It was last June, and I was walking back from Piazzale Michelangelo on the afternoon of my twenty first birthday. It was raining, then suddenly pouring, in broad daylight, and every student on the tour seized cover under roof overhangs and storefront awnings. On the street, Italians walked unabated through the summer shower.
The boys and girls got separated, and me and Pietro, our Florentine tour guide, were stuck under a leaking gutter. Marisa, an SAI program coordinator from Chicago, I believe, was with the girls, huddled up to a restaurant awning across the street. A couple weeks later, I’d go there for lunch.
Pietro, ever-cool, smiled across the way, shook his head. He’d allow it for a moment, but then we’d be out into the rain.
This was in the first few days of my stay, studying at Florence University of the Arts through SAI. It’s in that early period where the study abroader can either unpack their bags or explore their new home city—I’d chosen the latter, but wasn’t yet sure of my footing. Every step was unsure and ran adrenaline through my legs, tingled in my spine when it landed. Florence’s cobblestones were lily pads on a pond, I a weight conscious American water bird.
So, this bird had yet to add much context to the sights of Florence—I was mostly logging them into my mental map, finding a sturdy lily pad to step to and look around again.
The gutter poured a comical amount of water onto the sidewalk between Pietro and me. “This is nothing,” he said, smiling, pushing his soaked hair back. “It rains like this all the time in June.”
“So, how do you like Florence so far?” he asked, ignoring the wall of water between us.
It’s awesome was my reply. But I didn’t know much, yet, and he could tell. He talked a bit about the area, inviting questions. I asked them.
He told me about the differences between the south and north sides of the river, Arno, just ahead. The north side is full of history–Il Duomo and Santa Maria Novella, or Fiesole, the old town up the way. And this side, the south side, is quieter, less aimed at tourists, and a great place in its own right.
I looked around as we talked, through the summer rain, and context filled the sights. Across the way, perhaps the girls were doing the same.
At some point, the rain lessened, or maybe the sun grew brighter, and we were all back out on the streets. We all walked confidently down the cobblestone, through the shower.
As we neared the Arno, I looked out and saw Florence. I saw Palazzo Vecchio out to the west, and what would eventually become my favorite place, Piazzale degli Uffizi, just below it. Just after I pushed my wet hair back, Pietro snapped a picture of us as we walked across the bridge: Ponte alle Grazie, or “bridge to the graces.”
Approaching the SAI office on Via dei Benci, Marisa and Pietro were inquiring about our plans for the night, encouraging us to see more of Florence. That’s when they found out it was my birthday–Pietro was appalled I hadn’t said anything. He turned the entire tour group into a choir, and an English rendition of “Happy Birthday” bellowed through the streets of Firenze.
Locals, commuting through the sunny drizzle, turned and smiled. I walked home, and over the next couple of weeks, between trips to Fiesole and walks down the Arno, unpacked my bags.
I’ve written it dozens of times since: my time studying abroad was an enchanting, perception changing experience. And when I reminisce, I not only of think back to unique moments like these, but to the people who helped make them happen—my teachers at FUA, the people at SAI who helped me get there and settle my feet, people like Marisa and Pietro.
To anyone working in international education, or anyone planning to, take a second to recognize the influence of that line of work. With every action, you’re helping write a student’s experience abroad–you’re helping change their perception, become sure of their footing, and accustomed to their new home. What may seem routine for you is life-changing for someone experiencing it anew.
You’re doing a good thing. Keep on doing it.
Mizzou – University of Missouri – Columbia
I kept a journal during my time studying abroad at Florence University of the Arts this past summer. It was in my hand as I left the country for the first time and stayed there as I experienced one completely new. The trip was enchanting, perception-changing. Now back in America, I still keep the journal close to me—I made a promise to myself to never forget the aura of my stay. Sitting on a plane the departing from Italy, I wrote this: “I’ve just done something spectacular, that study abroad thing. I’ve just flown to Italy, lived and studied there for four weeks, and now I’m flying back. What a four weeks; what an Evan that’s returning … however the trip affected him, he is altogether different, because he’s now done that, and he hadn’t before.”