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Unexpected Connections in a Medieval Village

By Ansley Rubinstein

For Caitlin Clarke, a summer in Italy was not just about volunteering, but about understanding people better.

Picture yourself in a quaint town of medieval houses in northern Italy. The houses still stand just as they did hundreds of years ago, as though you have stepped into a snapshot of the past. You wake to the sweet smell of fresh air and the harmonious rhythm of Italian everyday - not a word of English. You are miles away from class, home, and everything you know - a complete getaway.

Sound too good to be true?

Meet Caitlin Clarke, an undergraduate from Barnard College who was searching for a unique way to spend her summer abroad and have an experience outside the classroom. With a little research and some correspondence, she was able to find such an opportunity and make it happen.

At the beginning of her freshman year at Barnard, Caitlin began taking Italian classes and immediately felt inspired to travel to Italy. The following summer, she wanted to practice her language skills, although she preferred to travel rather than study in the classroom. Using the website she discovered a volunteer opportunity in the small town of Baiardo in northern Italy.

Located about an hour north of the coastal town of San Remo, Baiardo is devoid of major tourist sites and the Americans that often come with them. The remoteness of the location enabled Caitlin to use her Italian daily, and the job itself involved working to restore the medieval houses in the town in conjunction with a local cultural association. In exchange for volunteer work, the association offered Caitlin free room and board.

After applying to the program, Caitlin received an acceptance and arranged the duration of her stay (six weeks) through scattered correspondence with the leaders of the program. Even then, she admits, she knew very little about the place and people she was about to immerse herself in. She encouraged a friend of hers to apply to the program as well, and they embarked on the adventure together.

Excited but understandably nervous, they arrived in Baiardo and quickly fell into a routine. Monday through Friday, work began at 8 and consisted of various tasks ranging from painting, cleaning or laying tiles to general maintenance of the six completely restored houses now being used as inns. Working alongside both local and other international volunteers, Caitlin loved how her duties fluctuated everyday so she never knew what the next day would bring.

Everyday, the entire crew had lunch together for about two and a half hours, eating and enjoying each other's company. Then they resumed until five, at which point the workday was done.

Despite enjoying the daily work, Caitlin recalls, "The evenings were my favorite times. We usually went into the main square with our friends and mingled with the local people of Baiardo who were incredibly welcoming. Italian hospitality is truly spectacular! By the end, I met so many different people while still being able to establish a sense of belonging in the town."

It was this sense of belonging that kept Caitlin content even after her friend returned home for a summer job and Caitlin stayed in Italy. She became close friends with the people she worked with everyday, as well as some of the guests who came to stay in the restored inns. During her six weeks there, she encountered people from Germany, England, other parts of Italy, Switzerland, France, New Zealand and America.

Even the language barrier became less and less of a hindrance. By keeping an English-Italian dictionary close at hand and constantly engaging her co-workers in conversations, she was amazed at how quickly her proficiency progressed.

One of the final weeks in Baiardo, Caitlin recalls organizing a large dinner party with all of the guests and the volunteers. Everyone brought a different course, and they all squeezed into the tiny kitchen. Sitting around a mishmash of tables pushed together were a large family from England, a young American couple, another couple from New Zealand, and all the local and international volunteers. A harmony of aromas, laughter, and languages filled the tiny kitchen for three hours, after which everyone had switched seats and eaten far more than they planned.

Caitlin commented, "All of those at the table were of dramatically different ages and backgrounds, and yet the camaraderie and genuine kindness of each person and everyone?s unfailing ability to connect to one another was truly unique. I was awed at how close and comfortable I felt with these people whom I had know for at most four weeks. I think it was the nature of the place that cultivated this sense of connection; for it is something I have felt nowhere else."


If Caitlin's experience has inspired you to travel abroad, start considering different countries you are interested in. Here are some questions to guide your search: What languages do you speak and do you wish to practice your language skills intensely? Do you want a large city or a small town? What place would be interesting but also challenging? What type of job or volunteer opportunity aligns with your interests and would enable you to meet local people?

Likewise, if you are at all apprehensive about traveling to a new place or traveling by yourself, encourage a friend to come along and share the experience with you. That way, you will have a familiar face while still journeying to a new country.

Ultimately, if you are willing to make the most of any circumstance and are looking for a unique experience, traveling abroad is the way to do it. Caitlin commented, "My only advice to others would simply be to try everything, even if it's unfamiliar and intimidating. My travels in Italy were somewhat of a mystery before I left, but I have never had a more rewarding and thrilling experience."

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