6 Things I Learned During My First Week Abroad

A week ago, I left behind nearly everything and everyone I know for a semester in Florence, Italy. I’ve know for awhile that I wanted to study abroad and I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled a fair amount so far in life (including a thirty-six hour love affair with Florence during my senior year of high school). Despite this, I’ve learned a lot during my first week away. From my perspective, being a place that you are making your home is a lot different than staying a few days as a tourist. In the words of Lupo, one of my professors here in Florence, “You are not tourists. You are temporary Fiorentine citizens.” Below are some of my observations about Florence and study abroad culture, based on my first week:

1. There are sidewalks, but they are small. People will walk in the street, but cars will not move for you.

Narrow sidewalk with a street sign by the French artist Clet.

The sidewalks in Florence are beyond narrow: barely room for a single body between an old stone building and a row of mopeds. If there is an Italian walking towards you, they won’t move out of the way either. You have to deftly squeeze past them or walk in the street.

Speaking of walking in the street…sometimes it seems like the only realistic option. With cobblestone and stone paved streets, I often found myself forgetting that it was made for cars are not pedestrians. I found myself asking, “Is this a car street or a person street?” Eventually, I realized everything is a car street. Everything is also a people street. When it comes to transportation, everything is essentially a free for all.

2.  Coins are essentially gold.

The first few days, I only had a few euro coins; I mostly had bills. I quickly learned that Italians do not like making change, especially if that means giving you 1 or 2 euro coins. They are precious.

3. There are a lot of American study abroad students in Florence.

The streets of Firenze are chock full of small herds of study abroad students–many of them American, female, and white. I knew that FUA (my school) would be primarily American students, but I find myself wishing that there was a little more diversity in my classes. However, I do have some plans to work around this! During a city tour sponsored by the school, I met a girl named Letícia. Letícia is from Brazil–while her English is excellent, we still had a slight language barrier. She was so excited to tell me about her home country and I hope to spend more time with her.

4. Cooking for yourself is difficult. Conad is amazing.

My roommate and I are lucky to be less than two blocks away from the nearest Conad, Florence’s chain of grocery stores. In the past week, we’ve made our fair share of trips to Conad. Living in a foreign city isn’t easy, but it’s even harder when your’e on a budget. Emily and I agreed early on that we will be cooking the majority of our meals instead of eating out. Other people in our program have been getting every meal from delicious cafés and restaurants. In the end, having enough money to take another day or weekend trip is well worth taking a trip to Conad instead of a pricey restaurant.

Did I mention I love Conad?

5. The city center of Florence is very globalized.

In the city center of Florence, tourism is rampant. Walking into nearly any shop or eatery, the worker will speak with you in English, if you initiate. The first few days, I was quick to speak English and hid from using the Italian language. Now I’m feeling more comfortable and want to have genuine experiences: I want to use the local language and don’t want to spend all my time in touristy areas.

In order to have a more authentic experience, I’ve decided to apply for Family Club. Family Club places FUA students with families across Florence to organize a cultural exchange. If I am assigned to a family (there is a paper application, followed by an interview), I would have the opportunity to interact with a family over the course of the semester. I might walk their dog, pick up groceries, practice Italian/ help with their English, eat dinner at their house, or even travel with them for the weekend. I didn’t want to commit to a homestay program because I wanted some independence, but the Family Club will help me have a genuine Fiorentine experience.

6. Florence is beautiful.

The Duomo, which I pass walking back from class.

Florence is a beautiful city. Nearly every time I leave the apartment, I find a surprise hidden around the corner. Walking past the Duomo on the way to class or past Santa Croce on the way back from a meeting continually reminds me of how lucky I am to be studying in such an old, culture-rich city.

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