An Italian Valentine

    How studies abroad reshaped one couple’s lives far beyond the curriculum ​

    By Breanna Mroczek, ’12 MA, for Thought Box on February 26, 2016

    “It doesn’t matter how much you think you know — the simple things you take for granted at home are done differently somewhere else.”

    It’s where they met. It’s where they completed the final courses for their degrees. And it’s where, in April 2015, they married.

    For Brandon, ’09 BCom, and Caitlynn Bailey-Cummings, ’10 BA, the Italian town of Cortona is a special place.

    The two didn’t even know each other before spending a semester at the University of Alberta’s School in Cortona in 2009, and each had very different expectations of what the experience would bring. Brandon, who had ended a 4½-year relationship shortly before, was heading to Italy to complete the arts requirements for his business degree. “I had no expectations going in, other than wanting to be taken out of my comfort zone and have new experiences.”

    In contrast, Caitlynn had been keen since early in her studies to attend the school. “I was studying classics, so my goal was to go to the crux of everything,” she says. “Learning about classics in Italy was a natural fit. I expected this trip to be the best time ever. I was excited to live abroad and be independent. I didn’t know anyone else going on the trip.”

    The satellite school brings students from a variety of faculties to this town of 23,000 in Tuscany to study for two months. Through classroom lectures, related field trips, journeys on their own time to other parts of Italy and living in a small Italian community, students learn many invaluable lessons. (8 lessons learned — including “Be nice, you never know who might buy you wine.”)

    While their meeting wasn’t love at first sight — Brandon didn’t think he was interested in a relationship and converted Caitlynn’s date invitations into group dates — the two ended up spending a lot of time together. “We would just go for walks or get cappuccinos — do things to explore Cortona,” Caitlynn recalls.

    “Then one day on a train ride to Venice,” Brandon says, “we decided to make it official, when I realized the feelings I had for Caitlynn were real.”

    There was no question in their minds that they would continue seeing each other back in Edmonton, but both say returning to “real” life required some adjustment. “I went outside of my comfort zone in Cortona,” Brandon says. “I’m a bit of an introvert and I was partying and having fun. It was a lighthearted time for me and felt like a holiday. When we went back to Edmonton, I assumed we’d just settle into a normal, quiet life.”

    Caitlynn, on the other hand, preferred to keep up the social activities back home. “Everyone in Cortona was at their most extroverted selves, which just happened to be my normal self.”

    Caitlynn says the experience of navigating and learning about a new culture, plus adventures exploring Italy on weekends, cemented many firm friendships, some of them romantic. Christina Seal (Wolinski), ’12 BCom, ’13 Cert(HRMgt), and Patrick Seal, ’12 BCom, who met during the same semester as Caitlynn and Brandon, got engaged during a holiday in Cortona four years later and married at a Tuscan-themed wedding in Edmonton in November 2014.

    “All the people I feel most comfortable calling up now to hang out with are people I met in Cortona,” Christina says, just as her cellphone signals an incoming text message. It’s from another couple who were in Cortona, wanting to make plans to meet.

    “A lot of people from that trip continue to share stories and traditions from abroad now that we’re back in Edmonton,” Patrick says. “It was nice that we all returned home to the same place.”

    Brandon describes his study-abroad experience in Cortona as a “life-changing trip.” Before that, he had never travelled outside North America. He and Caitlynn have since travelled not only back to Italy for their wedding and honeymoon, but also to 13 other countries, including a year-long stint in Edinburgh, Scotland. 

    “It doesn’t matter how much you think you know,” Brandon says. “The simple things you take for granted at home are done differently somewhere else. They have a different way of life, a different pace of life, different perspectives and different priorities … Living abroad is eye-opening. And humbling. You think you know a lot — and then you travel.”

    Caitlynn says the little town on a Tuscan hillside will always hold a special place in her heart. “Cortona is where I learned how to be by myself, and in the world.”

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