Finding yourself on Ponte Vecchio

The inner journey of study abroad

Miriam Hurley
May 18, 2006

Studying abroad is not a vacation. However, if you are heading to a holiday magnet like Florence for a year or for the summer, friends and acquaintances will most likely exclaim, ‘Oh, what fun!' Yet, with studying abroad, as with other momentous life events, the word ‘fun' doesn't begin to cover the experience. Granted, if all goes well, there will be many fun moments: watching the sun rise over the Ponte Vecchio with new friends, questing for the best gelato in Florence, attending outdoor concerts in a piazza, and well - fill in your own adventure. What people often forget is that study abroad is not just about ‘what you do', it's also about ‘who you become.'


In A Room with a View, EM Forster's novel made into a film by Merchant Ivory and set in early 20th-century Florence, Eleanor Lavish pictures the protagonist Lucy as a character for her new novel, dreaming: ‘The young English girl, transfigured by Italy. And why should she not be transfigured? It happened to the Goths.' In 1994, driven by visions of Edwardian Florence and George Emerson, Lucy's (and my) ideal love, I chose to study abroad in Florence for the year. Twelve years on, I live in Florence and work as an Italian-to-English translator. Fair to say, my life was transfigured, George or no George. Others on my program were unrecognizable after a few months in Florence, having shed glasses, hair, boyfriends, shyness. Today, many friends from the program have Italy-related jobs, spouses or dreams.


Florence is a study-abroad Mecca, hosting 32% of study programs in Italy. More than 4,000 students flock to Tuscany in any given year. This is a continuation of a centuries-old tradition of youths and artists from across Europe and North America coming to Florence to soak up its art and history. Students now come from all over the world to study art, history, literature, politics and crafts. At the symposium ‘Educating in Paradise:


The Experiences of North American Institutions of Higher Learning in Italy', Portia Prebys, president of the Association of American College and University Programs in Italy, defined international educators' ultimate goal as aiming ‘to teach our students, initially, to identify who they are, and where they come from; to define their personal and national backgrounds, to interpret their own reality...and to broaden the horizons of our students through knowledge, experience and cultural exchange.'


Studying in a place viewed as a ‘paradise' adds an extra dimension to this quest for cultural expansion. In Florence, tripping over the same stones as Dante, Botticelli, Galileo and Machiavelli (and experiencing the works of those ancient Tuscans) undoubtedly enhances the academic experience. Dreamy-eyed images of horse-drawn carriages and Renaissance courtiers will have to make way for mopeds and discothèque suitors. Encountering a foreign culture is both a thrill and a challenge. Plucking yourself out of the familiar and throwing yourself into the unknown brings up the vexing question of who you really are. Around the third month of a study abroad program, this philosophical angst generally expresses itself as painful nostalgia for fat-free Ranch dressing (as I heard from a homesick American girl who announced she was ‘over this oil and vinegar dressing thing'). In their first weeks in Florence, students are likely to find the half-foot wide sidewalks poor protection from the barrage of mopeds, out-of-place offal and street-clogging tourist groups. Happily, we're an adaptable species, able to master the gentle dance of making our way through Florentine streets. My best advice is to have your own bike to zip by sleepy tourists.


Some students adjust so well that going home proves to be an even more difficult transition, as the familiar looks strange and the disorientation is unexpected. I found myself confusedly searching building sides for street names before remembering the American convention of placing them on sign posts on street corners. On a grander scale, the study abroad experience calls for students to question who they are and how they relate to their context. You'll evaluate your native culture with fresh eyes and you may long for some oil and vinegar for your salad as you complain about its sorry tomatoes. Though every experience abroad is unique, there are some constants: joy, confusion, frustration, camaraderie (possibly more than you've ever known), pain, learning, growth and, OK - there is also fun. Florence's history, its present, its beauties and its trials will converge to transfigure you, and you'll be glad to have taken on a challenge so far beyond any vacation.


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