License to Study Abroad
Elena, SAI Ambassador, 2019
October 9, 2019

View of the Duomo from a rooftop in Florence

What surprised you most about your study abroad city/culture?

What They Don’t Tell You About Studying Abroad.

In the months before I left for Florence Italy, I would sit and day dream about my upcoming adventure across the pond.  How I’d eat pasta in the piazza next to the Duomo every day, spending weekends in Paris laying under the Eiffel, or in Germany sipping on a Haufbra House beer.  As it turns out I did all of these things.  But certainly not how I pictured them in my mind.  Education abroad exposes you to the amazingly good, the stunningly beautiful, and the outrageously delicious.  While simultaneously showing you the incredibly bad, complicatedly ugly, and the sometimes lonely, parts of travel.  However, people have said that you have to feel the bad to know the good.  You have to get lost in Venice for 2 hours to finally make it to St. Mark’s Piazza and admire its beauty.  You have to navigate the tubes of London to taste the delightful treats at Camden Market. We live in a world where we see a brief snapshot of someone’s life and believe it’s their reality. That their life abroad had been simple, elegant, and of course just as glamorous as their grid of photos.  To my surprise, they had hidden everything very well.  I quickly realized there were many things no one had told me about studying abroad…

The logistics of traveling are not glamourous. Although I do like the adventurous spirit within airports, they’re usually cold with really uncomfortable chairs. Anyone who’s ever had to get on a plane knows this.  While abroad, I traveled almost every weekend, which became really exhausting and tested my patience when it came to delays and slow walkers.  However, I learned how to pack efficiently, map out my exact route when arriving in a new city, and most importantly, that people in airports think they’re the only ones with a plane to catch. At first I didn’t think I had enough experience to navigate Europe, but I never knew until I tried. So don’t be afraid of this daunting task, just jump in and do it.

Eating out daily is an expensive habit. I loved wandering through the fresh food markets and picking out my own dinner.  Given my passion for cooking, I used this opportunity to learn and experiment with Italian food.  I took a class about the Mediterranean Diet and focused on local ingredients, eating like a true Italian. Once a week I’d bring new recipes to my roommates and make a big meal for all of us after classes on Wednesdays. So yes I loved all of the little trattorias and ristorantes but I loved creating my own food too.

It’s not always vacation, it’s also just your life.  My abroad friends and I would joke that we needed a vacation from our vacation.  It’s important to develop daily routines to make a foreign country feel a little more like home.  It’s okay to just relax and stay in your apartment for a day after a long weekend of travel.  If you don’t take time to unwind you’ll find yourself worn out and most definitely sick… another common trend people tend to leave out…

Get comfortable with being alone, but know it might get lonely at times.  I like to think of myself as the most independent person I’ve ever met.  Flying alone, shopping alone, walking alone, you name it, I could do it all by myself.  One morning in Rome, I woke up to an empty hotel room.  One of my friends had come met me and we spent the most fascinating weekend wandering around ancient Roman ruins and eating delectable pasta dishes. She had to catch an early flight so I said my goodbyes as she hustled outside to her cab and when I closed the door, I could feel the loneliness take over.  The empty room felt too cold to go back to sleep and a melancholy feeling filled the air.  I packed up my things and wasted the day drinking a cappuccino while missing my friends.

It’s almost impossible to put any of this into words. On my plane ride home, I sat for hours wondering how to answer the question, “How was studying abroad?” I tried to formulate the perfect sentence that would convey the impact this semester had on my life.  I now realize, I’m still learning the answer to that question.  It’s been exactly a year since I left and each day I think about how I’ve changed even more than when I walked through the arrival gate.  I saw this quote a few weeks after I returned home and I think it might be the perfect way to answer that question, “Sometimes we change the world. But most times, the world changes us.”

The best truffle gnocchi from Tratoria Santo Spirito!

What did you learn about yourself when you were abroad? How have you changed?

License to Study Abroad

First thing you should know… I don’t sleep well on planes.  So picture a girl, wide awake on an eight-hour flight, arriving in a foreign country alone for the first time ever.  It’s about 2 am at home, but she lands at about 7am local time to an empty Zurich airport.  Feeling even more tired and lonely than she looks, she eventually wonders into an airport hotel and settles into a single room with a huge window. While watching planes land between the snow covered mountain tops of Switzerland, an overwhelming feeling of loneliness washes over her.  She quickly starts to question if this whole thing was a good idea.  Did she really think she could travel alone for four months? I mean who was she kidding, the furthest from home she had ever traveled was to Mexico for spring break. What credentials gave her the right to run around Europe for a whole semester?

Well this girl was me, and as these thoughts flowed into my mind, tears began uncontrollably streaming down my face.  Before I left, I never really got too nervous or cried at all, it didn’t really hit me until I arrived in Europe alone, with no immediate plan of action. I was truly on my own for the first time in my life and I was terrified.  In this moment, I weighed my options.  I could press the panic button, a phrase my dad likes to use when we have a major freak out, call home and worry whatever family member I could get ahold of.  Or I could take a deep breath, sleep for a few hours, and regroup when I woke up.  I decided to sleep and when I woke up 5 hours later, the decision had been made. Move forward, onto my flight into Florence whether I believed I could do this or not.

I boarded my last plane, and buckled up for the most challenging semester of my life.  As I glided over the Tuscan country side, falling in love at first sight with Italy, I temporarily forgot about my anxiety and soaked up this magical moment. We landed with grace in between the mountains and I trotted down the plane steps into my new home, breathing Italian air for the first time in my life.  I hold this memory as one of my “Eat Pray Love” moments. A moment in time that brings clarity to an unknown.  I recognized the immense amount of gratitude I felt take over my heart as I remembered that not everyone gets to embark on this journey that’s about to happen.  From that point on I vowed to live in the moment and not get caught up in the uncertain fear that the next four months may bring.

When I look back on my first 24 hours in Europe, I believe it became a microcosm of my whole education abroad adventure.  I jumped in head first with no idea what to expect and I only had two options, sink or swim.  My mom likes to joke that I rarely ever called her crying with problems I needed help fixing, during my four months abroad.  This didn’t mean I had less freak outs, I had plenty, but somehow along the way I figured out that she couldn’t help me. Thousands of miles and time zones laid between me and my loved ones.  I felt true independence, for better and for worse.  I want to emphasize that you’re never going to feel like you’re ready.  You’re going to come across situations that are difficult, or make you feel uneasy, or just make you miss home. But how you react to those things, is how you grow and change and evolve into a different human than the one who landed in that empty Zurich airport.

A fun quote from the Gucci Garden museum in Florence

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

Domenica

My grandmother’s name is Domenica.  In Italian families, it’s tradition for the first born daughter and first born son have the same name in each family.  So my grandmother and her three cousins were all named Domenica.  Her mother didn’t like it so she ended up changing her name to Rose Domenica.  It’s become kind of a joke in my family because my grandmother hates to even bring up her middle name, but we all love it.  My sisters and I fight over who gets to use the name when we have kids.  So when I picked Florence, Italy to call home for a semester, I wanted to learn all about these funny Italian traditions, hoping I would feel closer to my roots and my family.

One day, while just walking down the street I realized I need to exchange my American dollars for Euros.  At this point I didn’t know enough about the city to find a bank so I saw a shop with an exchange sign and decided to head in.  An inviting older man in cool red pants gave me a genuine “Buongiorno!”  I returned the greeting and he continued the conversation.  Keep in mind I’m only about 3 days in and had yet to have a real conversation with a Florentine in Italian.  He helped me along when I struggled with grammar and when I made a mistake, he understood.  This moment helped ease my nerves about speaking in another language and about living in this unfamiliar city.  I finally started feeling more relaxed and confident that I could actually take on this huge challenge. Eventually I had realized I forgot to ask his name.  “Come ti chiami?” I asked. “Domenico.” With that I felt connected not only to this complete stranger that I had only met minutes before, but to the city, and the country.  I don’t think that just by chance I met my first real Italian who had almost the exact same name as my grandmother.  I believe that someone much bigger knew I needed a sign to show me that this city could feel like home.  Each day, when I passed his shop, I would say hello to Domenico and it made me feel like my family wasn’t so far away.

Elena was a Fall 2018 Florence student from the University of Kentucky.

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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.