In order to give you all a little bit of perspective, I think it would be best to introduce myself.
My name is Gianna Lyng and I am a junior at the University of San Diego, a school notorious for its outstanding abroad program.
I decided to spend one amazing semester abroad in Florence, Italy.
I was born and raised in a small town in the East Bay of California called Pleasanton. Pleasanton is very much what it sounds like, a pleasant little suburban bubble where white fences and minivans inhabit nearly every neighborhood.
My father is from London, England while my mom grew up in an Italian-American household in San Francisco.
My connection to European culture and my mother’s Italian heritage is truly what inspired me to make the life changing decision to study abroad in Italy.
I am not one who normally enjoys the use of clichés but I think the best opportunity to use one is in describing my experience abroad.
One tired saying I heard over and over before embarking on my four month experience was “Are you going to find yourself as you travel the world?”
Despite the cringeworthy cliché, the truth is I truly found out who I am and grew into who I am supposed to be in my four short months in Florence.
And I am not here to tell you what will happen for you but this is what I found to be true in my case.
Before abroad, I would best be described as a person who adored structure and control. Due to the constantly changing world in the time of COVID, I was fighting my own battle with my mental health and allowed this trait to define me at times. My anxiety was a large factor in keeping me on the fence about committing to abroad. There were so many unknowns in moving to another country in the first place, imagine the dilemma of introducing a global pandemic to the mix.
When I tell you that being here has made it all worth it, that is the greatest understatement.
The days leading up to my flight from San Francisco International to Firenze Airport were filled with a few goodbyes and loads of overpacking.
Once I got on the plane and plopped myself down in seat 42C all I could think about was “what now?”.
Every day leading up to abroad felt like a dream and now here I am on a plane flying across the globe to live in Italy for four months!
While on my 10-hour flight I took advantage of the time and read a few books about Florence and an article or two on Italian culture.
The last thing I wanted to do while living in another country was to stick out like a sore thumb, I might as well have tattooed American on my forehead. What those ten hours taught me was one, don’t order a cappuccino after 10:30 and two, don't be afraid to explore.
One thing I have learned while being here for just a short while is that there is such a thing as getting lost in the right direction.
When you first get to Florence or wherever you are planning to study abroad the city will seem like an unapproachable amount of unpronounceable viales and piazzas and the streets will seem like mazes. Though intimidating at first, exploring Florence was such a simple yet beautiful thing to me.
I highly encourage you to walk around free of all distraction and just observe the new life you are a part of. When walking in the streets of Florence I would refuse to wear headphones.
The city itself creates the most beautiful song I have ever heard. The echoes of the zoom of a passing vespa or the mummers of Italian business men, the ringing of church bells, the clacking heels of a well dressed woman on the cobblestone streets and even sometimes the whispers of someone saying “ciao bella”.
I suggest you give this approach a try. This method of being free from distraction is also helpful to hear any oncoming vehicles in the narrow streets of Florence and avoid injuries!;)
Jumping right into a completely new lifestyle can be absurd and scary at times, but the only way to overcome this chaos is to explore and try your best to immerse yourself in the culture around you.
For me, my cultural immersion came through food and language. Before abroad I had studied Italian for three semesters, so I was in no way fluent but I knew enough to find my way around and ask questions if needed.
Since my Italian was less than perfect I made sure to make an effort to practice in my day to day life. In Florence the Florentine people will more often than not speak English. Even though I don't have a forehead tattoo that broadcasts that I'm American, I often find that the locals can tell that I am American and they initiate conversations in English. This makes it easier for those of you who know no Italian at all, so don’t be scared of the language barrier.
I have been lucky enough to use my Italian in order to make a few Italian friends along the way, whether that be a waiter at a small restaurant on a hidden alley or the owner of a popular gelateria.
As one who has an extreme sweet tooth I found myself finishing off every single night with a small cone of gelato.
La Carraia in the Santa Croce neighborhood was my go to for two reasons, a 1 euro cone and Roberto, the owner!
I wandered into La Carraia my very first night in Florence and decided to struggle my way through my first Italian conversation.
To my luck, I met Roberto, a sweet older man who coincidentally is married to a woman named Gianna. That first night Roberto showed me kindness, hospitality and patience with my hesitancy towards the Italian language. From then on, there was never a night in Florence where I didn’t sneak into La Carraia to see Roberto, make him smile and of course eat some gelato.
Try your best to learn at least a little bit of italian during your stay, you are a guest afterall.
Then there is food: dear, amazing, romantic, mouth-watering, outstanding Italian food.
While in Italy, my diet has consisted predominantly of panini, pizza, pasta, gelato and wine - You have to understand that these are stereotypical Italian foods.
Food culture in Italy is unlike any other place in the entire world.
In Tuscany, meats and cheeses run the show.
Florentine steak, porchetta, pecorino, ribollita, tartufo, cacciucco fish (on the coast), are the most popular regional food of the Tuscan region (not forgetting the fantastic Chianti, Brunello and Bolgheri wines…!)
Upon waking up in the morning Italians need their coffee, but not the iced white mocha frappuccinos that us Americans are used to, just plain delicious espresso.
When Italians are out and about they will order a “cafe” which is simply a shot of espresso, but when making coffee at home the Italians will use their trusty Moka© pot which I have fallen in love with by the way.
Breakfast in Italy is simple, a coffee and pastry will hold you over until lunch time approaches. My all time favorite choice for lunch is a panino filled with local meats and cheeses.
A place I often frequented was La Prosciutteria on Via dei Neri for a mortadella, prosciutto crudo and burrata panino. Besides my grab and go panino approach, meals in Italy are meant to be savored and enjoyed so remember to take a moment to sit down and enjoy whatever you are eating.
When it comes to grocery shopping in Italy there are a variety of options: the main grocery store in my neighborhood was Conad city which was a larger supermarket with both fresh and prepacked products available for purchase, this is where I would go to shop for household staples such as coffee, milk and spices. But when it comes to fresh ingredients for cooking there are two outstanding food markets in Florence: Mercato Centrale and Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio.
These markets have fresh produce, locally sourced meat and dairy as well as daily baked goods. As you may be able to tell I could talk about Italian food for days and days.
So in conclusion please don't be afraid to immerse yourself in food culture and it is 100% acceptable to eat pasta every day!;)
Everyday life in Italy looks just a little bit different than what I knew before with my lifestyle in the States. If someone were to ask me right now what I miss the most from home I would immediately answer “my clothes dryer!”.
Italy is more sustainable country than most and for this reason they do not have dryers in their homes.
In addition to this, my sensitive California-self grew cold as autumn and winter approached. The medieval architecture of my apartment didn't make for great insulation and my room was very chilly most mornings and nights.
In Italy heaters cannot be turned on until November first, this makes for a few weeks of layering up while at home.
Besides these two so-called “culture shocks” I encountered a few more everyday things I just had to get used to.
Brace yourself as the list begins: Water is not free alongside meals, tipping is not expected, grocery shopping is done daily opposed to weekly and Italians have an altered understanding of punctuality.
To the average Italian there really is no such thing as running late, in their mind they are simply allowing their friends to wait for them. At first this caught me off guard but overall it is nice to attempt to lead this slower, romanticized lifestyle. Lastly, I have come to the conclusion that people will stare at you. Trust me when I tell you it is not because there is something on your face or because you have broccoli stuck in your teeth. Staring is a common Italian habit, and not one that you should take personally-this is just a part of Italy's people-watching culture. Instead of feeling self-conscious about it, it's best to embrace it.
I am now one who loves joining in the people watching. I have found that fashion forward European creatures are everywhere and I mean everywhere in Florence. There is a certain amount of class that the people here carry themselves with. The concept of athleisure is one that simply fails to exist in Florence.
I personally am mesmerized by being fashion forward so I try my best to carry myself like a local - to draw the eyes away from my American forehead tattoo of course. Sweatpants do not leave the house and upon the rarity that they do it is solely to take out the trash.
My day to day fashion consists of a blazer and jeans or a skirt and sweater.
Before coming to Italy I was always one to be a little “extra” when it came to everyday fashion, but now living in Europe has given me the perfect excuse to do so - it is now second nature...
Despite my efforts to dress to the nines each day, I still managed to come across as a tourist on occasion. I eventually came to realize that it is acceptable to be a tourist in your new home; to explore the beauty that is embedded in the culture and the lay of the land. During my time in Florence I sought out the tourist attractions ranging from medieval churches to art galleries to cooking classes and of course wine tastings.
Tuscany is home to seven UNESCO world heritage sites, the heart of Florence being one of them.
To name a few others, there is Pisa, Siena, San Gimignano and even the Medici Family Villas and gardens. While studying abroad it can be easy to fall into a routine as you grow to be more comfortable in your new surroundings. It is unbelievably important to go beyond the walls of your new home and explore what you have at your disposal. Take a bus or a train to a small neighboring town and immerse yourself in the quaint beauty of Tuscany. I took day trips to Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano, Radicondoli and Montepulciano.
Each town had something to offer whether it was outstanding food, fascinating architecture or hospitable locals. At the end of the day you are a tourist of Italy - you are visiting these places for pleasure and to add to the long list of life experiences that studying abroad has to offer.
Now I find myself back in that little neighborhood of white fences and minivans that I mentioned before, with a heavy heart that yearns for Florence. Looking back at my life altering time spent abroad it all starts to feel as if it were a dream. If you are reading this, I can only assume that you too have the hopes of one day studying abroad. With that being said, I want to turn my experiences as a seasoned abroad student into some advice for you.
1) Time will fly by
In the large scheme of things, four months seems like a long time to be in one place, but by the end of day one I was already dreading the day that this experience would come to an end. When moving across the globe to live in another country you end up spending a lot of your time adjusting to the new culture and the countless unknowns of everyday living. Once you have a grip on your new lifestyle, explore and just make the most of it.
2) Make connections
Studying abroad doesn't have to end when you fly back home. Now that I am back in the United States I am beyond grateful for social media platforms like instagram and whatsapp. I have been staying in touch with a few of my foreign friends and already planning for my return to Florence.
3) Soak it in
Take time to sit back and realize just how amazing your life is in this present moment - An anecdote I take pride in sharing from my time in Italy is that I would often go to a cafe alone and sit outside with a glass of wine and a book. The simplicity of sitting alone and soaking in your day is quite a beautiful thing. The non-stop adventure that studying abroad ensures is a beast that can drag you into acceptance. The hard truth is that this experience is a dream and you must acknowledge that fact as much as possible. Slow down and think to yourself “Wow! this is my life”
Go out! Ask locals what they like to do and make efforts to live in the “Florentine’s world”. Aperitivo is a core Italian practice that is beyond simple, meet up after the day with some friends for some snacks and beverages to wind down from the day. My nights started to fall into the pattern of going out for aperitivo, coming home, making dinner, and then going back out on the town.
Dinner is eaten in the later hours of the day which prolonged my night life shenanigans to around ten p.m. or so. Some of my favorite spots tended to be holes in the wall bars that the locals loved. I also fell victim to the tourist-geared places such as the karaoke bar (Red Garter) and the study abroad bar (Lion’s Fountain). One night I wandered around and found this underground jazz bar that I soon became a regular at, called Jazz Club Firenze. As a student you will be drawn towards nightlife like most college students are, but make sure you go to the places you have the best time. I wasn't a huge fan of dance clubs so I found the places that worked out best for me
5) Take pictures
I hate to say it, but a picture really is worth a thousand words. Upon my return from abroad I partook in the assemblance of a scrapbook to materialize my memories and showcase all those little business cards I saved along the way. Every picture you take comes with a story of a memory and those are the memories you will want to savor several years down the road.
For all those times when you can’t capture a moment with a photograph, it is important to take note of the “mundane” things you are doing day to day. I made sure to journal at the end of every day whether it was the most exceptional day or if all I did that day was walk to school and back. This practice is amazing for checking in with yourself and your feelings about everything, studying abroad can flood you with every emotion known to man.
As this chapter comes to a close, so does a piece of my study abroad experience. So much has happened since I sat in seat 42C filled with panic and anxiety. In those four months abroad I managed to strengthen my grasp on the Italian language, grow more personable, and wash away my American forehead tattoo. Through cultural immersion and the simplicity of the act of exploration I was able to feel more at home in Italy than I have ever felt anywhere else. So now you can go ahead and ask me “Gianna, did you find yourself as you traveled the world?”
Yes. Yes I did.
Now it’s your turn.
OUR VIDEO: LOVE LETTER TO ITALY
In four months, four students fell in love with Italy. While completely enamored by it all the students complied footage and their own love notes to Italy as more than just a place. This video perfectly encapsulates what it means to study abroad and solely exists within a new and beautiful culture.
Article by Gianna Lyng