It was on the second day of my seven-week trip to Italy this summer that I learned the phrase “in gamba.” Though I’m pretty sure the literal translation means something along the lines of “on leg,” I gathered that the phrase is a saying often used to describe somebody who is brave. My hosts endearingly described me as such as they expressed their disbelief that at 19 I was alone halfway across the world.
I spent this summer working on several organic farms in exchange for room and board throughout Italy through an organization called the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. For the most part I was traveling alone. I was nervous but I was supported and encouraged by my peers and professors, being told dozens of stories recounting other people’s experiences abroad, the emphasis always being on the importance of solitary travel, of gaining independence.
In America, independence is encouraged from a young age, with each birthday signifying a new milestone that pushes us one step closer to total autonomy. We are encouraged to try new things, to be bold, to step outside our comfort zones. It is so common for young Americans to travel the world that American backpackers have become an international stereotype. We are told that these experiences are invaluable: not just seeing the world but going at it alone.
By the time we are 18 years old, it is the standard that we will move away from home. Many of us relocate to college campuses as our parents become empty-nesters. I have friends whose families live five minutes away from their universities, and yet they still live in dormitories or apartments, seeing their parents only rarely in order to achieve full independence. Many universities, including Yale, make living on campus a requirement, so that these local students couldn’t commute even if they wanted to.
Having been raised in this climate of independence, Italian culture was a surprise. In Italy, reaching 18 doesn’t carry the same connotations that it does for us. University students tend to study at campuses in the cities in which they live so they can continue to live at home. Often, students and parents alike return to their homes for lunch to enjoy a midday home-cooked meal before returning to their work or studies. There is even a term for the typical Italian mamma’s boy, “mammone” which connotes the shameless — and all too common — full-grown men whose mothers ceaselessly do all of their cooking and cleaning.
This Italian climate rivaled my solitary travels, and I began to question the value of my own independence. Having elaborate four-course family lunches with my hosts every day in Italy was one of my favorite parts of the trip, something that would be impossible to implement with my own family as I live five hours away from them. I recalled my experience moving away from my parents two years ago, and remembered the difficulty of my transition. I began to understand Italians my age living at home: With a problematic economy, why would you pay for another living space if you didn’t have to?
But there are unrivaled invaluables that come with independence. Traveling on my own, I formed close relationships with my hosts not only because I wanted to, but because I had nobody else to turn to. I learned how to traverse Italian cities on my own, being able to go where I wanted when I wanted. I’ve gained similar experiences living on my own in New Haven, creating an incredible support network of friends and spending my days the way that best suits my interests.
We are lucky to live within a culture that pushes us out of our comfort zones and encourages independence; we gain instrumental experiences and learn important life skills. But it is important to remember — especially as we return back to New Haven and welcome freshmen that might be leaving home for the first time — that we don’t need to choose between the two extremes. We can have independence at 18 while still relying on our families. We can travel on our own and still call home for advice and to share stories. We must enjoy the opportunities that independence affords us while using the resources available to us. And we must never forget to treat ourselves to a four-course lunch once in a while.
Ally Daniels is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.