Inside the mind of an americano

Reflections on the student experience in Florence

Naomi Rose Howell
September 13, 2012

Many thousands of students study abroad in Florence every year, and Naomi Rose Howell, at the end of her semester in the city, provides insight into the surprises, delights and difficulties in store for incoming students. While concentrating on American students, of whom the city of Florence welcomes over 8,000 every year, she highlights the emotions that every international student will no doubt experience, and in particular the difference between those who successfully assimilate into their Italian environment, and those who fail to make the most of the cultural, gastronomic and linguistic riches Florence has to offer.



It makes sense that when the average American student steps off the plane in Florence for a semester abroad, the surprise and awe experienced is usually of a visual nature. The same can be said for the introductory period of the following weeks, when American college students continue to blink and adjust their eyes to the sights of the city.


Although this period of awe soon softens, there is a continued awareness of how different Americans are from Italians. For example, if it is winter, students can observe the well-dressed Italians bundled in their dark, sleek garb in contrast to their own goggle-eyed peers who turn to their North Face jackets for comfort, opting to hang their scarves around their necks like long, limp snakes.


Despite this initial stage, there is usually a gleam of hope around month two, when most American students take a look in the mirror and identify at least one thing about themselves that is egregiously un-Italian. Perhaps they tie their shoelaces in the morning, or simply avoid the soft and alluring UVA sweatshirt hanging forlornly in their closet. If there's one thing that American students eventually learn from Florence it's this: elegant practicality.


Of course, it is self-aware students like these that take pride in blending in to their surroundings and make every effort they can to look Italian. These efforts can include frequenting the grocery store multiple times a week and cooking, in an attempt to break the addiction to prepared foods, or using lots of hand gestures while speaking. For these students, their happiest day studying abroad is when someone stops them on the street to ask for directions, mistaking them for an Italian. Mission accomplished!


Then there are the other types of American students who proudly wear the American flag on their sleeve. Their goal for the semester usually involves something like teaching an Italian how beer pong ‘is really played' or proving that they can indeed finish an entire pizza in one sitting. Of course, there is no denying that these types of students probably feel a pang of sheepishness when they exit H&M or McDonalds for the twentieth time, and see the exquisite outline of the Florence Duomo. Luckily for everyone, these McDonalds runs tend to slow down by month three when students discover the not-so-secret bakeries as a late night snack option.


Then there is the Italian language. The standard American student who speaks no Italian is likely to think ‘Allora' is an extremely common female name until approximately the end of month one. It's true: the beauty and mystery of the Italian language can be overwhelming. There is always the exciting moment of recognition when hearing words like ‘Ciao' and ‘Pizza' before the speaker dives into another stream of lovely yet incomprehensible sounds.


The mild delirium experienced by American students on any given day-caused by the novelty of Florence, and most likely, the substantial amount of walking-can be easily cured by a moment's awareness of the surroundings. It is certain that every American student in Florence experiences this moment at least once: the unexpected thrill as he or she recalls how old this city really is. Whether simply looking down at the aged cobblestones or relishing the view from piazzale Michelangelo, it can be difficult to comprehend the weight of this thought. American students can only imagine the youth before them, walking along these same roads a thousand or more years ago.


Generally, young americani adapt to Florence and tend to find their niche in some way. Although often exhausting, living as an American student in Florence is a special experience and poses the opportunity for much learning, pondering, and certainly a lot of wandering.



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