Back in New York City. Has this semester really come and gone? The last day and a half I’ve been back in America has felt like a weird dream that I’ll eventually wake up from and find myself in Italy again. More so also because I’m actually flying out again in the morning ridiculously early to my parents who live in Hawaii. (I’m just in Manhattan for the weekend to drop off my stuff at my apartment. Oh sweet apartment, I missed thee.) So being back in NYC in the midst of all the finals flurry which my friends are experiencing at the moment (and have no time for me), it hasn’t fully hit me that I’m actually gone for good. A problem because when my friends do ask, “So how was Italy? Was it amazing? What was it like?” I have absolutely no idea how to respond.
So now as I’m here trying to genuinely reflect on this last semester… streams of memories flow my mind… All the places I’ve been, all the people I’ve met, all the food I’ve eaten… It was a good semester. Though, admittedly a bit out of my general comfort zone. The constant feeling of unsettledness was something I could never shake; thus, I feel I was never able to truly connect with the city. It honestly felt like a huge vacation, a step outside reality that is my life in NYC with the constant hustle and bustle, the expectations and goals. I feel I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the little things in life; learning how to pause, reflect, soak in, with no other ulterior motive. And I’m inspired to bring that kind of spirit to this city of rat race mentality.
As far as this blog went… I’m actually quite grateful. It really forced me to reflect about my experiences and retain some of those memories that might have been otherwise easily forgotten. I initially took this course because I had a feeling that without it, I would fail to write in my own journal. And this whole experience from August to December would be lost forever. But now, having even these snippets comforts me and assures me that yes, I was in Europe. I did live that life. Also, being able to share with all of you and reading about your experiences brought this to a whole other level. That collectively we shared experiences that were actually quite different. Yet, in some way, being study abroad students creates a certain bond that only other study abroad students could ever understand. That’s a beautiful thing, I think.
And as a final statement, I suppose that’s what I really appreciated about this whole semester. Realizing that this world isn’t as big as we might think. That the human experience is one that we can all share and live together. And in that way, we can truly work towards a future of acceptance, understanding, and love. A love for others, a love for this world, a love for life.
To any who might find themselves in this beautiful city of art, culture, and good food that is Florence, here are some tidbits that might prove useful.
Living Arrangements: Since a lot of people have questions about whether or not to do a homestay, here’s what I thought about my experience.
1. Full immersion experience.
2. Delicious, homecooked meals.
3. Mini excursions to the wine processing plant, Italian dinner parties, and the best gelato place in the city, etc. which is hard to come by if you’re not living with locals.
4. A chance to really bond with a family and have a kind of home away from home while in Europe.
1. A sense of isolation from the rest of the NYU community.
2. If you like going out every night to restaurants or eating with friends, probably not the place for you since you’ll be expected to eat with the family at a pretty regular time (anywhere between 8-9:30pm).
3. A lack of independence that you might be used to back in college.
4. A sense of intrusion on their private family life.
Favorite sandwich shop: Li Li (Via Aprile XXVII and Via Zanobi which is west of San Marco. Ask for #9, which is a “surprise.”)
Favorite Italian with nice atmosphere: Il Santo Bevitore (across the Arno)
Best deal: Dante’s (across the Arno; no cover charge & free first drink)
Best Pizza: Il Pizzaiolo (Via di Macci)
Best Mexican: Tijuana (Via Ghibellina)
Best Indian: India (in Fiesole)
1. Visit the gardens on the NYU campus. The best gardens in the city in my opinion.
2. Do some of the events that NYU provides; discounted and most of them were pretty good.
3. If you miss American movies, check out the Odeon. Gorgeous theater with American movies at a pretty good price.
4. Keep an eye out for any food/wine festivals that might be happening in the area.
5. Visit Fiesole at sunset.
6. Plan ahead with your travels, but be careful about who you choose as your travel buddies. (Use skyscanner.net for best deals on flights.)
7. Walk around the city by yourself and check out all the random specialty shops.
8. Eat at McDonald’s at least once. It’s fun to compare with the American McDonald’s (and I personally think it tastes better).
9. Go to a Firenze soccer game. CRAZY Italians!
10. Sit along the Arno or on one of the bridges and just soak it all in.
I never really grew up with a traditional Thanksgiving every year. Instead, given the year, circumstances, location, Thanksgivings for me were always quite varied. One year it might be the typical Thanksgiving meal, decked out with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pie (the “essentials”) with the entire family together. Another year it might be at an Army Mess Hall-think high school cafeteria but with surprisingly delicious Thanksgiving food with just my parents (siblings being away in college or living independent adult lives). I even recall one Thanksgiving when my mom was away helping to take care of my brother’s baby daughter, so my dad and I went to a local Korean restaurant (completely empty with some very confused looking waiters). Then once I went to college, my parents were always too far for me to visit so I would be one of those students stuck in the city trying to scrape together a Thanksgiving meal with any other students also stranded in the city. So the fact that this year I wouldn’t be having a “traditional Thanksgiving day” didn’t really faze me.
NYU in Florence did prepare a pretty lavish Thanksgiving meal for any students who were smart enough to RSVP. And feeling like I should share in this very American holiday with other Americans, I attended. For a day where you’re supposed to remember all that you are thankful for, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Man, Americans can be quite gluttonous… My Italian family would be utterly shocked.” But… the food was so good! Props to NYU. And one thing I was truly thankful for that day.
Of course, that isn’t all I’m thankful for… the list could go quite long, so I’ll just say at the risk of sounding cliché… I’m grateful for another atypical Thanksgiving in a land far from home, but still had all the right trimmings (good food, better moments, and the best of friends).
I really enjoyed reading the chapter “On Habit” for a number of reasons. Mainly because it reminded me of how I would go on “room travels” all the time as a kid. Because I moved around so much, every new house was like an adventure ready to be explored. New nooks and crannies for miscellaneous items to be stored, boxes still left unopened, and a curious appetite made for hours of entertainment. My journey consisted of memories- my own, my parents’, my siblings’, and any other memories I could delve my hands into. Finding old photo albums never got old and even discovering letters was always a treat for the mischievous little girl that I was.
Now that I’m older and a college student who goes home only for the holidays, “room travel” has become a very necessary thing for me to do. Especially since the two winter breaks I’ve had in college so far have been in two totally different places (Korea, then Hawaii). Freshman year, I had to acquaint myself to a new house and a new room only to have to reacquaint myself to another new house and new room sophomore year.
My Hawaii room actually proved to be quite a journey down memory lane because up until that point, a lot of our stuff had been in storage for years. (We’re only allowed to bring an allotted weight internationally so unnecessary items were left stateside.) My mom had filled my room with all of my old books, toys and other items that I hadn’t seen since middle school. Needless to say, hours went by without me even realizing the time. And the fact that I was in Hawaii, a popular vacation destination and my first time visiting didn’t even faze me from reconnecting with my past the first couple of days I was home. Strange, now that I think about it…
Here in Italy, I feel a disconnect with my room. Knowing that I would only be here for a few months, I packed VERY lightly (especially when comparing with my roommate and housemate). I literally take up a tiny little corner of the room that can now fit just one suitcase (I sent one suitcase of summer clothes back with my boyfriend a few weekends ago when he visited…). And I’m not one to scatter my things all over the place or tack things up on the wall and claim the space as mine.
Still, if I let myself explore a little, my little corner of the room does hold quite a lot. My school books (though not many because I refused to buy them if they were available at the school library…), my journal, little trinkets and other school necessities that I brought with me, a plant my host dad bought for me on our second day here (still alive!), mementoes such as tickets and brochures from various places I’ve visited here in Europe. Maybe I’ll take a little room travel later…
(Said in a very thick Italian accent...)
"Save the planet!" (To remind us to recycle.)
"I am a very nice man." (He has the most dry, sarcastic sense of humor imaginable.)
"This is not a restaurant." (We're not to be served but are expected to help out with the cooking/cleaning up.)
"It's a free country!" (Can be used for any number of occasions; if you have plans for the night, "It's a free country!" If you want to eat some cookies, "It's a free country!")
"We are not in love. We are in business." (In reference to his lovely wife Bianca)
Just a few of the quips my host dad Nicola will throw out at us. A geology professor at the University of Pisa, a man of the south, and a doting father and husband, Nicola is quite the character. If I wanted a full Italian immersion experience and really get a sense of what Italians are like, Nicola was certainly the man to get to know. He offers no excuses for his sometimes outlandlishly aggressive and sarcastic behavior. And he gives no apologies for his occasional outbursts of frustration. The flying of Italian words and gestures that happens between him & his wife or daughter is a sight to see. And he is always full of opinions about this matter and that. Not gonna lie, it was a little hard to get used to at first. You wonder if he's really angry and the last thing you want to do is get in his way. But then... you get used to it. And you realize how harmless, how hilarious, and how heartwarming he really is. The love he showers on his wife and daughter is absolutely adorable. He definitely is not one for holding back on his emotions; negative or positive. I must say, it's been a very educational and enriching experience for me to witness and get to know a man who is so passionate, lively, curious, and really desires to help us come to love and appreciate Italy that much more.
Choosing just one place in Florence to highlight proved to be a more difficult feat than I anticipated. It took me along memory lane for a good while as I thought about all the different places I’ve seen and explored since being here this semester. And suddenly I’m reminded, “I’m living in Europe.” A dream of so many that few can really obtain. I really shouldn’t take it for granted so much…
So after much musing, pondering, and debating, I landed in the Arno. That is the Arno River that runs just south of city center and helps the directionally impaired locate where north, south, east and west are (“Where is such and such”? “Well, the Arno’s that way”… or “It’s on this side of the Arno” or “It’s on the other side of the river”).
It actually took me quite awhile to make it down to the Arno and it became a running joke among my friends that I would leave Florence never having actually seen it. Which now thinking back is absolutely absurd considering how many times I’ve now had to traverse across. In the beginning it was all about seeing it during sunset and since I was home staying and needed to be home for dinner, I always missed the excursions my friends would make. Not only is the river itself something to see but the Ponte Vecchio (meaning “Old Bridge) is one of the tourist hotspots of the city that should not be missed. A bizarre bridge that holds houses and stores, it’s more like a regular street than an actual bridge. Then you reach the middle point where you can look out onto the river; quite nice.
The reason why I picked this place though wasn’t so much that it’s one of the most beautiful parts of Florence or for its unique bridge. Rather, the bridges (not just the Ponte Vecchio) have become an unassuming spot to just sit, chat, and waste away the hours in a way that only Europeans could do. Whenever we cross there is this unspoken rule that we must stop around the middle of the bridge and hang around for no particular reason. Sometimes we would just sit together on the edge, not saying a word and simply enjoying the scenery and each other’s company. Other times we come up with stories for the people that walk by or others also lingering around on the bridge (lot of PDA going on…). There was even a time when we were hanging around and a huge protest (that we’re still not sure what it was about) passed by us. Then there’s this one particular bridge where there’s a ledge that juts out onto the river which a friend finds incredibly hilarious to pretend he’s going to jump. That is until the Polizia finally came and gave him a stern rebuke.
It’s one of those places that could easily be overlooked years down the line when we might think about our time abroad. But I, for one, am grateful for all the memories that have been shared on that river over the course of the semester. It makes me want to take that same spirit back to NYC and instead of always rushing around and trying to keep up with the busyness that is NYC, to be able to just sit with some friends and linger.
ps Sorry for lack of pics these days... internet connection is slow; won't let me upload... Will try again another day!
This past weekend I flew to Oxford, England with my friend to visit her friend who attends Oxford University. And I have to admit, I was semi-dreading it... only because our travel plans turned out to be a bit ridiculous. Leave at 3am Friday morning to get on a plane at 7am; arrive in London Stanstead Airport and take a bus that would arrive in Oxford around 1pm. Then we would leave Sunday morning at 2am, wait in the frigid cold for 2 hours (at 3 in the morning) at Heathrow Airport until the bus left again for Stanstead Airport and arrive back in Florence at 3pm Sunday afternoon. Anticipating the uncomfortable journey, the short stay, and sleepless nights, I was thinking to myself, "What have I done?"
What I didn't anticipate was one of the best weekends of my abroad experience.
Nothing particularly significant made it so great... But a combination of traveling with a friend I met here in Florence and who I feel incredibly close to now, meeting her friend who has the most lovely British accent and the cutest personality, and exploring a city teeming with university students who aren't American. It was probably one of the most educational weekends I've had... Sure, we didn't really visit any historical hotspots (apart from Christ Church where Harry Potter was filmed... yes, I will admit it now, we pretended we were Harry Potter with our wands in the Great Hall. Embarrassing, but so worth it.) but it was so refreshing not being a tourist for once and simply enjoying ourselves... Sipping tea with scones, eating Japanese for lunch, having the BEST cookie ever followed by the BEST milkshake ever. Eating more chocolates. Watching a fireworks display in commemoration of Guy Fawkes and talking with some Oxford students about their lives in England.
It reminded me also of the short time I have here in Florence... But how I still have time to make the most of my experiences here. That I don't need to keep checking things off my list of things to do, but that by simply letting go and soaking in each day, I can come away from this semester feeling truly fuller and richer. So onward to more good times!
In Italian Neighbors, British author Tim Parks writes about his experience living in Verona, Italy with his Italian wife Rita as a foreigner trying to assimilate into his new community. On Via Colombare, Parks gives humorous and heartrending accounts about his neighbors, the shopkeepers, and other residents of his little street. With the intentions of immersing himself into the Italian lifestyle, Parks learns much about the little things that tourists would not be privy to; a world behind the preconceived romantic notions that many people might relate to Italy.
As I was reading Italian Neighbors, I realized how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to have a similar experience as Parks by living in a homestay. Though, even my situation is a bit removed from Parks as he truly took up resident for a good ten years whereas I have barely dipped a foot into the whole Italian lifestyle.
As Parks was describing his first few months in Italy, I had my own flashbacks to whenever I would find myself in an entirely new environment. One specific memory I have is when I moved to Wuerzburg, Germany and my parents decided to rent a flat from a German couple. Just like Parks and his wife were introduced to their new home by an Italian landlord, our German landlords showed us around the house and offered a lot of advice.
I could really sense and empathize with the feelings of unfamiliarity and the uncertainty that Parks must have felt in those first few days. Parks mentions a woman Orietta Visentini who “says that in twenty odd years she has never really been accepted in Montecchio. People’s friends here are their childhood friends, their families… They don’t even know how to make friends, because they have never had to do so, and anyway, they can’t imagine anybody being without their own circle.” It was nice to read how Parks eventually overcame those obstacles and was able to become friendly with some of his neighbors. But it really is true how difficult it can be to come into a community all of a sudden and wonder if people will truly accept you or if you will always be considered an outsider.
I’ve got to admit, being here in Florence and knowing that I will only be here for 4 months, I already resigned to the fact that I probably would not be able to really establish myself here or feel any sense of belonging. Still, having lived with an Italian family, I do feel as though I’ve lived here and not as though I’m just passing by. I hope to really take this experience as one I can look upon fondly- a place where I grew as a person and learned more about the world.
Deciding to home stay has been a most interesting experience to say the least. When I was trying to figure out what kind of housing I would do while in Florence, I very vaguely thought of homestaying. Not knowing a word of Italian, I didn’t think I could survive. For whatever reason, when the time came to actually pick a housing option, my mouse glided over to “homestay,” clicked, and it was a done deal. What in the world had I gotten myself into?? I kept trying to reassure myself that this would be one experience I’ve never had, and I’m all about putting myself into uncomfortable situations on purpose. My philosophy’s always been, even if it’s not the best time, it’s still a chance to learn and grow.
The closer I was to finally arriving in Florence, my nerves really started acting up. It didn’t help matters when other students would ask me where I was living and I’d respond, “Oh, I’m homestaying.” “Oh wow, do you know Italian?” “Uh no… I can’t even say what my name is…” “Oh wow…. You’re really brave…” I didn’t really think that much about what it would mean if I was unable to communicate with a family I was to live with for 4 months.
Now that it’s been about 2 months and I’d have to say, I don’t regret my decision at all. Homecooked Italian meals every night, an insider’s look into the lives of “real Italians,” a chance to experience things like visiting a wine processing plant to purchase a year supply’s worth of wine and going to an olive grove to make your own olive oil… Those were some of the things I had wanted to explore when coming abroad; not staying in a little NYU bubble which is so easy to do in a campus with 400 other students. The language barrier hasn’t been too difficult since the entire family speaks English very well. I do get a little flustered when they speak only in Italian but my understanding of the language has grown tremendously.
Yes, I’d have to say, it has been a very rewarding semester so far and I would recommend homestaying to anyone who’s not afraid to be stretched a little and isn’t afraid of a little challenge.
It’s amazing how touristy Florence is; even now in late October. And now that I’ve been living here for the last two months, I would like to believe my role in this particular society has gone from being a tourist or “sightseer” in the front region to a participant in the back region. One way that’s helped me feel a bit more immersed is by doing a home stay and actually living with an Italian family. Still, I can’t help but feel sometimes like an outsider still. An uncultured American who could never truly understand.
If I reflect even more on my life and my “nomadic existence” I think I’ve been a perpetual “tourist” of sorts. With each new place and each new community, I’ve been able to experience a vast range of lifestyles of which I couldn’t say one was necessarily mine. Though I was born in the South, I couldn’t say I understand Southern ways at all. I’ve lived on the West Coast in both Colorado and Washington and have never felt entirely at home there. With the East Coast, I’ve lived in the remote parts of the Pocono Mountains, the suburbs of Virginia, and now in the greatest metropolitan in the world, New York City. Having lived in Germany at one point and Korea in another, I know how it feels like to be the “American” who doesn’t quite fit in but isn’t just a visitor set to leave in weeks or even months.
Reading Dean MacCannell’s article made me a little sensitive to my own plight for true authenticity and intimacy. And perhaps that’s why traveling as an actual tourist has always been such an exciting thing for me. Even though I realize that it’s all fairly “fake” when I visit a city and all I really see are the major tourist sites, I still feel a strange connection to the place. That at some point in history, those sites were made to offer some insight to society and culture.