Coming in last to the 11-month volunteer project and leaving last from it has its good and bad sides. The middle part was arguably the most important but instead, I write about the end.
Expanding on that a little:
I arrived late to the project, between a month and two after the other volunteers had already started. Imagine it like walking late into the party but not exactly “fashionably late so that you’re not the try-hard that everyone looks away from”, but instead you’re there 2 hours into it and you’ve missed the first whoops of joy, as well as a bunch of the inside jokes. But you’re there anyway, and the party isn’t ending soon, so you jump right in, do a little uphill battle with the established relationship dynamics and look for an empty cup to fill with a drink, and maybe a chair in which to take a break.
That metaphor aside, I can never regret that this happened the way it did. I was late to the project because I didn’t know about it existing until two weeks before I came – and I’m glad I could, because that gave me so many amazing experiences here. And in coming late, I still had the benefit of having roommates, who could take me through everything quickly and efficiently, help me get my tax code or tell me which cheese is best (for the first time, I did experiment with cheeses later on) in the supermarket. Even if I felt like I missed out on some important forming times for our little volunteer team, we made our own later on – with just a little bit of consciousness that we needed it, and a little bit of effort. Like I heard in a podcast I was listening to recently: we should be active in our friendship building, instead of taking it for granted.
So, late to the party or not, the ball started rolling for me very fast. From activity to activity, and through many many travels around Italy, which I loved wholeheartedly, months passed by fast. In the middle of an ESC project it’s a little difficult to look towards the end, since you’re enjoying the process so much, and there is always, always, something to learn and improve in. The middle part, let’s say most of it, was mind-blowing and fantastic.
I got used to the city of Milano, which I now feel like a new home, and I can’t exactly and fully imagine leaving, and after getting used to it, I fell in love with it. With its efficiency, and its connectedness, and the beautiful, awe-inspiring buildings in the city center, through the cute and green-filled terraces of the periphery, and the quiet serenity of the outskirts, where we live. I love the parks, best roamed with a bike, and I love the bookstores, in which I’ve spent countess hours lost in good fiction. I love how walkable it all is, made for people, and I love how much people in turn care for the place in which they live. I’ve grown to appreciate all aspects of Milano, not as a touristic destination but rather a wonderful home.
I got used to the volunteering tasks, which filled me with purpose and the desire to learn. Got used to them, and you can imagine, I fell in love with them and the people inside them. I’ve written about the project Recup and the joys of the strange market, but beyond that, for me some activities were so engaging and important, that they pushed me towards starting online courses, researching the topics in depth, and appearing to the youth center as if weaponized with new techniques to try out. I discovered (or maybe rediscovered) my fondness for teaching (and preparing the teaching material), since I had the chance to help some teenagers with their English; I learned a lot of non-verbal games and exercises, which gave me a little more access to the children we had art class with every Thursday. The lovely grandmas, which we saw every Wednesday morning, taught me how to knit, gave me a taste of the home-made Italian food, and told me so many stories, trusting me with their feelings and their hopes. The cookies we made with the bakers downstairs from where I’m writing this now, still remain in my head with the vivid scent of sweetness, and the giggle of the kids, playing with dough.
We traveled. We traveled so much, with the other volunteers – mostly with my roommates Tamara and Delia, and with Vasile, who lived next door, and with Luciano, who worked with us at the youth center. It feels like we visited every little spot in the north of Italy (we definitely didn’t), like we had time to freely get off at the little stations, for which you don’t have time if you’re in Italy for a week.
We spent days roaming around the small places that are around an hour or hour and a half with a train from Milano. We saw the big Places (with a big P) to be seen – Venice, the week before Valentine’s; Firenze with my sister; Bologna with Luciano; Genova with some guests from Georgia; Verona with a very close friend – and more to the south – Rome with our mid-term evaluation, Napoli for a summer getaway. Monza, on the first of May, with their giant and beautiful park, and not much else; Varenna, with it’s wonderful colors and a long walk to a secluded beach; Stresa and an almost-lost phone; Vigevano and a moving performance art piece; Lecco on a windy day with laptops for working; a painful sunburn and a fresh spritz right next to Lago di Garda; the most impressive monastery right next to Pavia. And many more, of course.
The months passed by fast, events stacking up, an impressive number of pictures resting in my phone. Fast forward through these months and that’s how I get to be still here, a month after the last volunteer before me left, with still a few days to go, The Last Roommate Standing.
It has been a strange couple of months. The beginning of the leavings started with Luciano still in August (even though he didn’t live with us, him not being here could really be felt, coupled with the longest waiting for a metro while waving goodbye on the opposite sides of the tracks), and then the ‘end of the project’ vibe settled in, while slowly picking out other volunteers we knew, sending them away to their new adventures, picking out one, then a second roommate from our house, and in the end – our neighbor Vasile too.
That on its own is a rollercoaster – saying goodbye to so many friends and waving bye again and again while everyone leaves, while you stay behind over and over again. At some point it felt like a petulant reluctance on my end – why am I not ‘growing up’ and leaving too? Obviously, because I need to finish my project, and because I was sure I could enjoy some time alone in Milano in a different way than I had with everyone else.
I had friends over to keep me company, of course, but in-between arrivals and departures and wonderful times with friends, I spent a not-insignificant amount of time dealing with an unusual quiet and what that means for my own personal world; writing and reading a whole lot; occupying spaces at home in new and creative ways, as to feel them as less void of company. In that month alone (I don’t want to repeat alone again and again, so just imagine it here and there, artistically sprinkled), I had many more long walks, while listening to audiobooks and podcasts; I got to discover some beautiful streets and neighborhoods I’d never seen before; I got to look at the city and its inhabitants with more care and attention, and put more thought into what I want the future to hold for me, how I would like these 11 months to impact me. Because of the persisting rain, I also had some pretty sub-par days, in which I felt very holed up, with a lot of things to do but little desire for anything but long YouTube videos and definitely longer books to read, but those passed fast.
And now I’m in the last draw, less than 10 days remaining, with melancholia sweeping around me in increasingly narrower circles, making me anticipate and dread the day of departure. I feel like I don’t have unfinished business to keep me here, and there are so many things waiting for me to take care of, so many things ripe for developing, so many new opportunities. But I know that I will miss these amazing people I spent the biggest part of the party with, the people who made the party worth it, and I know I will miss Italy and its beauties all the time.
With the last roommate standing shutting off the lights on her way out, instead of feeling like I’m looking back with a desperate reach to stay, I almost feel a little sad about our home, filled to the brim with warmth, friendship, laughter, love, memories, and the plushies we collected over the months. The apartment which will no longer be ours but will keep in one way or another the energy we spent here, in work and joy, in exercising and recharging.
I want to make my case about why being the Last Roommate Standing could actually be a positive, a real positive for me. See, this is the second year I spend abroad (last time, I was finishing my studies in Greece), and the second time I am out of the apartment last. The previous time it was on purpose, and seeing how I did have the choice to leave early if I wanted to, this time I chose it too. Why? Because it gives time for much-needed self-reflection. I had time to calmly go through all parts of our apartment, throw away everything that isn’t needed, reminisce, laugh at forgotten pieces of memorabilia, and pack in peace. I spent some time making lists (I love lists) of what I want to do while I’m here and what I want to do when I’m not. I got to look at the clothes left over from everyone, pick out the ones I will not need, and combine them for a charity drive. I got to re-create the space I’ve lived in for the last 10 months, even for a little bit, but with the ideas of what it means to live alone, especially in the context of most of your friends no longer being a coffee-break away. I made a box for the next ones to come, filling it up with well-wishes and some precious collected items (keep them safe!), thinking about what I wish I’d gotten when I first came here.
All of this is to say: to the next Last Roommate Standing, take up the challenge! Make the most out of this strange experience, and if you manage to make it any more melancholic than I have in those last couple of pages, I will give you a reward!