Sometimes to really experience something fully, you just have to jump straight in. That was my thought process when I decided to sign up for the Cultural Introduction to Italy week-long intensive. This is a travel course through Florence University of the Arts that happens about one week before classes officially start in Florence. We arrived in Rome and travelled along the coast (for the most part) until we reached Florence on the final day. The days were absolutely packed and exhausting, but also incredible and enlightening.
We all have ideas in our heads of what we think other places are like, whether we’re aware of this or not. I feel like all of the years studying Ancient Rome and the Renaissance created this picture in my head of incredibly artistic and highly educated people who could do no wrong. These romanticized visions of this country were a little dulled by further research into contemporary Italy. Some of the pre-departure reading required of the travel course included websites about Italian culture and a book about the railways all around the country. These sources gave me the idea that Italians were obsessed with appearances, snobbish about art/food, and unnecessarily hostile towards non-Italians. After only spending a week traveling in Italy, I feel that my initial perception of the country changed so much.
Even though the first two days of seeing the huge tourist attractions in Rome were incredible, I think seeing the smaller regional locations and hidden gems were what made me start to fall in love with Italy. Don’t get me wrong, seeing the Ancient Roman Forum, The Colosseum, The Vatican City, The Trevi Fountain, etc. etc. was unbelievable to experience in real life, and I’m so glad that I was able to go with guides who taught me more about the city’s history than I could have figured out on my own. Actually standing next to these monumentous pieces of ancient history is a feeling that I will never forget. However, it was the smaller restaurants, the gardens, and the art that made me realize just how proud of their history Italians were. It was more than eye-opening to see how Italian cultural staples were created and preserved, like local wines, marble sculptures, Carnevale floats, and so many other things. It wasn’t that they were snobbish, but just so open about how much care they take to preserve tradition and quality art from centuries before.
One of my favorite spots that we visited was the Tarot Garden in Pescia Fiorentina. This sculpture garden was created by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle that opened to the public in 1998. Niki created these sculptures based on tarot cards, but also as a way to deal with her life traumas and her challenges with mental health. My favorite part about these odd sculptures was the palpable emotion coming from them. You could almost feel the struggles, the happiness, the loneliness that Niki was feeling throughout her life. And yet, the sculptures were still beautiful works of art.
Being thrust into a new environment is scary, especially when it’s an entirely new country, however, this travel week really gave me a good introduction to this new country. I was able to learn and see so much in a short amount of time with a group of new friends that I’m glad to have met. The journey in Italy has just begun for me, but so far, it’s off to a great start.
Katherine is a fall 2018 SAI Florence student from Clemson University.