Here I am in Nashville Tennessee, sitting outside on a park bench. Trees of all kinds surround me, and there is not a cloud to be found on this near perfect seventy-degree day. And yet, at times like this I remind myself of the ultimate beauty in Tuscany. The vineyards; olive groves; ancient towns; and world-renowned art. All of these distinguished features were once footsteps from my door, but are now over a thousand miles away. When I reminisce upon the days my Italian housemate took me around the region on his scooter, I cannot help but smile. The images and sounds that most people only dream about or see in movies were the basis of my everyday life.
Back in Nashville, a couple sits a few benches away from me. They appear to be working on a school project. I can hear murmurs of English back and forth. How boring! Back in Florence, it was common for me to hear five different languages on the same street. Italian is the native language of course. But that dismisses the complexity of a city that both embraces immigrants and tourists alike. There are shopkeepers from Romania and Egypt, tourists from Japan and the United States. Every continent is represented. While the United States certainly is a hub for immigrants, I never feel the same international presence as I did in Florence.
I also cannot help but remember the ease with which I was able to visit other parts of the world. Florence offered flights to Amsterdam, Germany, and England. Pisa and Bologna—the larger airports—had nearly infinite possibilities for travel. Where else in the world is there such easy access to every part of Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa? What other time in my life will I have the chance to leave Italy on Friday, be staring at the stars in the Sahara desert by Saturday, and be back in time for class on Tuesday morning?
I have come to understand that my semester abroad was a totally unique experience. The fact is, I never will be able to travel as easily, be surrounded by people from all over the world, or experience the beauty of Tuscany as readily ever again. This is what I miss the most about study abroad.
A patriotic American myself, I am blessed to hail from the Land of Opportunity. However, sometimes one just wants to fit in while abroad…especially when tourist season hits and flocks of our (sometimes obnoxious) compatriots descend on the city. Here’s how to bamboozle the natives and avoid looking like an American.
How to Look Spiffy
Ok, so the weather is warming up. A lot. I know you are dying to slip into those Havaianas to show off your freshly painted toenails, but just. don’t. do. it. I haven’t seen a single Italian wear them, and contrary to popular belief I HAVE seen my fair share of Italians this semester. And shorts? Put ‘em back in the duffel. Italians as a whole cover their legs for the most part. I’ve seen longer skirts, but you will definitely get attention for wearing shorts (and that’s not always a good thing!) When going out at night, avoid wearing tight, short skirts without tights. This is a telltale sign you are American, and practically speaking, this getup isn’t really conducive to club dancing. Also, for your safety, don’t disembark in stiletto heels at night. The cobblestones present a particular challenge, especially after a glass or two of vino! Your best bet is to stick with neutral colors and natural materials such as leather. After all, Italians are known for their effortlessly chic style.
You slept in and are late to class. Yikes! Your first inclination is to run out the door and jog to class, book bag in hand, in complete disregard of others. Looking and acting as if you are in a rush will identify you as a foreigner. As our Italian Cultural History professor explained, Italian time is more of an estimate. You’ve got about 15 minutes leeway to show up to appointments, etc. Italians embrace their pace of life, something that I’ve found has greatly reduced my stress. (Note that buses and trains DO run on time, and CET classes for that matter…)
Speaking of buses and trains, make sure you validate your tickets! There’s nothing like being singled out of a crowded bus and given a steep ticket for not knowing the cultural norms of public transportation.
*When making a grocery run*
Bring your own knapsack to the grocery store or don’t be surprised when a single plastic bag costs .08. Though this is such a miniscule cost, it does add up, is less environmentally-conscious and could identify you as a foreigner. Also, if the grocery store has a member card you can sign up for, get one! Residents can sign up for a card which gives you great deals and makes you smile every time you pull it out at the register proving not only to the cashier, but to everyone else that you are a (semi) permanent resident! Now, when you are at the register, avoid paying with the 1 and 2 eurocents. The coins are so infrequently used that I’ve gotten strange looks when I pay with them. Sometimes cashiers even round up or down a cent when giving you change.
- Don’t order a cappuccino in the afternoon! An Italian coffee is ok, and even said to help digestion, but ordering a cappuccino post-lunch is bad form.
- If you go out for an aperitivo, limit the number of times you go back to the buffet. One plate should be sufficient. Each subsequent plate only hampers your ability to fit in. After all, this is supposed to be a pre-dinner snack, not a multi-course meal. While you’re at it, order a glass of wine or a Spritz as your drink. These are the drinks locals tend to get and you may be disappointed at an Italian interpretation of a certain cocktail anyways. Margar-whatta?
- When ordering gelato, don’t mix a cream-based gelato such as Nocciola (Hazlenut) with a fruit-based gelato like Limon. Something about compromising the integrity of the flavors…
- Steer clear of any restaurant advertising its menu with images of food. These places aren’t usually as authentic and cater to tourists. The pictures never even look that good anyways!
- Ensure that the mushrooms on your pizza are Porcino! The flavor of these mushrooms surpasses the alternatives and your knowledge of this Tuscan specialty will impress natives.
These are merely my humble observations. They may or may not work for you. With some behavioral adaptations, however, you should be able to assimilate into the Italian culture and fool them at least for a first glance. This being said, if you’ve got blonde hair…good luck!
After spending nine days away on spring break, I have returned to Florence with a newfound appreciation of my study abroad home.
Cost of Living
While I initially thought Florence was expensive (.78€ for a yogurt?! Are you kidding me?!), after spending the weekend in Edinburgh, I have come to appreciate the value of the Euro. My
happiness at seeing a familiar refuge designated by the twin-tailed siren was unfortunately hampered within moments of arrival. The Starbucks in Scotland provided momentary excitement, that was inflated when a gigantic (read: tall) cup was placed in front of me, however, my realization that it cost over £2.50 meant that I was paying about $4 for a cup of plain ole black coffee! Though the serving size of Italian coffee may be inadequate for my liking, the quality and affordability caused my first cup back on Italian soil to be exceptionally delicious.
Following this breakfast expedition, we made our way up to the Edinburgh Castle. Spoiled by our student passes that get us into state museums in Florence for free, we were taken aback by the steep £14 entrance fee. No student discounts either! That little plastic student card feels so much more valuable in my backpack now.
Size of Florence
Upon arrival in Barcelona (the second half of my spring break) I was immediately shocked by the size of the city. Compared to Florence, it is huge! The maps are rarely to scale so a seemingly 30 minute walk can easily take twice as long. There is no familiar Duomo looming over the city where one can orient herself immediately. Acknowledging the fact that I am not from a large metropolitan area, I usually can figure out public transit relatively easily. This was not the case in Barcelona. Attempting to navigate to Sagrada Familia, the main attraction of Barcelona, the girls and I became lost underground in the Metro. Not wanting to exit and have to purchase another ticket, we wandered around aimlessly seeking another line, the infamous L4. If I may quote a dear roommate of mine, “we are trapped in a place where we don’t want to be…and..we’re..trapped”. (If you must know, we did eventually escape and successfully make it to the church).
This morning, my half hour walking commute across the entire city to my Italian class allowed me to appreciate the dense conglomeration of art in such a concentrated area. Not only did I pass the Accadamia, Uffizi Gallery, and Orsanmichele, but also meandered around the Duomo and crossed the Ponte Vecchio.
Monoculture of Florence
After being in other areas of Europe, I have come to appreciate the monoculture of Florence. That is to say that though sometimes I lament the lack of ethnic diversity in culinary options (questionable Chinese restaurants, few American places to satiate that hamburger craving and only one Mexican restaurant!), it adds to the authenticity of my experience in an Italian city. I am getting the true assimilation into culture. Besides food, hearing essentially only Italian and on occasion English, is refreshing. In Barcelona, I heard Catalon, Spanish, English and French walking along the streets, giving the city more of a touristy feel. Hearing Italians answer the phone “Pronto”, happily respond “Va bene!” and chat with friends makes me feel immersed in a culture entirely different than my own.
Home is where the heart is, and in this case it’s Florence!
When I studied in Florence, Italy almost a year ago (yikes!) my friends and I came up with an interesting system to keep our days spontaneous and exciting. Although it started with someone joking that if a friend ate another gelato she’d “get 10 Italy points,” these Italy points soon became a real thing with real tallies. We counted them and sought them out, and all the while had an incredible time. So today I share with you our most common and most memorable ways to earn said points.
1. Take a trip: 15 Points
There’s no better way to experience Italy than exploring the many wonderful cities and towns within. Some destinations are as close as Fiesole, although we also traveled as far as Sicily and Milano seeking the points in question. My favorite trip was our excursion to Siena, which I still argue was worth at least 20!
2. A Gelato a day: 10 Points per Gelato
Yep, every time, anywhere, a gelato is worth 10 points and you’d be kidding yourself if you think that means we maxed out at 10 points per day. By the way, double points for anyone who Giuseppe (our favorite Gelato vendor) remembers by name!
3. Learn to make pasta correctly: TBD
I wish I could tell you how many points this accomplishment is worth, but as none of us actually succeeded we still have no idea! Tears of laughter still come to my eyes when I think of my Italian roommate’s face as I made my first pasta dish in front of her. Let me tell you, there are more rules than you would imagine and two months after our arrival, each of us still struggled to master them all!
4. Make an Italian friend: 40 Points
As Florence is one of the most “touristy” destinations in all of Europe, we decided to put extra efforts towards integrating into Italian culture. 40 Italy points were rewarded for every new friend we made who was Italian. If they Facebook friend you, you’re good as gold. I’d suspect that about 50% of my own points were racked up this way, although I’m sure I would have been seeking out these unbelievable friendships even without the Italy point incentive.
5. Function entirely in Italian: 10 Points
“Un Cappucino da portare… via??” Ok, we all struggled a little bit coming into a country where most of us didn’t speak one word of the language. To encourage practicing our Italian we offered 10 points to anyone who could operate entirely in Italian while we were in a restaurant, museum, or any other location. Watch out though, if your accent were to suffer too much and you start getting responses in English you can kiss your 10 potential points goodbye.
6. Watch the sunrise: 10 Points
This point value was tacked on near the end of the trip after one fun night where we climbed up to Piazza Michelangelo with our Italian roommate and watched the sun rise. To date this is still one of the most gorgeous sights I’ve ever seen and most memorable mornings of my life. We figured, if our urging our friends to wake up and go the following morning didn’t convince them to do so, maybe 10 Italy points would?
7. Study “On Site”: 15 Points
How often will you have the chance to study while physically immersed in the topic? Museums, piazzas, and cafes became our late-night classrooms on evenings before exams and I can honestly say they were largely responsible for the A’s we’d all earn the following day.
8. Consult Rick: 5 Points
I’ll admit, I doubted these methods at first. But I came to appreciate Rick Steeves in the form of my friend’s iPad during all of our travel adventures. 5 Points went out to anyone who reminded us to “consult Rick” and see what tips he had for wherever we were visiting in Florence or in all of Italy.
9. Do as the Romans Do (Or in this case, the Florentines!): 30 Points
If you ever found yourself surrounded by only locals and had managed to evade even the savviest tourists, you knew you had done a good job for the day. We rewarded stumbling upon a local restaurant, hanging out at the open-air market, or generally doing what the locals were doing with a whopping 30 points.
10. Take a ride on a moped: 50 Points
Hey, a girl can dream, right? It can only seem appropriate that in a program of 20 college girls, our holy grail of points was to meet a cute Italian boy and catch a ride on his moped!