Pasta and conversation: How a study abroad storyteller explored a new culture

Author: Brendan Lane

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The Study Abroad Storytellers program is an opportunity for current study abroad students to share their stories with prospective study abroad students. Though they may come from different backgrounds, colleges, and majors, they all share an enthusiasm to grow academically and personally from this life changing experience.

In this story, Brendan Lane ‘24, a finance and economics major, writes about his experience abroad in Rome, Italy.

While everyone else was taking a nap, I decided to wander the streets of Cantania, Sicily in search of its famous pasta dish, Pasta alla Norma. After passing by the stench of the fish market, the shouting fruit salesmen, and a perfect view of Mt. Etna, I stumbled upon what some might call a hole in the wall. It’s the kind of restaurant that looked like it came straight out of a mafia movie. The chairs for the outdoor seating sat on top of the tables, the front room was empty except for what looked like the owner’s child playing on an iPad at a table, and no one stood at the hostess stand. As I walked into the next room, I saw that the only other table at the restaurant was filled by three elderly Sicilian couples, enjoying what seemed like a ten course meal.

During my meal, one of the elderly women was on the phone with someone to whom she was singing a lovely song you’d expect a grandmother to sing. The entire time, I wanted to somehow strike up a conversation with the Sicilians, but knowing the limitations of my Italian skills, I decided to quietly enjoy my pasta. This pasta, covered very neatly with eggplants, tomato sauce, and grated parmesan, inspired awe in me with every bite. Every bite I took, I appreciated more what I was doing. How did a 20-year-old kid from Long Island who goes to college in Indiana end up eating a meal by himself in Sicily on a Friday afternoon in October? The more I realized how crazy this situation was, the more I had the desire to chat with some local Sicilians.

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The next time that one woman began singing, I peaked over and said, “Bravissimo!” Just that one comment ended up unlocking a situation I’ll remember forever. Obviously knowing I wasn’t a local from my shorts and American accent, they asked me in Italian where I was from, and we all soon began chatting about why I was there, what I study, and how superior Sicilian food is to Roman food. The more we chatted, the more I appreciated the power that even knowing just basic knowledge of another language has. I was able to share ideas and emotions and laugh with elderly Italians who each have had a lifelong experience totally different from anything I could imagine. They soon began offering me their desserts, quite literally getting up from their seats and tossing food on my plate, and offering me the opportunity to experience tastes my mouth never could have imagined.

Unexpectedly, they quickly pivoted and began to ask me my thoughts on American politics, especially about whether I like Trump or Biden. As I treaded lightly in this political conversation, they started airing concerns about rising prices and how the American president is perceived in the world. The topics of conversation quickly began to venture outside of my Italian vocabulary, and I cannot overstate how much I wish I knew more Italian at that moment. Even if I couldn’t fully understand them, hearing how passionate they were about events happening all the way across the Atlantic Ocean served to humanize the rest of the world for me. Just by hopping out of bed to go find some pasta, I gained a much deeper understanding of how interconnected our world is and how similar we all are.

Learn more about the Study Abroad Storytellers program.

Originally published by Brendan Lane at on February 08, 2023.