Ciao, tutti! I've been getting quite a few messages lately from some of my Marist friends who are planning on studying abroad here in Florence, Italy next semester through the same program. I'm going to take some time now (partially to avoid finals studying/packing), to pass along some knowledge to the general population of students studying in Italy. I will be touching upon things specific to Florence, some to Italy in general, and many things that apply to study abroad students in general. Hopefully everyone reading this will hear some tips from a realistic perspective that you don't typically hear!
1) The dreaded language barrier: To those studying in a foreign country where the locals do not speak English (for the most part), it can be a daunting endeavor. However, I want to tell everyone that this, especially in Italy, is not as detrimental as one may think. English has become a widespread language, and most people in the cities, such as Florence, do speak it if you are having trouble communicating in their language. I came to Florence knowing minimal Italian. I had seven years of Spanish under my belt, which certainly helped me in picking up certain aspects of the language more easily, but I'm almost 4 months in and still can barely utter an Italian phrase confidently to a shopkeeper. But fear not. When you can't think of the correct word in Italian, most Italians will help you or just respond in English. It makes the locals respect you more if you can speak the language, but I promise, it won't hinder your experience.
2) The grocery stores: One of the most trivial yet biggest adjustments my friends and I had to make here was the way Italians grocery shop. Italians typically go once a day and purchase just one or two things they need for the particular meal they plan on creating that evening for supper. However, us Americans are used to full on shopping trips where we purchase a week or two worth of goods. It's quite difficult to do this because a) most grocery stores near our apartment (and most in Florence) are tiny and b) the locals behind you in line get really impatient and make you feel really rushed as you check out. I've improved immensely and go a few times a week now, purchasing only a few items. If you still shop like you do at home, it's not the end of the world. I got over those judgments pretty quickly and still make those trips every now and again, despite the locals' staring burning holes in the back of my head.
3) The food: Carbs, carbs, and more carbs. If you're on the Atkins diet, god bless your soul, because you're going to be struggling. When you go out to dinner, you are fed bread and oil to start. Then, typically, the reasonably priced menu items are variations of pasta and pizza. So you'll find yourself always ordering the two. And when you're at home, since you have to cook for yourself for every single meal in a small kitchen you share with a bunch of other people in your apartment (there's no such things as Lean Cuisine frozen dinners here), you'll find yourself drawn to the easy fixes...like pizza and pasta. It's really easy to get used to, but I honestly can't wait to get home to have some more variety in my life. Don't get me wrong, the food is phenomenal. And don't even get me started on the cannolis, gelato, and baked goods overall. You can't go wrong with food in Italy. Just be prepared for a lot of it. Often.
4) Walking on the streets: I'm not really a city girl by any means. New York City is so psychotic that it makes me want to jump in front of a taxi, but Florence is definitely a happy medium for those of us who do not enjoy big cities but get bored easily in our small farm towns in Connecticut (ha). Florence is definitely a walking city. My apartment is somewhat on the outskirts near the train station, but even then, I'm only 15 minutes from many of the major landmarks like the Duomo, Piazza della Repubblica, the Arno River, and more. You can get across the city in about a half hour or so if you walk at a steady pace. That's something I adore about this place. However, just know that many of the streets are quite narrow. Italians most likely will not make way for you if they are walking in a line across the sidewalk, so you may have to step on the street to get around them. If someone bumps into you, they won't say they're sorry or even acknowledge your presence. No one smiles at each other on the streets (even when someone has a cute baby or puppy. I'm serious.). It's not that anyone is trying to be rude. That's just how it is, so don't take offense. I've learned to walk fast, not look at others, and basically just walk like I'm a massive bitch to get around effectively, but hey. It's working. I do miss smiling at people in America, though. If you do that here, they think you're a freak.
5) The men: Oh, girls. Be prepared for the most male attention you have ever received in your entire life. You think being out at night in a bar in America is bad? Walking down the street to class during the day in Italy is 100 times worse than that. The guys here are not afraid to make kissy noises at you, call to you, blatantly gawk at you, and try to get your attention in any way possible. At all times. In all areas of the city. I've almost drop kicked a few of them. And I got mad enough to give one the finger once. I just have no tolerance for that kind of disrespect. Whether it's your culture or not, get out of my face before I slam my heeled boot into yours. All I can say is to keep your head held high, don't make eye contact, and roll your eyes in a frustrated manner to get them to shut up without any violence. But hey, if you really like attention, you picked the right place to study abroad.
6) Balancing classes & traveling A lot of people say that when you are abroad, classes are much easier because they want you to travel. I can testify to that...for about half of the semester. September and October here at Lorenzo de' Medici in Florence were doable. I had a few short papers, weekly assignments, and a few quizzes, but even though I was traveling every single weekend, I was able to manage it and keep my grades quite high. However, after your mid-semester, week-long break, the joke is over. I was lucky enough to get my traveling done for the most part by mid-November, so when the work got tough, I had the weekends free to catch up. I recommend getting your big trips out of the way in the first half of the semester (your biggest being during break). I'm not saying you should stop traveling towards the end, but definitely save your day trips and short weekend trips to places a little closer for those times that you're struggling to handle your four required 8-page research papers and finals all due within two weeks of one another. Also, be careful with your absences. Our school allows 2. If you miss a 3rd, you go down a letter grade. If you miss a 4th, you fail. Try not to miss classes for traveling too often, or you'll find yourself down a letter grade much faster than you anticipated. You can do it, but just be wise about it. You may need some of those if you get sick!
7) Keeping in touch: I know it's scary to think you'll be away from your friends, family, and maybe even a significant other for almost four months in a foreign land. However, it really isn't that difficult to keep in touch. With Skype, email, and Facebook, it's actually pretty cheap. I have a shitty cell phone that charges way more than it should, so I actually bought Skype credit for 6 bucks a month to supplement that. I get unlimited calls to international cells/landlines with this credit for that much money. If I were to use my cell that freely, I'd be paying hundreds of dollars per month. I keep in touch with everyone mostly via Facebook messages and email. If you really miss someone, Skype them. Just don't let contacting people at home consume you, or you won't enjoy your experiences to the fullest. Put down the phone, drop them a quick message when you miss them and they can't talk, and go frolic around the streets of Florence.
8) Packing: Oh, packing. It has been the bane of my existence since two weeks before I left for Florence. My recommendation: BUY A PORTABLE LUGGAGE SCALE. I bought one for 7 bucks in the travel section at Wal-Mart, and it has been a lifesaver. The weight limits for international flights, whether it be from home to your study abroad location, places within Europe, or your flight home, are very strict. Don't overpack. Bring lots of basics you can mix and match. I have an extensive wardrobe that I had to leave much of behind. However, with the purchasing of a few cool Italian scarves and jewelry, any plain outfit can be made stylish. Don't stress when you have to leave some of your favorite clothing items behind. Even high maintenance people like myself can live out of 2 suitcases for 4 months. I promise.
9) Water, electricity, & internet: I heard an Italian actually call Italy a third world country at one point because of the unreliable plumbing and electricity, which I found hilarious. It's definitely not that bad, but it's definitely not what we're used to in the states either. The showers do not hold water pressure (or temperature for that matter) consistently. It will be strong at one point...then trickle...then be really strong again and scolding hot...then trickling and freezing...and the cycle continues. It's like a game of Russian Roulette every time you get in there. But it's all part of the adventure...I guess. As for the electricity, you can't have multiple big appliances running at once, or OOPS, you're wandering around your apartment in the dark looking for the circuit breaker. For instance, if we have the washing machine on in the apartment while someone is cooking dinner, the power shuts off. It's easily fixable...but a tad inconvenient. Also, sorry, everyone, but the internet sucks. I'm sure study abroad staff at your school have warned you, but it really is that bad. Our apartment is surprisingly better off than most, I think, but it cuts out randomly for 20 minutes some days, and at other times, it just turns on and off for an hour or two. Sometimes we just give up and connect to free wifi from local cafes. It's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but when you're doing research or skyping, don't expect it to stay connected the whole time because chances are, it won't.
10) Make the most of it: A lot of this may have seemed negative, but I'm just trying to warn you about the things no one warned me about. I wanted to make everything as realistic as possible so you know what you're stepping into. Florence, Italy, and Europe in general are amazing places to be, and you should never regret the decision you made to go there for a second. You'll see some incredible things, experience culture shock that you can laugh about later, and end up with a second home overseas. Make the most of your time here, and if something bothers you about the place you're staying, think of the positives that make you want to stay forever (there definitely will be some). Meet new people, go out and explore, and take the semester to gain new experiences and come home with some stories that everyone will be jealous of.
Hope this helped. :) Feel free to contact me if you have any questions!