When I was an undergraduate at William and Mary, I saw a poster advertising a master’s program in Florence. I had fallen in love with the city on a high school trip to Europe, when I pet the snout of the boar statue in the Mercato Nuovo to ensure a second visit. Participating in this superstitious ritual didn’t exactly bring me any luck, as 10 minutes later I tripped on a cobblestone and fell flat on my face. This may have been a metaphor for what lay ahead. Regardless, I decided to enroll in the program.
At the end of a year that has brought me joy and despair, fun and frustration, here is some advice for those just arriving in Florence, advice I wish someone had given me when I first arrived, and that will, I hope, ease the process of adjusting to another country, and help you make the most of your time in this fabulous city, which is a far cry from America.
The first few weeks here were rough for me. Culture shock has always hit me hard. I once nearly had a nervous breakdown running from a krampus while studying abroad in Salzburg (Austrians dress up in monster costumes and whip people at Christmastime). Different customs, late-night noise under my apartment and particularly my complete lack of Italian gave me a sense of alienation and loneliness, and I despaired of ever forming connections with people in town.
A chat with a family friend and Iraq War veteran, however, put things into perspective for me: Florence isn’t exactly Fallujah. I had a much-needed attitude adjustment and redoubled my efforts to learn Italian and engage with others socially.
Since then, I’ve found several excellent ways to branch out. The Erasmus program (see http://tinyurl.com/of49h38) is an international university student exchange program that serves as a social hub for European students. I began attending their events and meeting other students from all over the world. These sorts of experiences are integral towards building a deeper understanding of the world, which is the whole point of going abroad.
I also cannot stress enough the importance of getting away from the main areas frequented by tourists. The Oltrarno, the southern half of the city, is a residential district, and its many restaurants and bars cater more to Italians than the tourist crowd. Going out in the evenings here allows you to meet the locals, unlike the scene in the bars and clubs around Santa Croce, which often have a cheap and trashy feel. Try Volume in piazza Santo Spirito or Rifrullo in San Niccolò. (Gelato is also better and cheaper in the southern half of the city.)
Here are some more tidbits of advice I would strongly suggest following:
-You might not have a fancy title or work at the consulate, but you still represent our country. Sometimes, you might be the first American that someone meets. Be respectful and respectable.
-Sadly, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen young Americans get themselves in compromising situations. Don’t lose your head just because you’re away from home. No one is impressed by your fondness for public urination or your 40-year-old boyfriend.
-Avoid traveling in large, loud groups, especially when going out. You’re annoying everyone else.
-Try local cuisine. There are many inexpensive dining options. Even better, buy local products from grocers, butchers and bakeries. I used to hate cooking, but since coming here I’ve enjoyed trying out new things using native and, importantly, fresh ingredients.
-Stay in touch with friends and loved ones back home, but reasonably so. Focus on building up local contacts and getting to know the town well, rather than spending hours on Facebook or Skype. That said, do keep in regular contact with your family, especially if it’s your first time abroad. They’re worried about you.
Overall, my experience in Florence has been invaluable in terms of personal development. Living, studying and working abroad has been an incredible opportunity that will shape my life’s course. Like anything else that involves stepping outside your comfort zone, there have been trying moments. Ultimately, however, I wouldn’t trade my time here for anything.