Study abroad students are so near and dear to my heart since just three years ago I boarded a plane to leave my mom, home town and everything familiar for the longest stretch of time to date. I often look back on that baby version of myself with compassion. I loved Florence, I loved being in a city and I loved being on my own; but I didn’t love the isolation I felt or the seemingly constant confusion of living between cultures. Although there were some occurrences out of my control, there are a few things that I would change if I could go back. There are also a lot of cool things that I did right though too!
Make an effort to learn and speak the language. I was mostly really good about this, save for a few times when my nerves and limited control over Italian stunted me. Studying abroad isn’t all about partying and Instagram (though they definitely have their place!): it’s about being immersed in a new culture and really learning a different way of life. It’s very difficult to accomplish this if you can’t speak the native language of the country, even if you “can” get around with English. It wasn’t until I saw one of my Italian professors speak with another person in Italian that I truly understood the difference a language makes. She became a completely different person by speaking in the language she was more comfortable in: although she was nice and knowledgable in English, she was incredibly charming in Italian. By learning the language of your host country, you open up so many doors to actually learn who really are the people you are interacting with.
Before I left for the semester, my main goal was to immerse myself in Italian culture. So while most of my peers where country-hopping ever weekend, but I never left Italy except for spring break. I love that I stayed put in my host country (and most times city as well). I was really able to enjoy, appreciate and fall in love with Florence because of this. There’s a reason I picked Italy (and Florence) to spend the semester in, so I might as well stay and appreciate it instead of turning my semester abroad into a grand race to tick off as many countries as possible. I’m not advising against not exploring new places, but the country and city which you’re studying in has so much to offer and likely has a completely different feel weekend vs weekday, you might just miss out.
Something that I didn’t do but would have helped me assimilate into the Florentine community even more was take advantage of programs run by the host university. My school (Florence University of the Arts) offered a ChatPal program, where students were paired up with local Florentines to practice English/Italian. This would have been an incredible experience and I have several friends that loved it! I could have learned so much more Italian and also learned so many “local” spots. They also offered a volunteer program, which I was a part of for a few weeks but eventually dropped out. There were many different organizations that were partnered with FUA, so there was really something for everyone. Check with your university to see if they have these opportunities even if they don’t advertise them as well as FUA did!
Being in a new place can be very confusing so it can be easy to feel like you ran out of time or return back home and realize that you didn’t accomplish everything you wanted to do. That’s why it can be very helpful to make a list of all of the things you want to do in and around your new home. Here is the list I made when I was preparing to leave for my TEFL course at Via Lingua last summer. I didn’t get to nearly everything on the list, but it was a helpful guide to keep me on track.
One time Caryn made the trek to Florence from WWOOFing in Melendugno and spent the day going around to markets (buying a very cute dress) and bought bread from a bakery. I got home from class and as she told me about her day she said, “you really just buy bread from the Conad when there are bakers making fresh bread daily?” She was completely right! Shopping at local markets for my food was something that funnily never occurred to me. In Florence there is of course Mercato Centrale but there are small produce markets all across the city center and, of course, bakers litter the streets. Try not to just stick to what you know!
Also, I started reading Girl in Florence’s blog when I was studying abroad. It helped me find places to eat/drink and made me a little less nervous when going there AND she updates with a monthly list of events in the city.
For now that’s all I got for ya, my study abroad students! Perhaps though this will be the first installment of many. Perhaps not! Who knows 🙂
Also just a quick life/Whiskey Nancies update: Caryn is currently in Berlin and in just a few days we are meeting up in Rome! From Rome we go to Lecce, Florence and back to Rome. Keep a close watch for tales of our travels and perhaps an introduction of Whiskey Nancies to the vlogging world!? Wild, we know.
Ciao for Now,