An open letter to the person about to study abroad (in Florence).

To the person about to start a brand new adventure:

Take a breath and pause to remember how you feel right now.

If you are uncomfortable with the idea of living in another country for four months, that’s okay. In fact, it’s probably best that you are. If you wanted to be comfortable, you could have just stayed at your home university.

Suitcase at the Roman Forum
My suitcase on our adventure in Rome.

Less than five hours into my time in Italy, I was lost, frustrated by the language barrier, and sat crying in a train station. When I was given two options, I picked the harder one. Instead of flying directly to Florence, where I would have been met by the program coordinator, another Susquehanna University student, and my roommate, I decided to save money by flying into Rome and taking a train to Florence. The train system was easy enough (trains are a great way to get around Italy!), but I was wrong in thinking I would want a few hours to explore Rome. I was overwhelmed, I was tired, and I quickly learned that suitcase wheels are not compatible with Italian streets.

However, doing this saved me more than $1,000. I don’t regret it at all; I dove right in to my experience. When you book your flight, consider yourself and how you’re feeling. Sudden adventure can make or break you, but for me, immediately being thrown out of my comfort zone kept me from hiding there during the whole semester. My only regret? Not downloading the map app “maps.me” before arriving in Rome. The discarded map I picked up from the street in a moment of pure desperation was a little crusty.

Skinny sidewalk with street art by Clet
Keep on the lookout for street art, like modified signs by Clet.

When you first walk down Florence’s cobblestone streets, you’ll notice that the sidewalks (when they exist) are barely there, wide enough to fit a single person if you’re lucky. The streets are sidewalks and the sidewalks are streets. You can walk in the street if you’re careful. At the same time, don’t be surprised if a bus pops over the curb and the driver gives you a death glare as if somehow you are the one in their way. If you are walking down a road, it is important to note that it might change names every few blocks.

In the city center of Florence, tourism is rampant, something I wish I knew when picking my program. The first few days, I was quick to speak English and hid from Italian language. As the semester progressed, I longed for an authentic experience. I tried speaking Italian and did my best to become a gelato expert (as seen here and here.)

Florence's trash cans
Trash is stored under the street.

There will be everyday Italian moments that bring you joy every time you experience them. When you come across them, don’t rush; it’s okay to pause and enjoy. For my roommate and I, this was as simple as seeing a trash truck. We found the underground storage system absolutely fascinating. Any time we came home from class and could declare we saw a trashcan being emptied, it was a good day.

Me, Tori, and Emily (left to right) celebrating Tori’s graduation from her home university. We’re heading to Ireland together in March!

Our program coordinator put my roommate, Emily, and I in touch a few weeks before we arrived in Florence and we even booked our spring break trip to Barcelona and Paris together before we met in person. Knowing someone going into the experience was a great comfort, yet I didn’t find myself only spending time only with students from my University (Emily and I go to different schools in the US.) Treasure every moment with those friends…maybe you’ll even get to travel with them in the future; Ireland here we come!

I could give you pages and pages of recommendations of my favorite gelato and pizza and apertivo, but there are so many other things that are important to know in terms of cultural differences: a “bar” in Italy is what would be considered a café in the United States; bottled water prevails over tap water; do not tip, the “coperto” (cover charge) helps to cover the service. Most Italians don’t use credit or debit cards and paying with cash is much more customary; be aware of this. In the city center, there are ATM options, as well as banks. I recommend withdrawing from a bank whenever possible. I used Banca Firenze on Via Sant’egidio, which is a few blocks from the Duomo, the Oblate library, the FUA building on Via dell’ Oriuolo, and my apartment.

When I went to Rome in high school, I wanted to buy a leather journal from this shop…
I found my way back and bought it three years later!

My biggest recommendation is to do something to help you remember your time in Florence. In the moment, you may feel like it is a waste of precious time to sit down and journal everyday, but looking back on my semester I wish I had been more diligent. When I came home, my semester in Florence suddenly felt like a dream. I know that the small memories are already slipping away from me and I want to remember every single second. Figure out a way that works for you (maybe one second of video or a picture every day) and consider starting a few weeks before you actually leave. If you do it that way, it will already be a habit and won’t be quite as easy to ignore when gelato and cheap wine call your name.

While journaling fell by the wayside, especially on “average” days, blogging helped me share my experience before, during, and after my semester abroad. It also made me feel connected with people from home, rather than trying to find time to tell different people the same stories. As soon as I got on the plane to fly to Italy, I turned my phone of airplane mode and did not take it off for four months. After two weeks, when I knew I was settled, I had my family put a temporary pause on my American phone number so we weren’t being billed for a phone that wasn’t in use. I originally planned on getting an Italian SIM card to put in my iPhone, but I discovered that for me, it was unnecessary. Global Semesters provided us with Italian cell phones. They didn’t always work, but were sufficient when it came to communicating with Olivia, our program coordinator.

My preferred methods of communication were WhatsApp and Facebook messenger. WiFi was easy to find and my friends knew I didn’t have a data plan. Not having a phone was definitely an inconvenience at times, but was also refreshing. I learned to pull my eyes away from a screen and actually look around and enjoy my surroundings.

Tourists at the Duomo
The walk home from class…

Towards the end of the semester, things that were once mundane and unexciting were suddenly filled with nostalgia, like going to Conad, the grocery store. The things I walked past everyday and never did were suddenly a pressing matter. Walking past the Duomo and Santa Croce once filled me with so much awe that I had to stop and take a picture; eventually they became part of my daily commute, only to fill me with awe again in the last few weeks as I realized my walk to class on my home campus wasn’t exactly going to be filled with Renaissance architecture.

We stopped by our favorite gelaterias and walked along the Arno on our last full day.

I completed one thing on my Florence bucket list (like walking along the water of the Arno), only to add two more things. I recommend keeping track of all the things you want to see and places you want to eat from the start of the semester so you don’t forget about anything.

Saying a difficult “ciao for now” to my Italian family (Veronica was behind the camera!)

If you had asked me a month before the end of my semester if I was ready to leave Florence, I would have said “Yes, but I’m not ready to leave Europe.” I spent the entire semester trying to make Florence my home, trying to find the balance between being a tourist, student, and citizen. However, in the last few weeks, I found the balance. I went to weekly dinners at the house of my Italian family. When I wanted a panino (panini is the plural) or gelato, I got it; I didn’t worry about the money, knowing it might be my last time to grab a snack at that specific place. I flashed my International Council of Museums membership card for free museum admission at least once a week; finding a new museum to visit wasn’t a struggle.

Our last sunset (with wine) at the Piazzale Michelangelo.

When I left Florence on May 10, I did not go home. The best advice I was given before my semester abroad, from a previous SU Global Semesters/ FUA student was to book my flight home a week or so later. I felt so sneaky when I searched for the cheapest flight and booked my flight home from Amsterdam. Traveling solo for a week was one of the best decisions I made–I truly can’t imagine going right from living in Florence to living at home.

Buona fortuna,
Julianna

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