The Voyage to Ithaca

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My earliest memories take place in airports; in these recollections, I blink sleep out of my eyes as the hypnotic conveyor belt spins round and round. It is hard to remember where I was in those jet-lagged moments—America, where I went to school, or Italy and Greece, where I spent summers with my grandparents. Balancing these three identities, cultures, and languages was a personal odyssey and, unfortunately, a source of self-doubt and shame, something I struggled to shed throughout my childhood.

I have never spent a full year in one continent, nor a full day in one language. Summers were spent in countries and cultures completely separate from my life at school, where I was placed in English as a Second Language courses. At home, my family spoke in a clamor of tongues, often switching between two or even three in the space of one conversation. English, Italian and Greek became a babble whose syntactical untangling frustrated and eluded me. My tongue tripped over words, unsure if I sounded correct or if my accent came out right. Whenever I’d attempt to share a joke, I’d find myself being interrupted and corrected before I could reach the punch line.

These encounters silenced me. I longed for the mastery over language that would allow me to use my voice. I practiced in the shower. Hot water running down my spine, I slowly traced words and sentences onto the foggy shower glass. Writing the letters and attempting to pronounce the words under my breath became a cathartic experience. These moments of self reflection prepared me for the following day’s interactions, in hopes I would not embarrass myself again. As I grew older, these communions with language taught me to love words and the possibility they presented: to tell my story, to connect.

The practice paid off when I met Alejandro while volunteering at my Italian grandmother’s parish during the summer of 2012. One day, Alejandro and I were paired up to cook for the homeless. Immediately, his bubbly personality drew me in. I felt comfortable enough to speak the words that I had previously left trapped in the steam. With flour covering my cheeks and tomato sauce dripping off my fingers, I laughed and talked as my insecurities slipped away. That summer, amidst prayers and Italian recipes, I became more willing to use my own voice. To challenge myself further, I decided to venture into the unknown. During the summer after my junior year, I left the safe confines of the familiar and embarked on a fully immersive program in Spain through Indiana University. Upon arrival, I felt myself slipping back into my childhood fears. I struggled to respond and keep up with conversation. Among strangers, I was reminded of something I had learned from a very young age: that the inability to communicate is terribly painful and isolating.

However, I refused to give up. I pushed against my instinct for silence, spending hours every night on the porch with my host mom, deep in conversation. We discussed everything from local politics to my sexuality, from our favorite music and food to our thoughts on the world. During the day, I’d picnic with Lope Felix de Vega and Miguel de Cervantes. By the third week, I was writing my own poetry and short stories. By the end of the trip, I was thinking, dreaming, and fluidly expressing my thoughts in Spanish. Mastering Spanish enabled me to create meaningful connections to the culture, history, and art of its people. In retrospect, it is not my ability to speak Italian, Greek, Spanish, and English that brings me the most pride. My pride, instead, is derived from the experiences I had while conquering my fears and insecurities, and, eventually, recognizing my love for expression through language. After all, it was the voyage to Ithaca, not the destination, that shaped me.

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