Culture is Key
Marissa, SAI Ambassador, 2019
August 23, 2019

The view from Settignano, a hidden gem just a hike or bus ride away from the city

What is your most memorable interaction with a local in your host city?

For years, I had this pair of very cheap rubber rain boots from Walmart. They didn’t take up much room in my suitcase, so I thought they’d be a good shoe to bring “just in case”. They weren’t the most comfortable for walking and they didn’t exactly fit in with the Italian style, so I avoided wearing them until one day it was just too rainy outside to mess around. On my way home from class that day my friend and I stopped in a few shops, including one of the many shoe stores on our street. As we walk in, the older gentleman running the storefront picks up a shoe from the display to show me. Then he takes one glance at my feet, looks back at me and immediately swats me with the leather loafer that he’s been holding. All the while he’s scolding me for wearing these poor excuses for shoes. Needless to say, I learned my lesson and never wore them in Florence (or anywhere else for that matter) again!

On a trip once, I met a friend who lived in Bologna. We visited her there and she showed us around her whole city!

What was your favorite class abroad and why?

The approach I took on classes abroad was to take courses that I wouldn’t normally at my home university, and that sounded both exciting and a little bit scary. My favorite class was a private voice coaching through the school of music. Classical singing was something I really invested in while growing up and throughout high school, but it was never going to be something I formally pursued in college. When I let go of that part of my life, I forgot how much I loved it. Music has nothing to do with my major or career path, but singing Italian arias in a room overlooking the Arno, being trained by a professional opera singer? That’s an experience I’ll never forget. It was such a unique way to learn about classic Italian culture, and it was a good reminder for myself while I was abroad to let go, and make space for the things I enjoy–even if they’re just for the fun of it.

Taken near Monte Morello. Sometimes making local friends means getting to experience some amazing places off-the-beaten-path, right outside of the city.

What advice do you have for new study abroad students?

Try with all your might to integrate into local culture. I promise you that your time abroad will become more meaningful and memorable if you do this. You don’t need to become fluent in the language or change yourself in any capacity; just be observant of your environment and mindful of your habits. The program gives you a built-in community of other students, which is fantastic. But I challenge you to step outside that comfortable circle as much as you can. Take a leap of faith and talk to locals. As you build a routine in your host city, notice the people that you often intersect with and begin interacting with them. I made friends at the library, the supermarket, and even a couple times on a train. It can be as simple as practicing a few phrases that will help you start a conversation. Doing some research into your host culture can help you navigate your interactions and build confidence, but expect to make mistakes and know that that’s okay.

Exploring villas in the Chianti region is just as dreamy as it sounds.

What was your favorite thing to do in your host city?

I had a wonderful privilege of being “adopted” into a local Italian family through a program sponsored by my host university. My favorite thing was to go over to their home every week, where my Italian mom would make a “casual” dinner (although it was always three courses). Sometimes they would humor me by letting me cook for them or bring them a classic American snack. The most amusing concepts to try to explain were PB&J sandwiches and Girl Scout Cookies. Shortly after I met my family, they invited me to the grandparent’s house where I met the entire extended family and enjoyed a feast that you would expect for, well, an entire Italian extended family. Even though only a handful of the family members spoke English (and my Italian was still a joke), I was touched by how they all still made an effort to communicate with me and make me feel welcome. The hospitality of my family played a huge part in helping make Florence feel like home.

One of the best ways to spend an afternoon in Florence is on the banks of the Arno.

Marissa was a Spring 2019 Florence student from Belmont University.

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About SAI

SAI is dedicated to providing academic and cultural learning experiences abroad that enhance global awareness, professional development and social responsibility. We concentrate our programs in Europe, with a focus on in-depth learning of individual European countries and their unique global role in the geopolitical economy, humanities, and in the arts.