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  • Writer's pictureZanny Merullo Steffgen

The End of A Chapter

I have been unable to write the past few weeks because I have not wanted to face the reality that my time at home has ended. The first half of my gap year has been filled with hard work, deep connections with new friends, precious time with my family, and invaluable lessons. In the time since I last wrote, I totaled my car and had to pay for it to be fixed (a crash course in adulthood- pun intended), dedicated myself to my health and fitness (and am now the strongest I ever have been), wrapped up my volunteer experience, took a last trip with my best friend, got two more tattoos, and said some of the hardest goodbyes I’ve ever had to say. All this has led me to Italy where I am on vacation with my family for a couple of weeks before they leave me in Naples for my next adventure. Transitions are often the hardest times in life, so here is a list of things I am grateful for to help me come to peace with my experiences and move on to the next phase of my gap year.

  1. I am grateful for my volunteer experience with Horizons for Homeless Children. I was lucky enough to be grouped with two incredible women as my fellow volunteers, and seeing them weekly has been such a gift. Oftentimes working with kids forces you to let go of adult comforts and give in to the joy and creativity of young minds. A few weeks ago was a good example of this, when we were painting with some of the older kids and they decided that they wanted a larger canvas. At the end of the night I was covered head to toe in pink splatters, swooshes, and even little handprints on my nice clothing, but I had made the children laugh and smile and what is a stained shirt in the face of that? I am grateful for the laughs shared with my fellow volunteers when a baby named Victor sat up for a few minutes before plopping over like a felled tree, or when a toddler Travis kept running around the room finding examples of his favorite new word (“tires” said “ta-yahs”), or when one of the oldest girls called me Stephanie instead of Zanny. Once a week I was able to let go of my own worries and fears and daily stresses and focus on the happiness of a group of children, and that was as much a gift to me as to the kids.

  1. I am grateful for my group of friends from highschool who are still in my life. My last week at home, I took a day off from work and drove to Exeter to watch the winter Exeter/andover games and was joined by a handful of my closest friends. We met up at our favorite cafe in town (St. Anthony’s bakery) where the owner still remembered our names and our usual orders (an iced tea and egg and cheese sandwich on an english muffin for me), and talked and joked around as if no time had passed. We went on a walk together and discussed the changes in our lives, watched the basketball and hockey games while yelling well thought out insults at the Andover teams (when all hope was lost, we just yelled “George Bush!” to remind the smurfs of their most infamous alumn), and drove outside of town for coffee and more conversation. I am grateful for these people who know me well and have seen me grow up the past few years, for these friends whose admiration is apparent even underneath the guise of merciless teasing.

  1. I am grateful for my family’s Christmas gift to me- a two day trip to Montreal with my best friend- that I finally took a few weeks ago. Izzy and I left late one night and drove to a family friend’s house in New Hampshire to stay the night. The next morning we woke up early, had a breakfast at a local diner, and made the trip across the border. Part of the excitement of the trip was the independence involved, including the driving in a foreign country where I barely understood the road signs and where I completed the greatest feat of my driving career (parallel parking in an extremely tight spot with piles of snow everywhere and an impatient line of cars trying to get by). Izzy and I spent our first day walking around the old part of the city, eating an incredible meal (complete with beer that we were finally old enough to order), getting into our apartment (which involved breaking in with a credit card when it turned out the owner had accidentally locked two locks instead of one), and going out late at night and waiting in a twenty minute line for the city’s best poutine. The next day we found an incredible bakery in our section of the city (known as Le Plateau) before heading out to explore the cute collection of streets filled with shops and little cafes and restaurants that felt like a cross between Boston and some European town. We discovered a park filled with happy children sledding and families skating up and down a frozen river. Of course we had to get out on the ice ourselves, and spent 45 minutes half gliding, half hobbling around amid the throngs of Canadian families and couples. That night, we went out for a dinner of crepes and then a few hours in a club filled with loud music and dozens of pool tables. Unfortunately the next morning we had to leave early to get back home for work, but our couple of days in the city were a nice break from the monotony of our country life back at home and got me excited for my next international trip.

  1. I am grateful for all the people at the Hangar who have become so important to my life the past six months. There were the regulars who came in to say goodbye on my last night of work. One brought his address so I would write letters, another brought a plant and some good words of advice (“Many people do things in life, but you are going to achieve things in life”), another brought a huge array of chocolates, and all had hugs and sincere goodbyes for me. It’s incredible how attached to someone you can get by seeing them nearly every day, even if the extent of your conversation is “Hey Ian, how are you today?” “Good, how are you?”. There were my coworkers: the ones who showed me the ropes when I first started, the ones who I complained to and whose complaints I listened to, the ones who laughed when I opened the dishwasher too soon and was sprayed with soapy water, the ones who hugged me every time we worked together, the ones who I helped out and who helped me on busy nights when it felt like we couldn’t pack another person into the restaurant- and all good, hardworking, generous people. Then there were my close friends- people who I’d come to spend time with outside of work with, people who organized a surprise going away lunch for me and went bowling with me afterwards, people who, when it came time to say goodbye, I just couldn’t bring myself to believe I would not see the next day. I’ve been a part of many communities in my life, and have said many goodbyes, but few were as painful as the tearful goodbyes my last night at the Hangar. I am grateful to have found people that would make saying goodbye so difficult.

And all of that has led me here, to Naples where I am spending the last few days with my family before they head home and I start my volunteer work here. We have spent the last couple of weeks in Sardegna together, exploring cities, taking walks, eating incredible meals, and savoring the Italian atmosphere. We’ve discovered Naples together- a chaotic mess of humanity full of generosity and motorcycles that speed through crowded streets and threaten to knock you over. One day, after walking for more than an hour looking for a place to eat lunch, we were ushered into an empty pizzeria. The cook came to our table without menus and asked us what we wanted. He cooked us huge plates of pasta and a pizza for my mother, and then suggested a plate of fried fish in such a way that we couldn’t possible decline. We watched as he left the restaurant, walked around the corner, and then came back five minutes later with a package of fresh fish from the market. He came back to the table and made us smell the fish to assure its freshness, then twenty minutes later put a platter of fried sea bass, sardines, shrimp, and calamari which was the best seafood I’d ever eaten in my life. This is only one example of the way things are done here in Naples. There is an old world dignity and generosity that I have only seen before in my Italian-American relatives.

I have finally gotten past the sadness of leaving my friends and my job back at home, and now am filled with the adrenaline that accompanies adventure. Next week I begin my two week volunteer program in this crazy city. My job will be to run an afterschool program for elementary school aged children. I originally had signed up for a month of volunteer work, but have realized in the past few weeks here that I am ready to venture out of Italy to unfamiliar territory. It was not easy to change plans I had made months ago, but this is the year for me to be selfish, to make decisions for myself and to follow my gut. I have spent most of my life volunteering, working, studying, and giving, and I am ready for adventure on my own, for new experiences, and to focus on myself and discovering more about who I am and where I want to be. Therefore, in two weeks I will be leaving Naples, visiting my friends in northern Italy, and then heading to wherever God leads me. As of now I am considering trekking in Ireland. If anyone who reads this has a recommendation please let me know!

Thanks to all who have encouraged me, and to my family for accompanying me on the beginning of my journey.

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When I was a fresh high school graduate at the age of 18, I took a gap year, spending six months living with my parents, working in a restaurant, and volunteering before traveling solo through Europe.


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