We’ve finally come to the (almost) end of my abroad blog.
I’ve been tossing around ideas on how to close the curtain on this digital adventure for some time now.
When I closed the curtain on the real-life adventure, it involved lots of running around town and seeing and eating all that I could in my last few weeks in Florence. I did a lot of Christmas shopping (and, I’ll admit, a good amount of souvenir shopping too), and more museum hopping than I’d even thought possible. I studied for and took my finals, finishing the semester with a 3.75.
But simply telling you about all of that wouldn’t even come close to doing justice to my experience in Florence. So I came up with a plan. I’m splitting the ending into a few different parts, each covering a new angle of my time abroad.
Buckle up – this is part one of four: My Florence.
I remember Monday, August 29, 2016 so clearly. My family drove me all the way from Fitchburg, Massachusetts to New York’s JFK airport to board the only plane I’d been on since a trip to Disney World almost 15 years prior. I guess you could say I was nervous, but by that point, I’d spent so much time worrying about the plane falling out of the sky that I was so over being ‘nervous’.
We got out of the car and dragged my electric blue suitcase into the terminal. It was crowded, but still more spacious than I thought it’d be. We were several hours early (#AirportRookies) so we used the extra time to grab a bite to eat and watch the planes take off.
When it was time, I checked in and checked out the other SU students. I’d chosen the “group flight” option – meaning I was on the plane with around 30-50 other kids. They were easy to spot. They were either wearing orange, standing with someone who was, or had that signature “look” to them. You know, that I-grew-up-in-an-NYC-suburb-and-know-this-airport-by-heart look. Not a single one of them looked friendly. But that was the least of my concerns. I knew people that I’d be meeting up with in Italy, and I’d always thought of study abroad as a personal journey anyway.
The hours after I said goodbye to my family passed in a blur. All I remember is that I got in a line, and eventually sat down on the plane.
The cabin of the plane was as cozy as I guessed a metal tube of seats and engine-stuff can be. It was eight seats across with two aisles to walk through. Apparently, that’s a pretty big plane. I didn’t really have much to reference it to, so it felt rather small to me. I had the aisle seat on the left side, next to an older man returning home after a visit to America. I must have looked nervous, because he took me under his wing right away. He started by showing me photos of his daughter and her cats, and then of his own cats, to whom he was returning. I could feel the pride he had in his daughter, who now lived in America, through his broken English.
I eventually fell asleep, and when we were about halfway there, was awoken by the stewardness putting the in-flight meal on my tray. My new friend had chosen the pasta option for me while I napped.
After what felt not nearly as long as I’d been told it was supposed to, the plane landed in Rome. We had a two-hour layover, where I discovered that not all of the students I’d seen earlier were unfriendly. In fact, there were some that were very friendly. I ended up meeting a few friends there that I’d grow incredibly close to over the course of the semester.
Then, after another jaunt on another plane (this one much smaller and quicker than the last) we landed in Florence.
Our leader gave us instructions on what to do next: take a sheet of stickers, go collect our luggage, put the stickers on the luggage. The difficulty that I had with these tasks was a testament to the disorienting nature of travel.
Where do the bags come from? Where do the stickers go? Which bags get stickers and which don’t? I needed one of those ropes that they make kindergartners hold onto when they walk through field trips.
As I looked around for ideas from the other students, I found a girl who looked just as confused as I did. Her tired, brown eyes looked kind and friendly, and we started chatting. We sat next to each other on the bus from the airport to the school, and remained good friends and travel buddies throughout the entire semester.
My first few days in Florence were awesome. I saw the school, met my host family, and began to explore the city. You can read more about my first week here.
On any given day, I’d wake up bright and early, getting ready and having breakfast at my host family’s apartment. Some days I woke up early to go to class, other days I woke up early to visit museums right as they opened. Either way, there was always a good reason to enjoy the Italian mornings.
At the sound of my alarm, I’d shuffle down the hall and into the kitchen, where on a little table there’d be a thermos of Italian coffee, some heated milk, a bowl of biscuits or bread and some sort of spread to go with it. My host mom would leave these out for my roommate and I, since she had to leave the apartment earlier to bring her son, Giovanni, to school. My favorite breakfast treat was the orange marmalade that my host mom made from scratch with oranges she’d picked in Sicily. Marmalade in general isn’t my favorite, but it’s hard to beat that level of dedication.
Then, I’d grab my backpack and head to the day’s location. If I was heading to class, my walk was short. The apartment was just five minutes from Piazza Savonarola, where the school was. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I’d stay in the Piazza Savonarola area for lunch. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I could be anywhere in the city around lunchtime. At the start of the semester, I picked up a list of the museums in Florence, and did my best to see as many of them as possible. So, using recommendations from my host family and my own interest in the museums’ names, I’d choose one and check it out every Tuesday and Thursday morning. I’d grab a panini from anywhere near the museum and eat it either on the way back or in a nearby piazza.
After class, one of my favorite things to do was try new gelato places. About mid-way through the semester, when I’d tried just about every gelato flavor I could find, I started to try more pastry shops, too. I’ve yet to find a better cure for the 3:00 slump than an Italian sweet.
I did something different every afternoon. Sometimes I’d do some homework or study, other times I’d plan and book an upcoming weekend trip. Oftentimes I’d find myself wandering the streets of Florence, aimlessly discovering new places, streets, and shops.
Then, come evening, I’d make my way back to my host family’s apartment.
The host family dynamic can seriously make or break a study abroad experience. If it’s good – it can be the most fulfilling part of the entire trip. If it’s bad, well, you’d better have lots of out-of-the-country travel plans on your agenda.
Luckily for me, my host family fell into the former category. I simply could not have imagined better people to live with, or a more inclusive, cultural, loving experience to be a part of.
My host-brother, Giovanni, reminded me what it meant to be a kid again. His constant energy (and I mean running around the apartment, often screaming, at least twice a day energy) and instant acceptance was infectious. He took to my roommate and I as sisters right away. I’d often come home to find him sprawled out in our room playing games on my roommate’s iPad, and an evening would be remiss without that familiar little knock on our door, asking us to come out and play Mario Kart with him.
My host-father was a Sicilian transplant, living in Florence because he fell in in love with a beautiful woman there during his college years. His emotions were as strong as his heart was deep, and he took an almost comical (yet incredibly well-deserved) pride in his work, his cooking, and his family. The kindnesses he showed me – all the way from teaching me little kitchen tricks to driving me to the airport at 6 AM before my trip to his hometown – reflected what he told me right before I left: I was like a daughter to him.
And my host-mother? She was an absolute gem. Her motherly wisdom and active, vibrant spirit struck me right away as representative of the type of person I hope to someday be. She never hesitated to show my roommate and I the love and kindness that she treated her own son with, and her genuine interest in my daily activities and in me as a person fostered one of the most welcoming, unconditional, and wholesome relationships I’ve ever had the pleasure to be a part of. Oftentimes, after we’d eaten dinner. she and my roommate and I would sit around the table for up to an hour or more, talking and laughing about anything and everything. The boys would leave to go do other things, and thus, that became our bonding time.
Though I’d often say that dinner was my favorite time of the day, it’s those hours afterwards that I miss the most.
Stay tuned for Part 2: The World’s Florence