• Alexandra Wendt

Searching for Serendipity

Serendipity /, sɛr(ə)nˈdɪpɪti/ (noun): the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

If you would've asked me four years ago where I'd be after college, I'd tell you "medical school."

If you would've asked me two years ago where I'd be after college, I'd tell you "graduate school to study Victorian literature."

If you would've asked me last August where I'd be at the end of my gap year in Siena, Italy, I'd tell you "don't ask me yet; I'm not thinking that far ahead."

What do the first two scenarios have in common with the last?

That I had no idea what the future would bring, even when I thought I did.

When I started thinking about making this post about my year in Italy, I was originally overwhelmed with the thought of encapsulating so many months in a single blog post. How can I fit in all the amazing places I saw, the wonderful people I met, and all the emotions that came with these experiences?

The answer is I simply can't. I will try to make this blog post worthy of my experience, but I fear it will fall woefully short. Which is why I'm narrowing the scope to a single word that guided my entire year here: serendipity.

siena, italy

Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.


Part of me was wary of returning to Italy for obvious reasons. Study abroad was one of those perfect times I'll remember for the rest of my life, and I kept thinking, Is this a good idea? Or am I just going to be disappointed this time around?

I knew disappointment was a real possibility, but I also figured that whatever possible disappointment I could face was still better than living the rest of my life in regret for not taking this opportunity. Italy potentially had something for me, and I needed to find out for sure.

Lago Trasimeno, Italy

Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.

I am half reason, half dreamer: part of me thinks logically and practically, and the other side considers myself a Romantic poet. These two sides fought for dominance and ultimately reached a compromise when I arrived in Italy. No, it wasn't going to be the same. Yes, I could turn it into something amazing by letting serendipity happen.

Spoiler alert: You can't force serendipity, much as you seek it out.

Most of the fall reads like a hazy dream in my mind now. I was free of school, of a class schedule and the constant pressure of studying and exams, for the first time in my life. I had an internship and was taking an Italian class, yes, but I was still free.

Anything was possible. I could find love. I could find more friends. I could stay in Italy.

In short: I was sick of starting over, at the ripe old age of 23, and I wanted to build a life here. Completely ignoring the fact that I was applying to graduate schools that fall, and that my one and only chance of staying in Italy would be through Syracuse University's Florence Graduate Program in Italian Renaissance Art. That meant that the best I could hope for was moving to Florence (only a year guaranteed) next January.

I was burnt out on academics after the trauma my senior thesis put me through. Though I applied to grad schools as planned, it was somewhat half-heartedly, all the while hoping for serendipity, for something magical--I didn't even know what--to fall in my lap and keep me here in Siena.

And so I lived, really lived, as someone my age should. Without the pressure of my textbooks tying me down and making me hesitate to do anything remotely social, I fully opened myself up, for the first time, to meeting people.

I found confidence in traveling around by myself. I befriended people I found along the way. I reconnected with old friends who live here in Europe, and places I fell in love with during study abroad (Edinburgh.)

Edinburgh, Scotland

Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.

(A side note about traveling solo: I highly recommend it. Not only is it a confidence builder, but it's a huge lesson in self-love and learning to enjoy your own company. Nothing will teach you that more than eating alone in restaurants, which I came to strangely love.)

I went out on the weekends, and joined a choir, and volunteered at an elementary school. My internship focused on, at its core, working with people. This reserved introvert had never before had such experiences, and it was thrilling.

For the first time in my life, being social was a priority.

But what setting so many expectations on your social life does is set you up for disappointment. Because, unlike with studying, there is no guarantee that by working hard and following a formula you will succeed. (Actually, that isn't always true for studying--ask my AP Calculus teacher.) While serendipity worked in my favor many times and I got to meet and hang out with lots of new, interesting people from different countries, the social goals I'd dreamed of didn't pan out.

Because it turns out nine months isn't long enough to build a life in a place, as I realized about five months in.


The new, unpredictable part of my personal life crumbled right as the usual, predictable part came together. I am going to leave that purposefully vague both because it would take too long to go into all the details, and I want to respect the privacy of the details.

What happened about halfway through my time here was that I realized, no, nothing magical was going to fall in my lap to keep me in Siena; and this was, in fact, the transitional period a gap year is supposed to be, not the start of my life from here on out, like I'd secretly hoped. This shouldn't have been surprising, and shouldn't have rocked my world so much, but it did.

But don't blame me entirely: that hope I'd had became, for a brief period, a reality. Until the variables didn't add up like I thought they would.

Italy, countryside

Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.

I also realized that I was in a bit of a social limbo this year, which didn't make connecting with people any easier. I wasn't fully a student, but I wasn't really a professional either. I knew this going in, and that it might make things difficult, but the consequences didn't really hit until this period. Everyone I met was confused as to how to define me, and honestly I was a little confused too.

Prior to this, during the "dreaming" stage, I went through a difficult period with my writing. My writing felt static, unchanging, while the rest of my life surged forward. Oddly, it was during the "disillusionment" period that my writing passion came back. When it felt like everything I had worked for had fallen away, I realized that writing, static though it might've been at that time, had always been there for me.

Writing--like what I'm doing now--helps me process pain and disappointment. I promised during this period to never forsake it again; even when joy comes back around, as I knew it would because that's life: "peaks and valleys," as Mom said when I called her crying one night.

This period taught me the most important lesson of this year, and of my own Catholic faith: there's a reason--whether it's clear or not--for losing something. Staying in Siena didn't work out, but I got an incredible offer to go to Florence. My roommates all moved out, but I ended up becoming very close to the new ones who moved in. I lost someone one day, and literally three days later serendipity led me to another person.

And so disillusionment became enlightenment: it's often about the experiences and not the end goal, because most things in life don't last. And you know what? That's okay. That's how we learn and grow.

candles, church

Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.

*I do want to clarify something, lest anyone think I came over here with some naïve, star-eyed impression of Italy brought on by seeing too many of the movies that love to romanticize this place. Study abroad pretty much took care of any romanticization I might have subconsciously harbored, and my first month here wiped clean any that might have lingered. When you're actually living here--cooking, cleaning, working, etc.--it swiftly becomes your normal, your everyday life, and not some romantic movie. My "disillusion" was all about this secret hope that I could stay in Siena beyond this year, and either go to graduate school in the city or else find a job. It was about hanging out with Italians and becoming close friends with them, which I realized was stupid to assume would happen easily when you don't speak Italian fluently.

I include this "disillusionment" section not to invoke pity from my readers, or to say that I had a crappy year here (on the contrary), but to simply be real. It's so easy with social media to make your life look perfect and to think that everyone else's life is perfect. This section is to tell you all that Life Happens, even when you're living what all your friends back home perceive to be the ultimate dream. Nothing is perfect, and life continues on its rocky path even if you're sucking down Spritzes and wiping clean cups of gelato on a daily basis while passing by centuries-old palazzi.

Peaks and valleys.


Let me tell you something: complaining that serendipity didn't give me everything I wanted is like complaining about receiving a 95% instead of 100% on an exam.

I did find love, I did find incredible friends, and I do get to stay in Italy.

Maybe these didn't come in the ways I imagined they would, but that's life. I think we would all be a bit happier if we focused on the things to be grateful for instead of the things that didn't quite go our way.

On one of my first afternoons in Italy, way back in August, I got a coffee in a cafe and wrote in my journal about how excited I was for the coming year. (Peak dreaming stage, right here.) Worried about the inevitability of the disillusionment stage, I made a promise to myself to have no expectations for the coming year.

My mistake was that in not having any expectations, I expected everything.

journal, manhattan

Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.

Because here's another lesson about serendipity: it almost always screws you over. When serendipity arrives in its perfectly wrapped package and bow, you're too busy admiring all the glitter to notice the expiration date. Few things that happen so easily last. You have to work for the good stuff in life.

That being said...

When I stripped off the Type A, overly-ambitious layer of myself, the part that expected WAY TOO MUCH out of a gap year, I remembered what this year had been all about, at its core: me.

I'm going to be a little cliché, but this year truly was about discovering more about myself. I moved to Italy all alone, knowing only the staff at the school and my former host parents. I came here with quite literally no one and nothing. My first few weeks here, before my internship started, I didn't see or talk to almost anyone, which didn't bother me because I knew a year of endless possibilities was ahead of me.

And, as I already said, I got everything I wanted, even if not all of it came quite the way I expected:

-I met lots of new and interesting people, and made some lifelong friends.

-I improved my Italian considerably.

-My internship in communications taught me a lot about utilizing social media and websites, and marketing. All skills one should have in this generation.

-I discovered that I truly do want to live in Italy, as long as I am able to.

This year was one of the loneliest of my life--even if at the same time my most social--but I don't say that in a negative way. It was a year of self-discovery and becoming more confident in myself and comfortable in my own company. It accomplished what a gap year intends to accomplish: self-assurance. Last fall I couldn't have fathomed going on to graduate school, and even had moments when I doubted it was right for me. By the spring, I had recovered from Senior Thesis Trauma, and was more than ready to get back to it.

<<<< And let me also say something that should have been emphasized at the beginning of this post: I was unbelievably lucky and privileged to get to do this. I recognize that not many people are able to live abroad for a year, and I never let myself forget how fortunate I have been. I will forever be grateful to the Siena School for Liberal Arts for giving me this opportunity, and for my parents for supporting my dreams. >>>>

siena, italy

Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.


I came here for many reasons: to find out if living in Italy was right for me. To improve my Italian. To do an internship in a field outside of my major but still relevant to whatever career I'll find myself in one day. To meet lots of new people and make new friends.

I came here looking for a fairytale and relying on serendipity to make it happen, and I realized that fairytales aren't all Tuscan villas and Brunello wine and Prince Charmings (Principe Azzurro, in Italian).

Fairytales are about opening yourself up to opportunities, knowing it might not be perfect, it might not work out, but there'll be great stories to share all the same.

Fairytales aren't about expecting everything magical and wonderful to happen to you, but to have the attitude to make situations magical and wonderful.

Fairytales aren't about striving for a specific vision of the future, but to accept that you have no idea what the future will bring, even when you think you do.

I now look forward to continuing my Italian adventures in Florence! This fall, I start Syracuse University's Florence Graduate Program for a Master's in Italian Renaissance Art. I'll spend the fall at Syracuse University in New York then move to Florence to finish out the program.

So I guess you could say this year was the start of something, rather than just an encapsulated transitional period.

What will come after that? Who knows, but the wonderful, infuriating, unpredictable magic of serendipity.


#personallife #italy

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