Mapping Italy

“The more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there… he came to know the port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of his youth, and the surroundings of home.” Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

One of the reasons I was drawn to Orvieto’s program, and Gordon as well, was because I was fascinated by Italo Calvino’s idea that we find ourselves and understand where we come from once we are taken out of that environment. In high school, I constantly struggled with feeling judged and stereotyped, which I think hindered my personal and spiritual growth. So when I learned that Gordon offered a study abroad program to Italy, I couldn’t say no. Gordon College and Gordon-in-Orvieto have handed me countless opportunities to go outside my comfort zone, experience new cities, places I’ve never seen or even imagined, and remake myself.

When I say “remake” myself, I don’t mean that I utterly cast away all previous personality traits in favor of new ones (I don’t think anyone could do that completely). I mean to say that I strove to find the sincerest, most authentic version of myself. Orvieto allowed me to erase old stigmas and find the person that I felt called to be.

I think for this reason, my favorite souvenir from my semester abroad in Italy has been maps. I have maps of Orvieto, Firenze (Florence), Roma (Rome), Venezia (Venice), and more. I loved poring over all of the maps; my finger tracing the potential routes I could wind around Venice’s waterways to get to the little bookstore with a “fire escape” into one of the thin channels, finding the quickest route from Piazza Navona to the Pantheon, deciding which direction I wanted to turn on Via del Duomo. Looking over the maps not only allowed me to get familiar with the streets and navigation of these unfamiliar cities, but they made me feel like I knew and understood the cities on a profound level.

Maggie Swofford maps-1

In between each class that we took, we had a “travel weekend” where we could travel wherever we felt like without having to worry about homework or commitments back in Orvieto. As my second travel weekend approached, I felt more and more drawn to the idea of spending the weekend in Rome solo—alone.

Though I had been to Rome 2-3 times before, navigating my way around the city and exploring by myself was completely different. As the train started slowing down and I recognized on the speaker that Rome was the next stop, I pulled my map from my maroon purse and double-checked that I knew where I was going. Walk straight down the road past the street stands with hundreds of books, take a left, and then take a right at the Quattro Fontaine.

Spending the weekend in Rome by myself was one of the best decisions I made while I was abroad. I’ll never forget the moment when I saw the Colosseum loom up in front of me, the umbrella trees (as I called them) lining the sides of a wide, grey stoned street, with hundreds of Italians and tourists rushing past me. Another special moment was when I ate cena in a small ristorante just off of Piazza Navona, sprinkling fluffy parmigiano over a delicious basil and tomato gnocchi with garlic bruschetta and a glass of pinot grigio sitting to the side. In those moments, I felt myself. I felt empowered and more independent than I had ever felt before. By the end of the weekend, I barely needed to use any maps to get around the city.

Holding the thin paper in my hands and remembering all of the different streets I walked down in Orvieto—recalling to mind Thomaso’s gelateria, the “Viking place” where we got burgers and beers, the narrow park overlooking a monastery that I would retreat to when I needed alone time—helped me to navigate the small paths of my heart. As I explored each city and their idiosyncrasies, I felt as though I was unearthing little pieces of myself that I had never known.


Maggie Swofford is a Senior studying English Language and Literature who studied in Orvieto, Italy during the Fall ’14 semester.


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