Well, by now you’ve probably figured out that I’m a huge fan of study abroad. Here is why. It’s a long story – but a delicious one.
I spent the spring semester of my junior year in college in Florence, Italy. It was there that I started this blog (under a different name), and it was there that I fell into [yes, into] love with food.
It is a major life goal of mine to be fluent in another language. I was always a little jealous of the kids I knew that grew up bilingual. I see language as a powerfully fascinating – and fascinatingly powerful – thing, and learning languages as always been easy and natural for me. After taking 8 years of Spanish and 2 trips to Spain, I went to college with every intention of studying abroad in small & charming Toledo. I also planned to be a Music Education major and practice flute for 3 hours a day. Funny how you think you can plan your life at 17. [Or any age for that matter.]
But I digress.
After declaring a major in English (and completing a Music Minor), I started looking at study abroad programs. Despite many long hours of focused
procrastination research, I simply could not find a program suitable for a non-Spanish/non-Business/non-International Relations major that didn’t also fit my requirement for small town/city location. So, I turned to Italy because:
- I had been there once before and loved it,
- I knew the language was close enough to Spanish that I could take a few semesters before leaving and learn enough to give me a solid background in Italian that would help my efforts to become fluent,
- and I found some seriously cool programs that offered courses perfect for a liberal arts major like me!
I started taking Italian at the start of my sophomore year, and began researching study abroad programs in Italy. I knew I wanted lots of course options and I didn’t want to be in a huge city like Rome, so I went from there.
I ended up going with Academic Programs International (API)’s Florence program at Lorenzo de’ Medici because of the courses offered and because the price of their program included just about everything I could think of: apartment, course registration, help with the visa & permesso di soggiorno, support both at home and abroad, and very cool excursions (trips!). On my first trip to Italy, we had stayed in Tuscany for almost 2 weeks and Florence was a quick day trip. All I could remember was an amazingly tasty lunch in a small restaurant off of a small, dark street with free dessert wine, and the impossibly long line to get into the Duomo. Oh, and the Ben & Jerry’s. We didn’t go, I just remember thinking, “of all the random American brands to be sitting in the middle of Florence…”
Ok, so where does the food come in to this little adventure, you ask? I’m getting to that. In fact, those courses that clinched the deal were – you guessed it – all about food. Now, I will preface this by saying that the semester before I left, I was dealing with some pretty severe health issues and, to keep it short, I was questioning a lot of things. I had been reading food blogs with increasing interest for about a year and was considering going into a nutrition-related field after graduating. When I saw both academic and hands-on culinary courses on food offered (and in a country that I consider to be one of the world’s foremost food capitals), I had to take them, to see what I could see.
I flew to Florence at the end of January 2010. I got some amazing mango-cilantro-salmon sushi from Whole Foods for lunch before we went to the airport. I almost cried when I walked to the security line and waved goodbye to my parents. But I also felt very proud, free, confident. A small taste of a feeling that would only intensify over the next 3 months.
I spent the first nights in Florence in a hotel room with one of the biggest beds I’ve ever seen, eating airplane pretzels and my stash of granola bars for dinner. I was scared. My cell phone didn’t work. I didn’t have internet.
What had I done.
Well, after those initial rough days, we moved into our apartments and it mostly went up from there. It’s funny, I never felt afraid of the city itself; it felt pretty natural to walk around the city and explore. I did a lot of that. A big part of the attraction to Florence for me was the fact that it was a city, with all the activities and opportunities any city offers, but it was a small one – very walkable and generally manageable. It took about a month and a half before I really knew where everything was – but you could throw me in the the middle of Via Faenza right now and I could take you to wherever you wanted to go. That city is carved into my brain like Lincoln on the penny. Actually, could you do that, just toss me over there right now? I could use a vacation.
I loved my classes. I was in a 3-credit intermediate Italian language course, very small – although I would’ve liked it more if it hadn’t been at 8 AM 3 days a week. Actually, the only thing I’d change about my experience would be to take a more intensive language course; that was a little too easy for me, and I think I would have learned even more of that beautiful language if I had taken a higher credit course.
With that and a music history course (that finished my aforementioned minor), I also took an anthropology course on Food & Culture and a hands-on culinary course that focused on nutritious ways to prepare classic Italian food. Food & Culture opened my eyes to a world of food I didn’t even know existed – the nerdy academic side that is still a very young field research-wise. I learned so much in that class and I actually looked forward to Mondays at 9 AM. I had never thought about food in such a different want – and it really made me rethink that mango-cilantro sushi I had enjoyed in the middle on January and the consequences of eating out-of-season foods. It also served as the inspiration for my senior thesis on food writing & cookbooks; it opened me up to a whole new world of possibilities & ideas, and it was very exciting!
My cooking course was some of the most fun I’ve had…ever. My professor was a tall, broad, muscled thirtysomething Tuscan man who loves his job, and teaches like it. With him I learned about basic nutrition concepts, how to cook perfect pasta, basic bread baking, and how to healthify tiramisu all while laughing and eating some of the best food I had that entire semester. I loved every single class – especially the 3 field trips; one to a restaurant in Florence, and 2 wine tastings (here and here), one of which was on an organic farm. If I may, wine tastings are the best thing to do in Tuscany. I went to 4 and learned so much, and they really helped me to appreciate the food culture of the region. Before that class, I had never realized how happy I am when I’m in the kitchen. It was that, more than anything else, that made me realize I wanted and even needed to make food into my career.
[ ^ crema di amaretti: my final exam ^ ]
I really couldn’t have had a better food experience if I had planned it – while I was learning about everything from the cultural implications of eating disorders to the basics of sustainability to the impact of food on gender roles, I was seeing and experiencing it first-hand on the streets and on all of my trips. I felt like I had finally found my niche, the thing that made me want to study and read and work, and it felt wonderful.
Though I never really experienced culture shock, I sure got a double dose of reverse culture shock when I came home. It was a very difficult transition for me, but one of the most helpful things I did was to apply to be a Peer Mentor with my study abroad program, API. As a Peer Mentor, I met all the wonderful people in the API main office in Austin, TX with the other Peer Mentors, and during training I not only got to discuss and relive my experience with people who knew exactly what I was talking about, but I also got to meet others who had just as amazing experiences abroad as I did and were just as excited about it as I was. The Peer Mentor program, for clarification, is essentially an internship that is done on the student’s home campus. I spent my senior year advocating for study abroad by organizing awareness events, talking to students, and hosting tables. I also talked with prospective API students via email about my experience in Florence and offered advice on everything from what to pack to what to eat (of course) and everything in between. I surprised myself at how much I loved it – but study abroad is something I’m very, very intensely passionate about, and it was very rewarding for me to be able to work to ramp it up on my own [very small] campus.
I am forever grateful to everyone & everything that allowed me the incredible experience I had that semester. Studying abroad not only changed my professional & academic career, it changed me. I remember telling myself, “If I can move to a whole new country across an ocean and survive, I can do anything.” And I didn’t just survive – I thrived. That kind of self-confidence is absolutely priceless. I don’t encourage students to study abroad because it will give them a new career goal, or turn them into a foodie – everyone’s experience is their own; I encourage studying abroad because of the person it has helped me become. I am still an overachieving introvert with a touch of OCD who panics when the computer crashes – but I am also a confident, culturally-aware, and independent person who laughs as often as possible and takes pleasure in the small things. I learned to follow my gut, and to live in the moment. Florence taught me how to simply be. And I loved every single second of my time there.
Because I had traveled pretty extensively in western Europe previous to my semester abroad, I chose to keep my traveling mostly to Italy. I wanted to really understand what it was to live abroad, not just use the apartment as a kind of “home base” from which to hop from country to different country every weekend. I wanted to learn what it was to be Tuscan, to be a local, and I spent a lot of time just walking around the city, heading to the parks and markets and trying to discover the places “off the beaten path.” I love the food culture of Tuscany and am so inspired by the respect Italians have for food. Mercato Centrale, the huge open-air market that was five minutes from home, was one of my favorite places. I went there at least twice a week and could walk out of there easily with most of a week’s worth of fresh (local) produce for under 10 dollars. I watched as the short, sharp woman who sold me my spinach and yellow apples went from dismissing me as just another American tourist to offering me a taste of the first spring melons and smiling when she saw me approach her stall. I truly felt that I soaked up every wonderful ounce of culture I could possibly fit in, and I am so glad I did. There are some things I may have done differently a second time around, but I can honestly say I have no regrets. Every mistake taught me something important, about cultural differences, about people, about myself. The three and a half months I spent in Florence held the most intense, eye-opening, vibrant, life- and self-changing of my life, and I expect to be saying that in 5, 10, 20, and 50 years from now.
Have I convinced you yet?
La Piu Bella Citta: The City of Firenze
I have yet to meet someone who has been to Florence and not deemed it as one of their favorite cities in the world. It just has that effect. Although I was pretty determined to not be a tourist to get a better understanding of the real Tuscan culture, there are just some things one must do. Here are a few sites (other than the obvious Duomo & Uffizi) I recommend:
- Museo San Marco – beautiful pieces, especially the illuminated manuscripts.
- Galleria dell’Accademia – for The David!
- Piazzale Michelangelo, in February & May – best view in town.
- The opera!
- Teatro della Pergola – Verdi was here. Yeah, THAT Verdi.
- Fiesole, in March & May: The tiny medieval town on a hill looking over Florence is beautiful, peaceful, & there’s a great restaurant in the main piazza (see the May post). That’s really all you need.
- Capella Brancacci (Brancacci Chapel)
- Giardini Boboli (Boboli Gardens)
I did dedicate a lot of time to getting to know Florence, but I also did a lot of traveling! The Italian train system is a wonderful thing, once you learn it, and allowed us students a lot of freedom to travel. Here are all the places (and their posts!) I visited over the course of my semester:
- Venice during Carnivale – in 2 parts! here & here
- San Gimignano – in February, April, & May
- Livorno – in March & April
- Lucca – take I & take II
- Cinque Terre
- Perugia, Siena & Greve in Chianti (one post)
- Barcelona, Spain
And, of course…
As you can imagine, this section is quite thorough and I want to be able to devote more time to it instead of half-assing it until it’s done – so please check back soon!
For more study abroad-related links & resources, check out my Links to Love page! And always, always feel free to send me any questions you may have about studying abroad – I’m more than happy to help!
And, because I am entering this [very long] post in a contest, here is the comprehensive GoAbroad.com profile of the program I studied abroad with!