Six months later, I found myself eating pesto pasta at a kitchen table in Northern Italy- sat between two people I had only spoken to over the phone- after 12 hours worth of planes and trains, with a suitcase upstairs stuffed with 2 months worth of clothing.
I’d discovered Worldpackers after researching different programmes online— a travel volunteering community offering work exchanges in over 100 countries, and after signing up, I’d immediately searched opportunities in Italy. I have family connections in Florence, and had fallen in love with the culture on a trip to Venice in 2019. I wanted something out of my comfort zone, and so after a few weeks of discussing my experience with who would later become my hosts, I was chosen to teach English to a small family who lived in Rapallo- a mother and a father, two boys, and a sleepy cat.
All of my food and accommodation would be free in exchange with helping around the house, gardening, and daily tutoring sessions with each member of the family.
Their home was perched on the side of a steep hill covered in rich trees and wild poppies. Their huge garden was brimming with fruit trees, which we would regularly pick to bake lemon cakes and make olive oil to cook with, and we would eat outside at the table every night and watch the sunset over the sea and the lighthouse flicker on the edge of Portofino.
I had the freedom to develop my own routine within the boundaries of their household rules. I maintained a close relationship with each member of the family, adapting myself to their interests to develop our conversations and furthermore develop their English; the youngest son and I would bake, the eldest and I would garden, the father and I would watch documentaries, and the mother and I would cook together and drink sangria on the patio in the evenings.
“We want you to feel like a daughter and a sister in our home,” they told me, and would consistently check that I felt comfortable at all times— and I did. The kitchen was permanently stocked with my favourite foods for when I felt homesick, I was introduced to every family friend, and I would be the focal point of every conversation at dinner time. They would listen closely to my stories about my childhood and my favourite things, before sharing their own life stories and educating me on Italian history; the origins of pizza, politics, and all of the ancient landmarks up and down the country.
I had two days off a week where I was encouraged to travel as much as I could. I was sent on my way with recommendations of restaurants, galleries, and shops, and bounced between Pisa, Genoa, Florence, Milan, Lake Como, Crema, Cinque Terre, Tuscany, and a collection of small towns inbetween.
I learnt the significance of immersing yourself into a different culture. Volunteering abroad was a way for me to see different angles of a new country that I wouldn’t have been able to access had I just visited for a weekend. I haven’t seen the Colosseum or the Trevi Fountain (yet!), but I have been to Sunday services in tiny churches on the Ligurian coastline, drank wine and played cards with hostel mates on a terrace beside Brunelleschi’s Dome, and ridden on a bus through the Carrara Quarries where Michelangelo chipped away the marble that would later become the sculpture of David. I learnt how to bond with others through food and the importance of sharing a meal together, aswell as how to carry basic Italian conversations.
Above all, I discovered my passion for solo travelling. I have learnt that I am the happiest when I am alone somewhere new, and have the freedom to go wherever I want, whenever I want. My trip challenged me emotionally and mentally and transformed my confidence, as well as transforming my financial stability, as I now only want to spend all of my money on flights. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.