“Abroad changed me.” A phrase that college students whine in good-natured mockery to tease their peers who studied in a foreign country for a semester and who return proclaiming the identity-altering, transformative effects of their experience.
It’s been three weeks since I left the U.S. to come to Florence, Italy. Even though it’s been less than a month, I can honestly say that I have changed – for the better, because of the environment of camaraderie in this city between its many university students.
When immersed in a large group of people, for example within SAI or in classes, it’s natural to have a hard time experiencing this camaraderie right away. It’s normal to be shy, to draw conclusions about the types of people they might be, and to notice the differences between you and everyone else. You might notice superficial things like their clothing or pattern of speech, listen to stories that you don’t relate to at all, or witness some awkward interactions with locals that make you feel embarrassed. You might even feel guilty that you notice these differences and feel grated by them. It’s natural and it’s human to worry that “these might not be my kind of people.”
However, in coming to Florence, I’ve found an ebullient, consistent effort in nearly every person that I’ve met to overcome these natural tendencies. Even the seemingly shyest people have sparked conversation with strangers, smiling the whole time. Friendships spark quickly, in spite or because of differences—we’re all learning that aspects or interests that might make us feel insecure in the U.S. provides an amazing opportunity to bond here and learn about one another. Leaving behind all context has helped my peers and I really show who we are.
For example, on the first day of my Fresco Painting class, we all walked to visit a cloistered nunnery where the first fresco of the Last Supper still stands. A Bulgarian boy who just got his U.S. citizenship and a Columbian-American girl from Florida and I struck up a conversation. We ended up spending the entire afternoon meandering in search of a one euro espresso and talking. Last night, I invited them over for a home-cooked dinner and we laughed as culinary mistakes abounded (I stick by the fact that the mushroom chicken tasted good, even if the texture was weird!).
Dinner parties seem to be the greatest example of the openness and warmth that fellow students are embracing. Last Friday night, I was invited to a dinner party hosted by a girl I’d spoken to during my Thursday class on gender and Italian law. I traversed across the Arno river to drink wine and eat a fantastically-prepared meal by girls that I hadn’t known but, by the end of the night, found so much in common with and adored.
I share this, not because I have an uncanny extroversion or any special charisma, but because everyone here genuinely shares the belief that there’s no reason not be friends. We all left families, friends, coursework, and our comfortable routines to immerse ourselves in a new life, language, and culture. We all have a yearning for adventure and for bonds knitted over glasses of wine and on balconies. We are all awestruck at the beauty outside our windows and the delightful surprise of a stranger quickly turning to a friend.
Sophia is a fall 2019 Florence student from College of William & Mary.