While by no means exhaustive, the following list is a compilation of lessons learned and tips I would give for a semester abroad:
1. (And therefore the most important) You can never have too much gelato. Stressful test? Get some gelato. You walked a long way and are hot and tired? Get some gelato. Meeting up with friends? Get some gelato. Just passed a good-looking gelateria? Get some gelato. I can justify getting a scoop of gelato all day everyday and I have never once regretted it. Some personal suggestions are Gelateria della Passera (in the Oltrarno on Piazza della Passera), My Sugar (near San Lorenzo), and Il Gelato di Filo (in San Niccolo).
2. Life abroad is still life. You have bad days and maybe even weeks at home, and flying across the ocean doesn’t magically mean that you will never have stress or problems. You will probably still have stressful tests, forget to feed yourself, and run a bit low on sleep at some points, just like you do in school back home (or maybe that’s just me). Just take a deep breath, talk to the people that care about you, look at all the beautiful Italian sunshine, and you’ll get through it.
3. You don’t have to travel every weekend. While it’s tempting to try and squeeze every item on your travel bucket list in your couple of months abroad, never staying put means you lose out on experiencing part of the city you are living in. Not to mention that you’ll end up running out of steam. Going to school for 3 days and traveling for 4 catches up to you after a while. A weekend at home in Florence gave me a chance to explore more places that I wanted to see here and get some extra sleep!
4. Get involved outside of school. This is a great way to make Florence seem more like home. Whether it’s finding a local church to attend, a café to become a regular at, or an organization to volunteer with, finding a niche for yourself goes a long way towards making you feel less like a visitor. I’ve been volunteering with the Children’s Lending Library at St. James’ Church, and it’s been a really neat way to get to know older expats living in Florence and give back to the community here.
5. Different doesn’t mean better or worse. I think I had some sort of idea that living in Europe generally must be better than life in the US. Although there are some better things about living here (fresh food markets, walkability, architecture) there are also things I miss about life at home (free water at restaurants, poop-free sidewalks). Similarly, there is something beautiful about every city that I’ve been to. Each is unique and it’s so wonderful to get to explore so many places! And it’s always just as wonderful to come home to Florence!
6. Take a walk. There are so many cool places in Florence to explore and pretty much everything is within walking distance! Take a study break and get lost for a little bit. Last week my roommate and I closed our laptops for a couple hours and wandered up in the hills past our neighborhood in Santo Spirito. We got a little lost, but we saw some beautiful, quiet parts of Florence and caught a gorgeous golden sunset over the valley with the city in the background.
7. (Hand in hand) Your cute shoes are not worth it. Since you are walking literally everywhere, good shoes are essential. I’ve been wearing my pair of Chaco boots almost everyday very happily and the one day I decided to wear a cute pair of flats I majorly regretted it.
8. Just try it! Whether it’s a lampredotto sandwich (a cow’s stomach) in Florence, squid in Barcelona, raw beef in Sevilla, or beer in Prague, I’ve tried so many things that I was unsure about and it’s been exciting! Trying new things is part of experiencing a new place and you’ll miss out if you just stick to chicken fingers and pizza.
9. It’s okay to get McDonald’s. Sometimes you just get off a long train ride at 11pm and you just need some french fries. Or you’re slightly lost, hungry, have to pee, and you spot those golden arches. It’s fast, cheap, and better than in the U.S, for what it’s worth. Don’t judge.
10. A good study spot works wonders. Yes, you do have to study while studying abroad, but the upside is you get to do it in some seriously cool places! Having a cool cafe or great view over your laptop makes doing your homework just a little bit better. Some of my favorites are the top floor of the Oblate Library, the courtyard at FUA Corso Tintori, Ditta Artigianale (Via dei Neri & Via dello Sprone), and La Cite (Borgo S. Frediano).
11. SAI activities rock! I’ve really enjoyed all of the ones that I’ve been able to attend and I think it is a good way to meet new people and experience things you might not be able to on your own. Also, the cost for these activities is included in your already paid program fee, so it’s essentially free to participate!
12. Research pays off! After several failed attempts at wandering into mediocre restaurants, Google Reviews and TripAdvisor are my new BFFs. While spontaneity definitely does work out sometimes, it’s nice to be able to evaluate a spot to eat before dropping some carefully budgeted Euros. I also personally like to read up on a city before visiting and have some information on what I want to see. I recommend using blogs (check out www.girlinflorence.com), TripAdvisor, and guidebooks (my personal favorite is Andy Steves’ City-Hopping on a Budget) to gather some recommendations to help you save your time and money! I’ve found a lot of places that I’ve loved and would have missed otherwise such as unique bookstores, cool cafes, and free tours.
– Jessica is a spring 2017 SAI Florence student from the University of Kentucky.