I could be wrong, but the “going off to college” experience was pretty similar for all of us. It’s like what you’d picture if a Hallmark card could come to life: an image of too many bags stuffed in the trunk and “Leaving on a Jet Plane” playing as you open the bi-fold. Or maybe it’s more like the melodramatic scene in the forgotten 1996 flick “Fly Away Home.” Trust me, it’s a real tearjerker: The girl releases a flock of geese she’s raised, and it takes off toward the sun-kissed horizon. Just like our fair-feathered friends, we embark on our own migratory path to college after years in the high school coop.
Our car hits the pavement with the GPS set for 116th Street, and none of us care enough to stretch our necks back to see our childhood dwellings vanish in the distance. Leaving for college is a milestone for adolescent independence. It’s the teenage equivalent of the cutting of the umbilical chord. Although our experiences leaving for college may follow similar trajectories, our unique situations also distinguish them. For me, the departure was not met with much pomp and circumstance. Because I’m the third child, my family already knew the schtick and was desensitized to the routine of it all. No waterworks from a usually sensitive mom and no prolonged, awkward hugs with dad—just one younger sibling drooling over blueprints, planning how he would redecorate my room.
Once we leave the nest, coming back is never quite the same. There is a strange, inexplicable sense of detachment between you and that once-familiar space. For most people, that “I’m in college now” feeling hits with the madness that is NSOP or the realization that Thursday is the new Friday. But if you’re slower at reacting to change, like me, it hits you the second you walk into your house that very first time back. It’s a privilege, though, for students to be able to live away from home. Undeniably, the unregulated, carefree experience that typifies the American collegiate life is not enjoyed by all—many American students make a daily commute to and from college.
But perhaps a more striking difference lies between us and our European counterparts. While it could be viewed as undesirable for Americans not to live on college campuses, that is the norm in Europe. Though we tend to glamorize 20-somethings in Europe, they don’t gallop off to college and say arrivederci to those back at home. Not even close. Let’s take Italy as our first example.
According to latest Italian figures, more than 60 percent of Italians aged 18 to 34 still live at home. This cultural phenomenon even comes with handy terms to categorize those who don’t stray far from the casa: bamboccioni (“big babies”) or the more common word mammoni (“mama’s boys”). While these terms do come off as deprecating to an American eye, they aren’t viewed as harshly by Europeans themselves. The names serve to underscore a long social tradition. And it’s not specific to the Italians. In other European countries, such as France and Germany, 25 is the age at which people leave their childhood homes. Most Europeans attribute the collegiate stay-at-home status to financial limitations. The typical rent for pint-size rooms in a rundown apartment is, as we say in America, too damn high. And what rational Italian would give up his mama’s spaghetti alla carbonara, or easy access to his papà’s Fiat? But as my Italian friends describe it, these perks come with a predictable downside: a kind of eerie sameness that stretches from childhood to early adulthood.
When we consider the average American collegian’s lifestyle compared to an Italian’s, it would be easy to conclude that we have something better than even the best homemade tiramisu. We have our independence. But perhaps we should reconsider this independence. How self-reliant are we American college kids anyway? If the mark of our autonomy compared to that of Italian college students partially entails being able to cook our own meals, do our own laundry, and clean our living spaces, then we exclude every American student who eats in the cafeteria, uses a campus laundry service, or lives in a dorm equipped with maintenance crews. I give major kudos to the students who do it all or some of based on this superficial checklist of “independence.” I’m not here to pass judgment on whether you’re the one who turns the dial on the washing machine. I’m simply wondering the extent to which we can claim our right to adulthood while thinking less of others who live at home in their 20s or 30s.
We may not understand how anyone could still have an 11 p.m. curfew, just as they find it hard to believe that many of us live on our own and can barely turn on a stove. But we do share a goal, whether it is at age 18 or 30: to find ourselves and learn how to be adults in whatever way we can manage.
Toby Milstein is a junior at Barnard College, studying abroad in Rome. Her lifestyle column From Rome, With Love runs on alternate Thursdays.