One of the first articles I read when I began my search for the right study abroad program was one about the places lesbians should NOT go in the world. Most of Africa was on that list, Iran as well of course, and dozens of others, unfortunately. To top it off I’m also a Jew, so my borders are infinitely more limited, arguably making the final decision of where to go slightly easier. Although these factors are vital in choosing the right program, – I certainly would never advise anyone to purposely put themselves in harms way – these factors are, however, only a few among many. Which ones hold the most cards is an individualized measurement and one only you can determine. For me, I desired to put myself out of my comfort zone, while still ensuring that I could be free to be who I am. Fortunately, I got exactly what I wanted.
For 4 months in 2008, I lived in Florence, Italy through the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS). Florence had everything I was looking for: great food, a beautiful language, and a culture I have always been intrigued by. The program also offered amazing perks: trips to surrounding cities, a three week stay on the Mediterranean water front, a plethora of language and cinema classes, a trip to England, meal vouchers, and a volunteer program, which I took advantage of by teaching English as a second language to two high schools in Florence.
Of the 200 people in my program, (all Americans from all over the US) I was one of only 2 girls who were out of the closet, though there were a lot of closet cases, and quite honestly, it really didn’t bother me. As a lesbian, I have grown accustom to being the odd man out and have actually used it to my advantage. Being okay with being alone on an issue gives you the opportunity to educate the people around you and that was one of the best parts of studying abroad for me. For one of the gelato stand ladies on the corner of my street, I was her first lesbian customer. For some of my roommates (I had 5), I was their first lesbian friend. My presence took what for some is only a political topic, and showed it for what it is: a part of a human being. That’s a part of studying abroad I truly value.
As much as I was definitely a minority in terms of being an out, and, what I would consider, a “visible” lesbian, what I found infinitely more difficult was being a Jew in a country, and in a program, that didn’t seem to have room for it. While I knew Italy is a Catholic country, I didn’t realize how little Jewish influence existed there.
Over the course of the 4 months I spent there, I visited well over 50 churches and only 1 temple. I remember on one of the very last trips, we went to the Vatican. For the last hour of our time, I wandered around the outskirts of the Vatican and felt completely alone. In that moment, I felt more Jewish than I ever have before and though it was a rather lonely feeling, it was the moment I genuinely connected to my Jewish heritage and the catalyst for my choosing a graduate program in Israel. Ironically, it was my ethnicity and culture that made me feel like an outsider, not my sexuality.
I think I have spent so much of my life, now being out for 10 years, being used to playing the role of “the gay girl” that I completely forgot what it feels like to stand out when you least expect to. Growing up in Los Angeles, Jews are everywhere. And even while attending a Catholic university in Northern California, I took a class a Rabbi taught. But being in a country that identifies as Catholic and being one of three Jewish students in my program, to say the least, I remembered what it’s like being the ugly duckling and it’s something I would have never realized had I not studied abroad.
Over the course of my time living in Italy, I traveled to Germany, France, Spain, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, England, and Greece. After graduating college, I moved to Israel for graduate school and traveled to Poland. If you want to know the best place for gay people hands down, it’s Tel Aviv, Israel (coincidentally, it works for Jews too!). Tel Aviv has more gay bars down one street than Florence has in the whole city. If you want a place where you can be out and proud, go to Israel. (Berlin, Germany and Amsterdam are great for that too. I’d stay away from Poland, though. Oh and Russia too, since it is now officially illegal to be gay in St. Petersburg).
It has been over a year now since I have had the privilege of traveling abroad and I must say I need to scratch the itch again soon. The times that I spent living abroad were the best times of my life and fortunately for me, I was able to be exactly who I am throughout it all. I may have heard some mean comments and gotten my share of stink eyes, but that’s life everywhere. Ultimately being gay or straight or green or yellow, despite being factors in choosing a safe place to go, are not the reasons I hold on to those precious memories the way I do. It is the people I met and what I learned about myself that matter the most. Regardless of your reasons for where you study abroad, or even for why, when you all leave wherever you have ventured to, I hope you depart with this feeling:
“A hundred years have passed in this moment's notice. Trains never sped so fast. The track just goes and pictures come out blurry; you can't see the colors anymore, nothing but the fog. I felt it on my face this morning when walking away from my home. Bags in hand, stamped lips on my cheeks, my eyes left their shoulders wet. With nothing left but hesitation. Movement has never been so stiff.
Just a few miles ahead snow appears. A new shade of white, a different cold, nothings the same. It will never be the same.
Writing the last chapter is like writing the first. Tying together loose strings, binding that cover, coming full circle. The book is closed right as you remember that first page.
Too many memories to collect. And time will soon begin the elimination. One by one they'll fall off the pages, stories won't exist behind the photographs. And the knot in our throats will be swallowed down. Just like the train will keep moving forward no matter how planted our seats may seem. We keep moving. Keep moving. Keep moving. Now is all we have.
The corner clerks will forget. The waiters won't even notice. The streets will be filled with new faces. Bridges don't hold memories. Neither do swinging doors, no matter how open they once were. We are gone. Not even ghosts haunt our old bedrooms. Used sheets are all that remain, waiting to be washed. And the tissues with our dripping noses will find a new trashcan to fall into. The months are over. And we are gone.
But we remember. We will remember, if anything, today. Today won't fade. Because today is hard. Which means yesterday mattered. All the yesterdays. They all mattered.
In a moment a hundred years have passed. And this moment itself has disappeared too fast. But at least these hundred years will last. Somewhere scattered, they will last.”
- Written: November 29th, 2008. Leaving Florence train station.