The beginning of something new, exciting and unknown, can also be the most terrifying moment. At least for me, it wasn’t easy to step outside my comfort zone and decide to live abroad for ten months in order to be part of VulcanicaMente’s European Solidarity Corps project, Rise Together. I am Michelle from Germany, one of the four long-term volunteers for this project, and together with the other volunteers we are addressing gender equality problems. As my first two weeks of ten months in Lecce draw to an end, I have had time to reflect on the experience.
We arrived in Lecce at 6 p.m. and by “we” I mean my mom and me. She accompanied me and stayed for the first four days at B&B Centro Storica in Lecce (such a lovely B&B by the way!). When I look back on it, I’m really grateful that she was with me these first days.
It was quite a shock when I came here because everything was so different to what I was used to. The living situation is different from Germany, the people are different, the environment and the culture. For example, I am not used to traveling 30 minutes from one place to another because local transportation is easier in my city, Hanover. I also learned that it was better to wear more layers at night to stay warm because heating costs are so high; to be responsible we do not want to leave on the heating overnight. The biggest change, however, has been the language. This is Italy, so clearly the predominant language is Italian. This has often made it difficult for me to interact with locals, especially when I got lost and didn’t have a clear mind in those stressful moments. Even though these situations were and still are tough for me, they are also a great motivation to learn Italian so that I can actually converse with the locals someday.
Since there was nothing that reminded me of Germany around, I became really anxious. I felt lost and overwhelmed and this is where my mom comes in. She was my calm anchor inside this whole new world and the one thing that felt familiar.
I know it’s not always possible for parents to come along when you start a new journey, so what can also help is to try surrounding yourself with things that feel like home.
These are the ways that helped me settle in:
- Bring photos, your favourite toy, sweater, book or anything that reminds you of home.
- Call your family and/or friends when you feel lonely or anxious.
- Download Google Maps to not get lost.
- Download GoogleTranslator if you can’t interact with the locals.
- Most important, however, is to remember that you are never actually alone.
Despite the shocks and surprises, I have also had some fun times with my roommates Cristian from Spain and Kalli from Estonia; I know there are more great times yet to come. Kalli also introduced me to two of her friends, and including my mom and Cristian, all six of us had a wonderful time. We shared meals and introduced each other to some of the typical dishes we eat at home. One evening, we went out to the Centro Storico of Lecce and sat on the Convitto Palmieri stairs. I ate the best calzone in the world and Pelle, one of Kalli’s friends, took his guitar out and started singing. It was truly a magical evening in a magical city, I slowly fell in love with it all. The architecture is dreamy and, especially at night when all the lights are on, there is an ambience that I only recognize in Italy.
We also started to go to Ciclofficina Popolare Knos (CPK)
regularly to maintain our bikes and give them a new look. When I first arrived there, I was fascinated by the place. It didn’t look like how I know it back in Germany, yet I felt like it was beaming with creativity. In CPK, you have the opportunity to actually build your own bike piece by piece, but you don’t necessarily need new things in order to do that. They already have plenty of pieces for building a bike and most of them come from other bikes they took apart. With that said, they are also focused on sustainability and actually showed me that just because something looks rusty, it doesn’t mean you can’t use it anymore. I really enjoyed taking apart my bike and seeing how it is actually built. It was my first time doing something like this while I was being guided; it was truly an experience. In Germany, I haven’t seen any bike labs yet, so I was positively surprised when I got the chance to tinker with my bike and can’t wait to see the result of my hard work!
Now, after two weeks, I know that if something is wrong, I can go to Cristian and Kalli for refuge, which means a lot to me.
Besides that, I know I can always go to Sandra, the Rise Together project manager, and Jacopo, VulcanicaMente’s vice president, if something happens. They welcomed my mom and me warmly at the bus terminal when we arrived in Lecce, which was really nice of them. On our first activity days, they have given us a good introduction to VulcanicaMente and what we can expect to come. We did some brainstorming about our project, what we want to do, what it means to us and what our goals are. They gave us a great start to slowly get into the project and how the organization is run. I’m looking forward to the coming months.
All in all, I’m still learning to get comfortable outside my comfort zone and I think it is important to share that it is totally okay to be anxious or lost at the beginning. This is all part of the growth process. In moments of anxiety or loneliness, it is important for me to always ground myself and remember that I’m not alone.