As of my writing this, I have been in Italy for three weeks and living in my host city of Florence for two. It has been a wild, surreal experience that still doesn’t feel entirely real, and I’m sure parts of it still elude words, but I’m going to attempt to sum up my experience traveling, living, studying, and finding wonder in Florence so far.
The Challenge of Getting Started
To start out, while I had been excited to study abroad, the whole process was tinged with a sense of impending doom, as if something was destined to stop me from going through with it. And, to be honest, part of me hoped that it would.
Studying abroad was something I always wanted to do – traveling, in theory, has always appealed to me – but I don’t want to pretend that I was comfortable with the prospect.
It was an enormous step outside of my comfort zone, from a tiny school in central Pennsylvania to a metropolitan area in Italy. No matter how much I tried to convince myself that this was what I wanted wholeheartedly, part of my brain continually pulled me backwards, back to the comfortable and familiar, to the life I already knew and understood.
Even as I moved towards the opportunities and possibilities that awaited me in Italy, leaving also felt like a sacrifice. I had to give up seeing my friends every day and close contact with my family and my opportunities in the States to allow myself this new opportunity.
It’s Hard to Say Goodbye
With that in mind, leaving was far from a blissful experience. I was somewhat reluctant through some of the process, fixating upon the friends I would miss so terribly and the life I was leaving behind instead of looking towards the future that I could achieve. Nothing that was happening truly felt like it was real. I could not convince myself that I truly was going to be in Italy in two weeks, one week, a day, an hour. Even stepping onto my departing plane didn’t feel like the exciting adventure I envisioned – the excitement was darkened by sadness.None of this detracts from how privileged I am to have this experience.
I know that I am incredibly lucky to have the financial and logistical means to spend an entire semester abroad, and I am grateful for everyone who helped to get me here.
I intend to take in as much as I can during this time and learn as much as possible about myself, my goals, and my place in the world. However, I don’t want to portray a false version of my time abroad. For all of the amazing things I get to see and do, the transition into this new environment is still fraught and difficult and emotional.
The First Week: Cultural Introduction to Italy Traveling Seminar
So, despite all odds, I am here now. I spent my first week in a cultural introduction course that allowed me to travel around central Italy, visiting so many cities and sites that I don’t even remember most of the week. I think I tried more new foods in that week (and I’m notoriously picky) than I had in the previous few months. I was able to connect with some other amazing people in my program who kept me afloat that week.
But there was little time for reflection, and most of my observations were superficial. It was interesting to note small cultural differences – like the tiny sidewalks and different siren sounds and abundance of smart cars – but I ultimately still felt like a tourist, still felt like I was just visiting rather than getting acquainted with my home for the next four months.
Settling into Florence
My life has calmed down since I moved to my apartment in Florence, but there is still the feeling that I’m on a four-month vacation rather than a semester of college. Every day feels like an opportunity to see something new or have an entirely different experience. I have been trying to minimize my stress and lean into the sense of a vacation, finding wonder whenever I can and appreciating every moment I get to live in this beautiful city.
There really is nothing like turning the corner and finding yourself walking alongside the Duomo on your way to class – all the years of modern American architecture could not have prepared me to process living among structures from the Italian Renaissance and earlier. While I’ve been taking pictures by the score, flipping back through them serves more to remind me of the memories than to capture every moment – it’s mostly record-keeping at this point. The pictures I take can never carry the same gravitas of seeing these buildings and landscapes and sculptures in person.
I know some of my awe will inevitably fade, and I will forget exactly how it felt to view the Duomo or David or Ponte Vecchio for the first time, but I cherish the creation of these memories.
Why Did I Choose Florence?
The main reason I chose to study in Florence was the rich history of art, and I have not been disappointed in the inspiration I’ve received so far. Among the city’s most famous sites, I have only visited the Accademia Gallery and the outdoor area of the Uffizi, Loggia dei Lanzi, but the masterpieces I have seen have been incredibly inspirational.
Though I did write “Iconic things are just made to let you down” just before viewing David, I regretted my words as soon as I saw it myself. There’s a level of mastery so astronomical that I can’t help but commit to my own meager offerings to the universe and try to create something with a fraction of that skill.
It sounds like a cliché, but the combination of artistic inspiration from all angles and my ample free time means that I’ve been inspired to do a great deal of my own art.
Like everything else in my life, art has its ups and downs, but I feel grateful to be creating and improving in the city where the Italian Renaissance originated.
Culture Shock & Adjusting to Life in Florence
The more mundane aspects of life have been less wonderful. As my first time living in a city, I have still not adjusted to the walking – it’s about a 20-minute walk to class every day, and that’s only if I don’t get lost (and I usually get lost).
Buying simple items like soap and notebooks has become a challenge because the exact products I used in the US aren’t available here – I have to identify what is used here and adapt to those differences. I’ve never been entirely responsible for my own groceries, so that’s another adventure.
Being Conspicuously American
I proceed through all of this with the vague sense that I am inconveniencing everyone. I’ve gotten better about justifying my presence here, but sometimes I wish I weren’t here to speak bad Italian and misunderstand cultural nuances and generally bother the locals by being conspicuously American.
I know that’s self-critical to the extreme, and I know that most people are probably used to tourists who do much worse, but I can’t shake the sense that this city and its people are giving me much more than I can ever repay.
I don’t regret any of this
I hope I was able to express my complicated feelings without minimizing or exaggerating the positives or the negatives. I want it to be clear that I don’t regret any of this, and the difficulties of it in no way outweigh or even come close to the positives. I especially don’t want to seem ungrateful for this experience, because it is remarkable and I understand that many people without my privilege would love to take my place.
Even the parts that feel less than ideal are still part of a veritable dream. I didn’t really have an expectation of what my life would be like while in Florence, but now that I’m here, I can say that nothing could have prepared me for this short of just doing it.
And I’m learning to just go for it, whether “it” is trying a new Italian phrase or taking a weekend trip or even spending an entire day just resting. I’m learning, full stop. Everything I go through now is a learning experience.
Because I’m studying abroad in a new city, my expectation is that everything will be novel and interesting, which has been adding some extra sparkle to my life. I found myself marveling at a park the other day, and I started to wonder why this park was anything better than one back in the States. I began to think of this “mandatory wonder” that I’ve been feeling about everything around me – particularly why I couldn’t bring it back with me when I go home. And I’ve concluded that, more than any souvenir, it’s important that I do carry that feeling home. That being here teaches me to find more wonder in my life, even after I’ve long left Florence’s masterpieces.
Thank you for reading. I appreciate you, reader.