Week Nine: Firenze

Florence is a beautiful city. Now that I only have about a month left, it seems 10 times more beautiful than it did when I first arrived. (Although if you had asked me then, this would have been impossible.) However, as a study abroad student, it is easy to get caught up in being in Europe rather than living in Italy. The allure of adding as many notches to your country belt as you can is incredibly enticing, and often leaves you running around like a mad person trying to visit and see too much. There is nothing like returning to Florence after a hectic weekend of bus, plane, and boat rides to see 3 countries in 3 days. It is so easy to take for granted where you live and to do little exploring in your new home. That is the inspiration of this post: a list of things to do if you’re planning on living in Florence so that you won’t take it for granted.

First, go to the Michelangelo look-out point. Depending on where you live in the city, it can be quite a hike, especially considering most students live across the Ponte Vecchio or near the duomo. However, it is 100% worth it. It is by far the best view of Florence and will make you appreciate the city even more than you thought possible. Make sure to do it early on in your visit so that it can serve as a memory as to just how lucky you are to be living in Florence.

Second, climb to the top of the duomo. Even if you are scared of heights, it’s worth it. The climb up is scary, especially when you get to the top of the dome yet you’re still in the building. This is when it is incredibly claustrophobic and a little intimidating. However, the very top is beautiful and not at all worrisome. It’s another amazing view of the city and it’s right in the center of everything! I mean, it’s the duomo of Florence, one of the most famous buildings in Europe! Everything was created around this one place and nothing is cooler than getting a birds eye view of your favorite gelato shop. 

Third, visit the museums. Museums can have a bad name amongst college students, they sound cold and boring. But in Florence, they are a must, especially since a lot of the school’s in the city will give students a museum pass so that most visits are free! There is nothing more awe inspiring than seeing the David in person, that’s a promise. Pitti Palace is fantastic for fashion lovers, as are the Ferragamo and Gucci museums. Michelangelo’s art is pretty much in every museum, and also on most random street corners. Once you can recognize his art, the city comes even more beautiful and alive.

Fourth, eat at the less touristy places. Sure, Gusta pizza is unreal and Pino’s can make the best sandwich you will ever have. But, the real stuff is in the places you least expect. Basically, the rule of thumb is, if the restaurant serves Alfredo or pesto, don’t go there. These foods are not actually Italian and serving them may mean that the restaurant is more of a tourist trap than it is an authentic place to eat. Another good rule to follow is that if you can walk from the restaurant to the duomo in under one minute, it’s probably just a tourist trap too. The really good places are the ones you just happen upon that one afternoon when you get completely lost. The ones where you can’t hear a word of English being spoken and you have to point at the menu and hope you’re ordering something you like because you don’t actually know what it’s saying. My favorite restaurant in Florence so far is Osteria dei Pazzi. If you’re coming here, make a reservation!

Five, go for a walk. I know this sounds like something you could do anywhere, but I can guarantee that your stroll through Florence will be unlike any other walk you’ll take in your life. This is the best method to find your favorite shoe store, cafe, and view. This is how you end up buying that random perfume you love or meeting your new Italian friend who is filled with the hidden gems of the city. Walking is the best way to see Florence and it is a must do while you’re here.

There is a lot to see and do in Europe. It’s always fun to go to a different country for a weekend and explore more than your host area. However, don’t go overboard. One thing that I am seeing during my time abroad is people who go to so many places that they haven’t even really discovered their home city at all yet. People will ask them about their favorite places and they don’t have any to list! Make sure you plan some weekends to just relax and explore Florence. I promise more than anything you won’t regret it.

Week Eight: Grecia

So this post is beyond late…but I do have some fairly decent excuses as to why I’ve been too busy to write recently. First, midterms were two weeks ago. Believe it or not, they required quite a bit of studying! Second, I was in Greece doing some island hopping this past week for my spring break. The wifi in Greece (especially on the islands) is pretty non-existent, so it was a little difficult to try and write a blog post over there! However, the good news is that traveling throughout Greece has given me tons of topics to blog about, including just the country of Greece itself!

I have always wanted to go to Greece. In middle school, history was my favorite class because we got to learn about the Greek empire. I took Latin in high school to learn about Greek and Roman mythology and art history from or inspired by the ancient times. I also enrolled in a class called Three Democracies to learn more about the world’s first ever “civilization”. I also own “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “Mama Mia” mainly because both movies take place in Greece. Needless to say, when I realized there was an option for me to go Greece island hopping for my spring break, I jumped right on the bandwagon. I signed up with the traveling agency Bus2Alps for a 10 day experience in Corfu, Athens, and Santorini! (Really only six days when you factor in how often we had to travel). The end result was that Greece is amazing! It was everything I ever imagined and more. Bus2Alps was very unorganized and a little secretive about what was really happening throughout the whole process, but at least they got me to my dream country!

I’ve been to about six countries so far during this study abroad experience. Each one has had something different to offer and also some really awesome aspects. Greece was no exception! Below is a list of some of the things students should know before planning or executing a trip to Greece!

1) Greece is cheap! This aspect of the country is great for students, but not so good for the residents of Greece, considering it’s so cheap due to its failed economy. Food, clothing, day trips, and more are all much less expensive than they are in Italy. A meal out in Florence usually costs me about 25 euro. In Greece, a similar meal was usually about 10 euro. Athens also had some of the best shopping I have seen so far in Europe! There were tons of little Greek shops with adorable clothes and accessories at unbelievable prices. (Great for girls to know).

2) Greece has the best food! I know this is mainly opinion based but it was actually unreal. One has not lived until they have tried a chicken gyro in Greece. Gyros are usually around 2-3 euro and will fill you up fast! Not to mention, the chicken pie, moussaka, baklava, and more will have students gaining ten pounds on each Greece trip they take. The cuisine was by far the best I have had so far in Europe.

3) If you are going to Greece, go to Santorini! Santorini island can be a little difficult to get to. It usually involves a seven hour ferry that leaves at an incredibly strange time from the port of Athens. However, it is absolutely worth it. Santorini was hands down the most beautiful place I have ever been. It is everything a person thinks of when they imagine Greece. It is also where “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” was filmed! Santorini is home to Greece’s famous white and blue houses and, most importantly, the most photographed sunset in the world. Being on the island is like being lost in another time, and everywhere you look, you can see the ocean. It feels like you are trapped in the middle of the sea in the most beautiful bubble you will ever be in. Santorini may require some extra time and money, but believe me when I say it is an absolute must see in Greece.

All and all, Greece was an incredibly magic place. If at all possible, I would suggest going without a student traveling agency, like Bus2Alps. Although these companies can help you get to areas on small budgets, which is sometimes why they are necessary, they can be really unorganized and do a lot of the touristy things with very little natural exploring. As a college student, it feels a lot more like high school trip, which is pretty unappealing. However, on the bright side, it is fun to sit back, relax and let other people tell you what to do, if that’s what you’re into!

Whether you are a student who is abroad in Europe or someone who is planning a vacation over here, I would highly suggest Greece. It was a beautiful, raw culture that was less touristy and more original than many of the other places I have been so far! Greece has the most impressive history out of any country or culture I can think of and it is 100% worth visiting on a trip to Europe.

Week Four: Scuola

Classes in Europe are supposedly much easier than classes in America. However, I can tell you from firsthand experience this is a rumor. (I think that the lateness of this post due to all my assignments this week can prove that too.) Sure, some of the classes are more appealing, especially when you go to business school in the states like I do. But, even classes that seem like easy A’s may require a lot of work. For example, my History of Italian Fashion course. There are a lot of Italian designers, all with very complex names! Not to mention, classes here may require a lot of field visits, the Italian way of saying a place you visit outside of class time and write a report on to hand in. These can be expensive and long, long walks. However, if there is one thing I’ve learned so far from all of my courses, it’s that they’re worth the work! And though they’re a big time investment, some of the work doesn’t seem tedious like it does at home. A lot of it can be fun! Just don’t let anyone tell you there won’t be a lot of work when you’re going abroad. These people are either A) very nostalgic or B) just didn’t do any of their assignments while they were over here and therefore thought there was no work. To help you better pick your class schedule abroad, here’s some friendly advice.

1) TAKE A HISTORY COURSE. I know a lot of people “hate” history and I get it. But in Europe, it’s simply a must because frankly history is everywhere. Whether it’s a history of buildings, fashion, a certain prominent family in your area, I can promise you it will be worth it. When you go to class to learn about something that happened in your city, it feels that much cooler to be living where you are. You can start to imagine the streets hundreds of years ago and everything from church bells to random walls on the street take on a new life. For example, I’m taking Greek and Roman mythology (along with History of Italian Fashion), and it has literally changed the way I view Florence. Every statue and painting here was pretty much inspired by mythology so I now know the story behind the art. My friends hate it because I spew off random facts about the Rape of Persephone or The Bacchus every time we see them. I, however, this it’s awesome and the detail and time that each artist put into each piece seems that much more incredible.

2) TRY TO GET A FOOD, WINE, OR NUTRITION CLASS APPROVED AS AN UPPER LEVEL SCIENCE. Or, do what the really smart people do and take all three. Basically the food and wine classes here are the bomb. In my class, we talk about food, proceed to make ourselves these delicious Italian meals, and then pair the food with wine to drink for the last 30 minutes. If that’s not a description of the best class ever, I don’t know what is. The best part is, many people can get these classes approved as their upper level science, which is unreal. Think about it…Wines of Italy > Geology 101. Not to mention, the field visits for these classes are amazing. For instance, tonight I’m going to one of the most well-known and prestigious five star restaurants in Florence, and it counts for part of my grade. Just to make you more jealous of my life, here are some pictures of delicious meals we have made:

3) TRY AND ONLY HAVE CLASS 3 DAYS A WEEK. It’s actually really simple to do here. Most classes are 2 and 1/2 hours long, which is brutal, but they only meet once a week. Therefore, when your work week ends of Wednesday at 8:30 and doesn’t start back up till Monday at 1:30, the long classes are more than forgiven. This is probably another reason professors assign a lot of work; their classes only meet once a week and they know how much time students have off. Still, only having class three days a week is awesome, especially because most students travel so much on the weekends. A four day vacation is the perfect amount of time to either relax in your study abroad city or travel around to experience a new culture (and do all your homework.)

All and all, classes in Europe, and Italy in particular, are amazing. They may have a lot of work associated with them, but they are so worth it. When you study abroad, you are in fact supposed to study! Just make sure what you are studying is cultural, something you can’t take back at home, and fun.

Week Three: Avventure

This past weekend, I took a break from Tuscany and went to the French Riviera for Carnival. For those of you that don’t know, Carnival season in Europe is pretty much the equivalent to Mardi gras in the United States; it’s when people go crazy and party hard before lent takes over. Well Carnival was incredible. The French certainly know what they are doing when it comes to costumes, festivals, parades, and high calorie foods. However, it was not so much the celebration of Carnival that intrigued me as it was the cultural differences between two countries that are so close together. Especially when you consider the fact that Nice, the city I visited in France, has such an Italian history, influence, and identity.

To put it simply, Nice was a part of Italy up until Napoleon came along and made it French, making Nice a relatively new addition to the French coastline. (I know that was a super-fast synopsis but it will work for the context this blog.) The people of Nice seem to take some pride in their Italian heritage. In fact, the city is literally made of Italian baroque buildings renovated with French balconies and windows. The beauty that this combination adds to the landscape in undeniable. There are some other noticeable blends, like the plethora of pizzerias or how the majority of the population is French but have unmistakably Italian last names.

However, this is about where the similarities end. For being so geographically close, the number one thing I noticed during my time in France was how different it was from Italy. It amazed me. Before coming to Florence, a native European told me to think of the nations over here as an equivalent to what states are in America. So, that is exactly what I mistakenly did. The truth is, the countries here are small but they are all so different and their populations each respectively share a deep pride for their own home’s culture.

In my personal opinion (and I am sorry to stereotype), the French were polite and elegant. They seemed to have a mild air of arrogance around them that made them stand taller and move slower; it was truthfully lovely to watch. They were effortlessly put together and seemed less dramatic than Italians. They were stiffer, quieter, and extremely presentable. Yet they lived so close to such a different place. Literally, three hours away was the border of a country with such clashing cultural norms.

The Italians are vivacious. They are loud, spontaneous, and they do not take no for an answer. They are always moving, laughing, and yelling; they live out loud. These differences from the French amaze me. It’s true that in America, there are different norms and customs depending on where you are, especially if the states are far apart. Maine is not going to resemble California in many ways. Still, Massachusetts and Rhode Island (bordering states) are pretty culturally similar whereas France and Italy are two completely separate places. Different people, different mannerisms, different food, different wars, different art, different history, different style, different nightlife, and the list could go on forever.

Other than Italy, France is the only country I have visited so far on my trip. I went to a place with a supposed heavy Italian influence and came back feeling like I had left home and had experienced culture shock all over again. Both places are so amazing in beauty and culture, but they are also so different that it is hard to imagine them bordering each other. My trip to France has made me 100 times more excited to keep traveling. I now know that anywhere I go in Europe is going to be incredibly unique and I want to experience as much of this incredible continent as I possibly can.

Week Two: Cultura

When I first selected Florence as my study abroad destination, I had some doubts about my choice. First off, Florence is a city and I am a small town girl from Vermont. This alone was going to cause Florence to be a huge adjustment for me. Secondly, I have always liked places off the beaten path and this city has a definite reputation for not being one of those areas. In fact, most people have the belief that Florence is one of the most touristy and Americanized cities in Europe. However, after being here for about three weeks, I can tell you from firsthand experience that this city is not as Americanized as people say. Sure, some people speak English and the city is adapted to meet the needs of tourists from all over the world. But living here, you meet twice as many people that do not speak English as you do those who can. Plus, Florence is a touristy area only because it is so unbelievably beautiful that people travel from all over the world just to admire it. Who wouldn’t want to live in a city like that? To help prove my point, I have made a list of the top five reasons why Florence is definitely not as Americanized as people say:

1) The food. I hope you like Italian. There is one aspect about American food that cannot be overlooked: variety. In America, if you want Chinese food, you can get Chinese food. Also, the supermarkets sell everything you could ever need. In Florence, the food options are as follows: Italian, Italian, and some more Italian. And supermarkets? No. Just no. There are open markets in Florence with fresh food, so you have to go every day to buy what you need to cook that night. Also, because all the food lacks preservatives, it goes bad very quickly. Most food you need to eat within 2 days or it’s going to trash. So, no. When it comes to food and cooking, Florence is not even close to being Americanized.

2) The coffee. Coffee in Florence consists of espresso. Granted there are some other options, like a cafe americano, but this is just an Italian’s way of saying watered down espresso. There is no iced coffee, no flavored coffee, and even very few places that allow you to take your coffee to go. Finally, it is nontraditional to drink coffee after 11 a.m. so if you’re used to more than one cup a day, you better get your fill in before then.

3) The laundry. Italians are a very patient people, nothing they ever do is in a rush. This includes their laundry. Their washing machines are in the kitchen and are incredibly small. Also, they take three hours to wash a single load and legitimately boil your clothing, so be sure to organize your colors correctly. Finally, dryers simply do not exist. In Italy, the sun dries your clothes. The only issue is, in Florence, it rains basically every day in the winter so the sun dries nothing. Do your laundry a week in advance from when you will need it, it will take that long to dry.

4) The people (specifically the boys). In Italy, people have very different interpretation of things. Firstly, there is no such thing as personal space. Literally, you are touching someone most of the time. Secondly, as a female, you cannot smile at males unless you are willing to start a conversation with them. Literally, smiling at an Italian boy means that you are very interested in him and, if you happen to do it at a restaurant or bar, it is a signal that you want to spend the night with him. Anyone who knows me and how much I randomly smile at people can understand the struggle that this has caused in my life. Finally, Italians tend to be a little more pushy and less polite than Americans. I do not say this to sound mean or bash Italians, it is literally just a part of their culture. Street vendors will call to you when you walk by, restaurants have people in the streets yelling at you to eat, and “pleases” and “thank yous” are not as common because saying them too much gives the impression of insincerity in Italy.

5) The dogs are cuter. No seriously, no one I know can figure out why but there is a common consensus that the dogs here are literally just cuter. Plus, they are never on leashes.They just happily trot next to their owners everywhere they go. It’s unreal, it’s like magical, angelic pups just walk around the city minding their own business all the time. However, it is not prevalent to ask owners to pet dogs in Italy, so basically it’s a giant tease to see all these adorable dogs wandering around without being able to touch them.

All of these examples are just a scraping of the differences between Florence and America. Whenever someone tells you that Florence is Americanized, take it with a grain of salt. No matter where you go outside the U.S. there are going to be some cultural differences. However, the point is, these differences exist in Florence too, so do not let anyone tell you that they don’t.

Week One: Ciao Italia

When my plane landed in Florence a week ago, I literally could not have been happier - partly because I was terrified of flying and was finally on the ground, but also because I had done it; I was in Italy. All the research, paperwork, and online orientations paid off and I had successfully arrived in Florence, my new home for the next 3 and 1/2 months.  

It was an incredibly rainy day, and as we boarded the buses to head to the orientation hotel, the outskirts of the city were covered with a mist and a grey sky. I was excited to see Florence, as I had not been to the city since I was eight and only had dreamy memories and blotchy, chaotic home videos to remind me of what it looked like. However, the memories and videos did not seem to match what I was seeing. As I looked around me, it was as if I was staring at the outskirts of Providence, or any other normal American city. Seriously. There was an Ikea, a McDonald’s, some auto shops, and a very suspicious looking Italian restaurant. At least it can be assumed that the restaurant had more authentic food on its menu, but other than that, Florence did not seem very foreign. I started to worry. Maybe the warnings I had received from well-wishers were true. Maybe Florence was extremely Americanized. However, it did not take long for this fear to evaporate.

As the buses continued to head into the downtown part of the city, the scenery changed. Drastically. All of a sudden, the buildings grew shorter, the colors changed and the streets narrowed. Before I knew it, I was in this fairy tale city, one that was breathtakingly beautiful. The streets were so preserved and so old that you could literally imagine Michelangelo walking down one of them. Even if he were to do it today, dressed in his period attire, I am convinced he would fit right in.

This city was not American. It was trapped in a different time. The USA did not have a Middle Ages or a Renaissance. Being in a place like Florence, a place so old and historic, made me realize just how young America really was, I mean, Florence was literally around for hundreds of years before my own country was even a dream. The experience of being in a place this rich with history was eye opening, instantly pulling me from the American bubble I was used to. 

I spent the next two days exploring the city. I did what every good American tourist would do. I saw the duomo, walked across the Ponte Vecchio, admired every statue in sight (which was A LOT), ate an absurd amount of gelato, and got incredibly lost. However, on the third day, I was struck down by an Italian virus and was forced into my bed for upwards of three days. By the time I was ready to go back out and continue the exploration, all the other study abroad students had moved on. They had done their sightseeing and were in the process of transitioning from tourists to residents. Trips to piazzas had turned into doing laundry and cooking cheap, yet still somehow delicious, spaghetti. I had some catching up to do. 

And so, for the last few days catching up has been exactly what I’ve been doing. Florence is slowly beginning to feel more like a home and less like a vacation. Classes are starting and permanence is setting in. It’s incredible to think it has already been over a week since my plane landed. I can only hope that the rest of the time doesn’t fly by this quickly, because I am already in love with this beautiful, welcoming city.