How Calabria Changed My Life

I was a senior in high school when I had the opportunity to attend Vibo Valentia, Calabria for an exchange program with my high school. I had traveled in the past but what I experienced on this trip was something I would never have dreamed of.

UNSPLASH David Alfons

Upon arrival at the tiny airport in Calabria, I was greeted with open arms by my exchange student, Sesa. First order of business: to eat. When I say this was the best meal of my life, this WAS the best meal of my life. To start, a plate of meats, cheeses, grapes and more. Then we had tortellini with prosciutto in pesto sauce. For the main course, we had a filet of salmon – a staple of the Calabrian diet. The meal was topped off with homemade chocolate cake and I was more than stuffed.

I remember an hour later, Sesa asked if I could join her and her friends to go out. Not knowing what that exactly meant I decided to shake off my lack of sleep and join her adventure. Well, to my surprise I ended up at a rock climbing course. Not to say that it wasn’t fun but, when you are running on a night of no sleep, climbing a wall is not the easiest of tasks. Luckily, I had the fuel from our four-course meal to keep me going and her friends to root me on.

After the second day, Sesa and I worked ourselves into a routine. For one, we would always arrive right on time to school but that wouldn’t stop us from running across the street and getting an espresso shot before class. We would split up at school and I would get to see my fellow American peers for a few hours while Sesa went to her classes. Directly after class, we would drive to her mother’s house to have some decadent meal.

Bachata classes were my favorite. While this dance originated in the Dominican Republic, this dance was popular among Sesa and her friends and we went to a few bachata dance clubs at night. What was interesting about this was that most of the students at the Bachata class went to these clubs so people who recognized me were asking me to dance with them. A friendly vibe for sure.

My biggest takeaway from my experience in Calabria was: community was everything. If you knew someone, you were hospitable to them and that was really amazing. Aside from the crazy driving, our constant late arrival to events and food being shoved down our throat no matter what, I learned what it meant to enjoy life. As I continue to travel and experience new places, the way I integrated myself into the Calabrian culture has always been a blueprint of how I hope to experience the world.

Katherine McGowan


Katherine is a New Jersey native who is passionate about understanding culture through its history and food. You can most likely find her enjoying an Aperol Spritz with a local or getting lost on a windy cobblestone road. Some of her other favorite cities are NYC, Amsterdam, London and Rome.

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