Growing up in an Italian family, my family and I persistently planned trips to our homeland, dreaming of the day we could eat pizza by the Ponte Vecchio and snack on gelato overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. However, the busyness of life prevailed, and our plans disintegrated into the pile of “somedays” and “maybes.” Over the summer, I turned this pipe dream into reality and studied abroad in Florence, Italy. For many students, study abroad is a long-awaited fantasy filled with nonstop memories and fun, but what if it doesn’t turn out as planned? Check out these sure-fire ways to keep your study abroad hype from exceeding its reality.
Put Your Camera Down
The gondola’s pillowed seats comforted me as the sun peaked over the Rialto Bridge, its orange rays mixing with the pastel doors lining the canal. On the other side of the bridge, the sea stretched for miles, and the peaceful pattern of waves lapped the sides of the gondola. How could I possibly capture such a serene moment?
The truth is, no camera ever could. I know we all want that Facebook album filled with cultured pictures of you artfully “pushing over” the leaning Tower of Pisa or breathtaking panoramas of the Alps. But in that moment in Venice, no amount of picture-taking captured the way that city made me feel. Looking back at the few photos I snapped, I don’t see the Rialto Bridge in Venice, Italy. I see the bridge where my boyfriend and I found that cute lunch place and ate fresh salmon and made each other laugh. Spending your time abroad looking through a lens will cheapen your experience to just capturing monuments without memories behind them. Dance around the Stonehenge, watch the sunset at the Piazzale Michaelangelo and converse meaningfully with the people you’re with, because once your adventure ends, you’ll want more memories than just Kodak ones.
Close Your Textbooks
I went into study abroad determined not to compromise my study habits, but I discovered that studying overseas lends more opportunities to learn about the world than a textbook. The night before my Italian 3 midterm, I sat in my bed in Florence with a pile of books. I was about to submerge myself in studying, cursing myself for procrastinating, when my roommate rushed in. “There’s something happening outside. Let’s go check it out,” she said. Light, Italian pop music reverberated in our ears before we stumbled upon a crowd of Italians drinking wine and partying on the Arno River’s mini beach. We sat on the edge of the sand, dipped our toes into the Arno, let our heads tilt back into the wind and watched the sun descend. I listened to (and to my surprise, understood) a young Italian couple argue over their last cigarette and realized that I was more prepared for my midterm than I had realized.
Staying in every once in a while to study is encouraged, but don’t waste time saying no to every opportunity to take advantage of your surroundings and strengthen bonds with students and natives. If you were meant to do that, you might as well have taken classes in America.
Don’t Pre-Plan Your Trips
While abroad, you’ll find unique friendships that blossom from experiencing a new culture together. If you’ve planned your trips beforehand, you might miss out on traveling with these new BFFs. My trip to Verona was planned only a week in advance, and although we hadn’t the faintest idea what to do there, we explored the city, catering to our every whim. We climbed over 200 steps to reach the top of an old castle and wrote letters to Juliet and posted them on her wall.
It’s tempting when dealing with unknown places to make travel plans ahead of time, but the study abroad experience is different from a typical trip to Europe. The company I kept in Verona made my experience there especially memorable. Do yourself a favor and wait on planning your trips until you’re right in the action so that you and your friends can go on these adventures together.
Talk the Talk
Imagine my friend’s surprise when after ordering a “latte” a waiter put a huge, cold glass on milk in front of her. While in Florence, I took Italian language classes, so walking around the streets of Florence provided built-in study time. Dining at restaurants was easy—I ordered food and expressed my gratitude to the servers with ease. For those who didn’t take an Italian language class or bother to learn simple phrases, the language barrier proved to be a constant obstacle. You’ll discover that being stuck in your “American box” hinders a well-rounded experience at your destination of choice. If you don’t attempt to learn a country’s language, finding a bathroom or bottle of water will be excruciatingly frustrating and lend to plenty of misunderstandings.
Expand your Palate
Eat everything you see. Don’t be the guy who eats McDonald’s every night just because he’s homesick. A country’s food says a lot about its culture. It not only encompasses the foods basic to that country’s agriculture but gives a window into how families celebrate holidays or treat home cooked meals. You can get fried chicken anywhere but may never get the chance to experience Italy’s authentic truffle pasta dish again. In Florence, I tried tripe (AKA cow stomach), and even though I had to stifle my gag reflex to swallow it, I can proudly proclaim I tried an Italian delicacy.
Use the Buddy System
While waiting to take a train for a weekend trip to Venice, a friend of mine frantically stated she needed to use the restroom and fled off in its direction. The rest of us waited for her return, watching our train arrive and then leave the station. After two hours of searching and filing a missing person’s report, it turns out she was on the train to Venice. Thankfully, my friend was okay, but news reports remind us that may not always the case in today’s world. Stay sane and safe by sticking with your friends so you can experience a beautiful culture and return home in one piece.