

How often were you able to travel outside the city? Outside the country?

AK: “About every four weeks, we had a weekend off. Every Saturday of the school year, there are no requirements at the seminary. It’s expected that you would go to daily mass somewhere … (but) some guys would take day trips, get on the train and go places. You could travel every Saturday if you wanted to.

“Some guys would stay in Italy or get really cheap flights and fly up to Germany, France, or Poland, the Czech Republic — places like that for the weekend. For Christmas and Easter, we had two weeks off where we could travel, and then depending how fast you do your exams between the first and second semester, we would have (some time off, as well). I think I had a week and a half off this year, where some guys had maybe only four, five days, just depending how fast you do your exams.

Alex (second from right) and co. stop for a quick photo op in Meteora, Greece

Alex (second from right) and co. stop for a quick photo op in Meteora, Greece

“First Christmas I went to Prague and then went to northern Italy for the second part of the break, got a little cabin with some guys. Then the second Christmas we went to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage there for 12 days. The other bigger trips: I went to Poland for Easter time — that’s when my parents were there and then we were in Rome and Poland both. I went to Austria the fall of my first year for several days to Vienna, and … the next summer we had off so basically we could pick our summer assignment, what we wanted to do for the nine weeks that we were off.

“So I did two weeks in Lourdes, France, serving at the Sanctuary for Our Lady of Lourdes, and then spent two weeks in northern Italy at a parish. I went to Palma, Spain, for several days to go to the beach with some guys, and then went to Liverpool for a week. I went and visited a priest in the U.K. and then went to Poland for a week. My parents and I met a family on the airplane on our trip to Poland over Easter and I went back to stay with them for a week. They live just north of Krakow, which is really cool. Wolbrom … that’s where they live, a little country town.

“In the fall, I went to Fatima for several days with some guys — Fatima, Portugal. And I also went to Bologna, Italy — some of the best food in the world — and we went to Bulgaria, to Sofia. We went to Barcelona that fall (as well)."

What was one of your favorite destinations outside of Italy?

AK: "One of my favorite trips was Greece. It’s so inexpensive to travel in between the countries. My flight to Greece was the cheapest I ever flew. It was like 35 euros, so maybe $50 round trip? We flew into Thessaloniki. We did kind of like a St. Paul trip — the Thessalonians, Thessaloniki. And then went to Corinth, Athens, Philippi.

“Philippi was really cool, just a small, little town and we were at a restaurant where we didn’t think anybody was going to speak English. But then our waitress ended up being a girl from Chicago and it was nuts. She hadn’t spoken English in like four or five years, so when she spoke to us … it was funny. She said that she really had to think about what she was going to say.

“Greece was so cool because the people … are really hospitable. They really want you to enjoy the country. There was this guy when we were walking out that welcomed us to his table at this restaurant. There were five of them and they had some kind of homemade liqueur, like a really sweet, licorice-tasting after-dinner drink. They poured us some and then gave us Greek cigarettes and wanted us to just enjoy the Greek life.

“They said they got together at this restaurant every Saturday afternoon, and they had done that since they were like 25. At this point, they were in their mid-50s. The Greeks … are not bashful; they really want to show you their culture, very interested in America — things like that.”

Posing with the family from Wolbrom, Poland, over the Easter holiday in 2017

Posing with the family from Wolbrom, Poland, over the Easter holiday in 2017

What is hands down the best Italian meal you had over the two years?

AK: “Carbonara in Rome is probably one of my favorite dishes in Rome itself. But Italy is very regional. Europe is too, in general, but in Italy, in particular, in Rome you would have carbonara, which is a particular type of pasta. It has pancetta, which is like their version of bacon, in it, and then it has egg, so it’s a very thick, rich sauce.”

“If you went up to Milan in the north, you would find different types of pasta. I mentioned Bologna. Bologna is known for its pasta and food in Italy. Instead of carbonara … you could go to the north and have tortellini. If you go to a restaurant in Rome … they’re only going to serve you what they know they can cook well. In the south, they’re known for certain things and they’re only going to cook those certain things.

“Different kinds of wines are popular in different places, and you only have to drive a couple hours to find these different things. The food is all really good but it’s different depending on the region you go to. What’s neat is that Italy, being very regional, the north is very different from the south and Rome is very particular because it’s the capital. So they’re very different from the rest of southern Italy, which is different from Sicily (and so on)."

What are some restaurants or cafes that you frequented?

AK: “There’s a cafe that I would go to once a week, a coffee shop called Bar Orologio. I would go there and have … a donut and a coffee on my way to class with another guy. My favorite restaurant is called … Osteria Romana di Simmi. It’s near a church called The Most Holy Trinity, near the French Embassy. Bill Clinton has been there actually. They had a picture of him on the wall with the owner. Both those places, I think, are like properly Roman. Another restaurant that’s really good is called Costanza. Their pasta norcina is awesome.”

What was the most memorable experience?

AK: “When we first got to the college, the afternoon that we got there the sun was setting and our rooftop overlooks the entire city of Rome. It’s honestly one of the best views in Rome, because we sit up on a hill and then also the seminary has this tower with a rooftop. I remember we got up there and I looked over at St. Peter’s Basilica, which is literally right next door. I was blown away, like, ‘This is going to be our home? We’re going to live here?’ And somebody said, ‘This is your backyard for four years.’ You can see like every major landmark out in the distance.

View from the rooftop of Pontifical North American College in Rome

View from the rooftop of Pontifical North American College in Rome

“Prague and Greece come to mind right away (as well) because of the people we met. In Prague, we stayed with a woman who had connections to the North American College. She was a Czech woman who told us about what life was like for her up until the ‘90s, before Czechoslovakia … fell apart, what it was like to live under communism.

“My most memorable moments of traveling have been when I’ve made a connection somewhere, like in Poland where forever now I’ll know this family. I hope to go back and visit them even as a priest like once a year. My most memorable experiences definitely come from the people I’ve been with or the people I’ve met in that country and made a connection with."

What would you still like to do?

AK: “Walking around more in the streets of Rome because they’re so beautiful. It’s easy to get in your little mode and just go from point A to point B, because we live there and work there, but it’s something I want to do when I go back. Just take evening strolls or just take a Saturday afternoon to putz around a little more in Rome itself. I think Italy is probably one of the prettiest countries to travel to, so I want to enjoy Italy as much as I can.

“I think (I’d like to explore) the middle of Italy, the mountain region, northeast of Rome. I want to spend more time in the small towns because that’s where you find true Italian culture and life.”

What would be your advice for Americans considering living and working abroad?

AK: “I think being patient with yourself and with the culture and recognizing that it will take time to understand a culture and a way of life. It’s not something you could experience just vacationing in a place for like a week; you might get an idea, but I think to really understand a particular way of life, you have to spend time there for a while. When you’re patient, everything else is going to open up, you’re going to enjoy the new experiences and the food and why they do things this way.

“Italy really is a beautiful country and I think it will always be a home away from home, it will always have a special place in my heart. And that’s something that when I go back I want to make sure I don’t take for granted.”