Beyond the bars: there’s much more to see in Europe

Justin Runquist

I still remember staring out into endless horizon of the Atlantic Ocean just a year ago, saying, “I can’t believe Europe is out there… somewhere.”

When deciding to study abroad in Italy last year, that same ocean was my single largest obstacle all along. More than the language barrier. More than the responsibilities I’d leave behind. Even more than the unknown ahead.

Aside from pizza and pasta, I barely knew a thing about Italy. I didn’t know what to expect. I just knew I’d change forever the moment I stepped on that airplane in January and crossed that ocean.

And I was right: I’m a different person now. Europeans taught me a lot-about themselves and their history, of course. But it was through that process that I actually learned more about myself, about my spirituality, about my purpose. I learned that I can stretch my limits and come out better than before. I learned that positive body language and a constant willingness to play charades can get you far in a non-English speaking country. And through lounging in Milan cafes and sitting atop volcanoes in Sicily, I quickly discovered that life is just too short to feel unfulfilled and stressed out.

Throughout this semester, I’d like to share reflections of my journey through Italy and Europe with you in The Villanovan. Last semester, nearly 150 other Villanova students were lucky to take the similar small step, yet gigantic leap like I did. Just as Neil Armstrong dreamt of reaching the moon, they probably dreamt of studying abroad like I did. And we did it, we survived, and we’re here to proclaim that you can do it too.

I lived a total of eight months in Europe. Five of them were spent living in cosmopolitan Milan, studying at a top-notch international business school, and visiting cities like Vienna and Barcelona on weekends. And the last three months-my entire summer vacation-were spent hopping from train to train, experiencing a taste of 16 new countries. My study-abroad experience in Milan was so successful that I figured I’d push myself further and longer and deeper into European life.

So, eight months and a grand total of 20 later, I returned to Villanova a week ago. And now the tables have turned again. Life presents new challenges now. I’m relearning what it’s like to be an American. The responsibilities are back, my inbox is full again, and speaking English is no longer an excuse but-as expected in America-a requirement. Yet one constant are the vivid memories of Europe running through my head: the jazz musicians along Paris’ Seine River, the intense emotions of standing on the D-Day beaches of Normandy, and my boat cruising along Italy’s colorful Amalfi Coast.

I always dreamt of seeing the Coliseum in Rome, climbing the Eiffel Tower in Paris, hearing Big Ben ring in London, and singing Irish songs in Dublin until 4 a.m. Fortunately those dreams became a reality this past year. It all started like any new frontier: some initial, careful baby steps mixed with tough expectations, optimistic hopes, and a wide-open mind. My friends and I quickly learned the ease of the Italian train network, starting with a short, 3-hour trip from Milan to Florence in January. And by April I was landing three euro flights to Naples, and a certain gem I deemed my “golden ticket:” a Eurailpass allowing unlimited rail travel across most European countries for two months (and that was no typo… airfare for three euros!).

By the time my Milanese exams finished in mid-June, I hopped a free ferry to Greece and sailed into the Aegean sunset. The reality of my transformation since January hit home that night. Just five months before, I didn’t speak Italian and I barely knew what countries even constituted Europe. But on that ferry to Mykonos island, I was envisioning how I’d survive in nations that spoke 11 different languages.

“Living on the basics” became my theme for the summer: learning basic words in each country, booking cheap hostel beds for 15 euros a night, surviving on cheap Greek gyros for dinner, and making self-guided walking tours the main attraction of each destination. Where it took me several months to discover that Europe is a very “do-able,” affordable playground, I’d have no doubt future Euro-trekkers could learn even quicker.

Europe is a smorgasbord of diversity; a rich cultural brew. You won’t have trouble finding fun, from sunny Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera, to liberal districts in Amsterdam, to the beer garden life in Munich, Germany. Interested in history? Sites like the Louvre in Paris, Winston Churchill’s war bunker in London, tours of Caesar’s old stomping grounds in Rome, and Berlin Wall museums will certainly bring your college textbooks to life. And if you’re looking in places to take your breath away, there’s no shortage of them in Europe either.

One of them was a particular, secluded beach on Portugal’s Algarve Coast. I sat on a rock one afternoon, watching the local fishermen count their day’s catch as nude sunbathers walked by. Portugal is the southwestern most point of Europe, and was a halfway stop on my journey around Europe this summer.

Then the reality hit me. My journey had come full-circle in a way. For the very first time, I found myself staring out at the Atlantic Ocean, but from the other side. And after so many memorable months in Europe, I found myself staring out into the endless horizon. I just shook my head and smiled: all I could say was, “I can’t believe America is out there… out there somewhere.”