I’ve undergone more changes and matured faster in the past 4 months than in the past 4 years in college. Yes, that’s a very bold statement, but it’s true. Coming to Florence was a huge breath of fresh air. I was initially so happy to be out of my hometown, Bethesda, which was quite homogenous and filled with type A, semi-pretentious and ambitious liberals. I needed a change of pace, a few months to tilt my head and see the world from a different angle, to take risks, and enjoy the moment.
After about a month of being in Florence, I found myself appreciating my life back home and feeling more connected to family members that I previously had tension with. I also felt more nationalistic, more American— not because I didn’t fit into Florence, but because distance and a totally different pace of life here in Italy has helped me to see things more clearly, to respect the differences instead of perceiving one as better than the other.
Once I started appreciating life back home, I was simultaneously able to begin understanding the Florentine way of life. I saw the value in the slower pace of life, the Ortolano fresh food market, the way people would lounge around Piazza del Carmine and smoke and laugh. I loved the ripped jeans and fur vests. I loved the confidence the Florentines had in themselves.
Throughout the semester, I’ve adopted many aspects of Florentine style and mannerisms, but I’ve also stayed true to some aspects of my Americana roots. Over the semester, I’ve learned more than I can quantify, but even so, here’s a list of 10 lessons and confessions of an Americana in Firenze!
10. WHEN IN ROME— I MEAN FLORENCE. You’ve chosen to study in the center of Italy and Italy itself is the center of Europe. Traveling to France is about an hour and a half by plane. Greece is just West. Germany is north. You’re bound to make travel plans and that’s great, but do expect delays and confusion at SMN train station— and strikes. Public transportation is a bit chaotic and overwhelming within Florence as well as in Italy as a whole, but don’t be intimidated by it. Check out the ATAF website and download the map routes. Also try Megabus for traveling within Italy! You can book trips for as little as a euro!
9. DON’T FORGET THE LITTLE GUY—Though it’s tempting to want to focus on the big touristy places around Europe, don’t take the beauty of small towns for granted. Florence is quite tight and cramped, similar to my home university, but there are so many great little cities outside the city center, like Fiesole and Rignano sull’Arno. Every time I take the Megabus through Italy, I’m amazed by the stunning collines, hills, and the large patches of fresh green grass that spread for miles— meters.
8. MI CASA ES SU CASA— Yes, I’m aware that was Spanish, but that’s besides the point. Customer service in Italy works very differently than in the U.S. Back home, you put on a fake smile and try to be as artificially courteous as possible to every customer you see. Here in Florence, at most cafes and ristorantes, you need to prove yourself to be a good customer before you get any perks. Go multiple times to the same cafe, the same grocer, or the same boutique. Once the owner recognizes you, he/she will treat you like an old friend and offer you discounts, recipe ideas, or anything else that shows his/her appreciation. At Dante’s Trattoria, on the edge of the Ponte Carraia, the owner introduces himself, offers T-shirts and is overall very courteous and friendly, particularly with American students, which is not very common in other establishments…
7. SWEATER WEATHER— Dress in layers and know your comfort level! There were days when it would rain, but it was too warm to wear a coat or rain boots. There were also days when there’d be extreme winds and rain for 10 hours straight. Living in Florence also includes A LOT of walking, so you want to be more comfortable and mindful of how will feel while walking.
6. MONEY MONEY MONEY— Keep track of your finances on a weekly basis! It is really easy to spend cash, then come to the end of it and realize you’ve got to live off peanut butter and eggs until you can afford to pull out more money. Also, store an extra 50 Euros in your socks or make up bag or somewhere out of the ordinary so that you sort of forget it’s there. Finding money in the weirdest places and realizing you’re not “broke as a joke,” is the best feeling (Quote credit to my Aunt Nilo).
5. MAKE CONNECTIONS— You never know who you will be roomed with or what sort of people you’ll bond with over these few months. Don’t be afraid to meet new people, not just Americans, but also Florentines. We’re all learning so much from being in a new country and it’s so helpful to have fellow Americans to express your frustrations to, but it’s also refreshing to see Florence through the eyes of a native.
4. RELATIONSHIPS— If you’re like me, you’ve seen one too many movies and shows about Americans falling in love in Italy and running away and other dramatic stuff like that. Hopefully, most of you have realized that that won’t really happen, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have interesting experiences while you’re abroad. Yes, your flight does pre-determine the extent to which your relationships progress, but always know your comfort zone. Don’t expect anything and don’t feel obligated to give anything just because you’ve got a ticking clock telling you when you have to leave.
3. KNOW YOUR STARS— Yes, I’m referencing that weird skit from All That wIth the creepy narrator that states inaccurate details about the actor’s lives. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that being away from home helps you see trends and patterns in your life that you might want to change. It becomes easier to realize flaws in the way you think, dress, talk, eat, and the likes, when you’re away from home, away from the groups of people that influenced or even told you how to live, and what the ‘norm’ was.
2. IT TAKES TWO— Let yourself mature at your own pace and try to do it on your own! Make sure to balance the time you spend alone, wandering, exploring, and being self-sufficient with the time you spend traveling and hanging out with friends. I came into the abroad process hoping to make some close friends, but when I arrived, I was more focused on taking time for myself, to grow as a person. Once I felt more comfortable with some people, I realized that I ended up making the most genuine friendship of my life. (We’ll hang out in South Carolina, Tara!)
1. CLOSING TIME— Most people study abroad once in their lives, which romanticizes and memorializes the situation even more. But don’t forget that you can always return to Florence in the future. The city doesn’t shut down after December 19…Florence was my first home away from home since I never lived in a dorm or an apartment in college. I can imagine myself returning and living here for decades, but I know I need time away before I can make such a commitment. Telling myself that I will return one day has helped me to move forward and return to life in the states. Though there’s no right or wrong way of ending your abroad experience, always know that there are people out there who have been in your situation and talking through it can be extremely helpful.
Mariam is a current student at George Washington University studying at Florence University of the Arts in Italy during the Fall 2015 term.