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International incompetence

Maddie Hanna | Tuesday, February 7, 2006

It was the assignment of a lifetime.

My 48-hour Roman whirlwind, as Observer photographer Claire Kelley noted in her column yesterday, was certainly not the norm for a college journalist – or for any journalist, really. Like Claire, I was thrilled at the opportunity to cover events surrounding the Board of Trustees meetings in Rome.

Unlike Claire, however, I was way out of my comfort zone.

I do not have a good track record with Europe. Granted, I’ve only been once – a family spring break vacation when I was in eighth grade, three days in London and three in Paris.

That week is best characterized as a mistake. My family fell asleep on the top of a double-decker bus, my mom dropped a lamp on my foot and I spent our last night in the City of Lights vomiting up French pastry. Unforgettable, to say the least.

So while I couldn’t wait to take my first steps in Italy, I was certainly apprehensive.

And when we landed at Fiumicino Airport, I was beyond grateful to have an experienced, Italian-speaking traveler who spent a year in Rome by my side.

“Just do what I do,” Claire told me repeatedly, slipping our tickets into the machine. We hopped on the train. I spent most of the ride with a death grip on my purse, awkwardly trying to avoid eye contact with all potential pickpockets.

Several train and bus rides later, we were in the heart of the city. I was enthralled. Student in South Bend one day, reporter in Rome the next.

But it wasn’t quite as glamorous as I had imagined it would be. Journalism, wherever you do it, is hard work. On multiple occasions, we were running through the cobblestone streets – most notably around the Vatican wall, searching desperately for the press entrance.

Despite my best efforts to blend – I changed shoes after Claire told me “sandals scream American” – my Midwestern naiveté was glaringly obvious, as was my nonexistent understanding of the Italian language. My contribution to Claire’s conversations was to smile and mumble “grazie” under my breath.

I hit rock bottom on our flight home from Italy. With only an hour of sleep the night before and suffering from what I would call jet shock – lag is just too mild a term – Claire and I passed out immediately. I woke up an hour later, freezing despite my best efforts to cover myself with my coat and coveting a blanket on a nearby seat.

“Hello? Scusi? Help?” I whispered to the man behind me, contacts shifted and glued to my eyes. Receiving a blank stare, I shuffled down the aisle and tried repeatedly to yank the blanket out of the seat behind me – a blanket wrapped tightly around a sleeping woman, who was not very understanding of my confusion.

Incompetent as I felt, we got the job done, with beautiful photos and beautiful Rome bylines. It was my first foray into international journalism, and hopefully not the last.

But for now, I’m relieved to be back in the U.S.