Ten years ago, my oldest sister studied abroad in Galway, Ireland and my family decided to visit her. During our time there, though I was only eleven years old, I realized how much I wanted to have the exact same experience; and the countdown began in years. Eventually the countdown turned to months, months turned to weeks, weeks turned to days, and days finally turned to hours. As I finished packing (and by packing, I mean cramming as much stuff as possible into my overflowing suitcase), I realized that it was finally happening. I was actually going to live in a foreign country for four whole months. As this hit me, stories my sister had told me, advice I had recieved, and thoughts of gelato and spaghetti raced through my mind at full speed. On the way to the airport, I started to have the expected anxiety any study abroad student may have. I started worrying about my flight being on time, the things I had forgotten to pack, and not knowing how to scream, "help!" in Italian. Mostly, I worried about how much I was going to miss the two people sitting in the front sit arguing over the quickest way to get to the airport; my parents. They have been extremely supportive of this ever since I was an eleven year old belly up to the bar in Ireland. I couldn't even imagine doing this without them.
I am a junior at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse, though I am originally from Fridley, Minnesota. Originally, my plan was to go to Ireland. But I realized that studying abroad is all about stepping away from your comfort zone and really putting yourself out there. So I decided to go to Italy last year, after reading about the culture, landmarks, and people. After deciding Rome was too dangerous, I settled on Florence and was very much supported. Florence also happened to have my program: Communication Studies (emphasis in Professional and Organizational Communication and a minor in Interpersonal Studies). I also knew that Italy's location made it much easier to travel around Europe, which I would really like to do a lot of.
I thought about last year, when I had made that decision as we pulled up to the airport. I couldn't believe that after all this time preparing and packing, the time had finally come.
As we prepared to say goodbye, my parents and I distracted ourselves with advice on pick pockets, gelato flavors, and the outrageous exchange rate. Eventually, it was time to part ways and I turned to hug my mother.
"No crying," I warned her.
"I promise," she reassured me. Then she pulled me into a big hug, one of those hugs only moms know how to give, and told me how excited she was for me and that she was always only a phonecall away. I couldn't help it, though I am not usually an overly emotional person, tears slowly spilled down my cheeks and onto my mom's jacket.
My dad then pulled me into a hug and told me how proud he was of me and that I had good instincts, so I should follow them. My father's words instilled enough courage in me to finally let go and wave goodbye as I headed through security.
While putting my shoes on at the end of security, I turned one last time to see my parents. They waved and my father shot me a thumbs up. This was it. I was on my own.
Other than very long, boring layovers and bad airplane food, I managed to make it safely through my travels. I ended up meeting a ton of other students headed the same place as me. We all shared our excitement and anxiety and decided to stick together. And while I sat there on my last plane in Munich, Germany, listening to the flight attendent explain the emergency procedures for the third time, in the third language I had heard that day, I stared out the window, finally realizing that I was in Europe!
We arrived in Florence about 45 minutes later and gathered all of our luggage (shockingly, mine had made it through three transfers!). And by gathered our luggage, I mean we made my new friend, Jon, grab our overweight suitcases for us.
Our hotel was gorgeous, and right in the center of Florence, about a block away from the Duomo. After the most terrifying drive of my life (Italians are insane drivers), I attained my room key and headed upstairs. Just so any of you planning on traveling to Florence know, I think the doors here are literally designed to confuse Americans. I stood outside my room for a solid five minutes before my roommate must have heard my struggles and opened the door. It was a great ice breaker and we both laughed about how it took her forever to figure it out as well. She also explained how she had been sitting in the dark for about twenty minutes before she realized you have to keep the room key in a slot to keep the lights on. We sat around chatting, getting to know each other, but the jet lag eventually got the best of us and we took a quick nap.
A knock on the door woke us up, and I answered it to find my new friend Jon asking if we wanted to have our first Italian coffee experience. So we headed across the street to a little coffee shop that looked inviting enough. I was surprised to find that the menu was actually in English! However, culture shock experience number one: Italians DO NOT wait in single file lines, especially when it comes to coffee. I think we were budged by an entire graduating class; it was every man for himself. Eventually, after about 20 minutes of standing there with our mouths hanging open, a nice, young girl grabbed my arm and got the burrista's attention. I mumbled my order and stumbled over my please and thank you's. Even though the burrista spoke perfect English, I was so intimidated speaking to her for some reason. I felt like everyone was watching me and judging me and all my English speaking American-ness. We paid for our coffee and all but ran out of there.
We strolled down the street a bit, though it was freezing cold and raining. I was about to suggest heading back when out of no where, the most beautiful, wonderful, magestic thing I have ever seen appeared in front of us. The Duomo sat right in the middle of the square, surrounded by picture-taking tourists being unkowingly pick picketed by the nice men selling them flowers and umbrellas. It was so tall, and the details on it were so unique and stunning that it took the breath right out of all of us. We just stood there in awe, in the most beautiful city in the world, staring at this incredible landmark, and I just slowly said, "Oh my gosh; we're in Florence."
After a VERY long orientation that really only convinced all of us that we would be pick pocketed, raped, drugged, and robbed at some point in our travels, we were given a free dinner on the top floor of the hotel. Keep in mind, this was a five-star hotel we were staying at; the kind of place that looks like God, himself built it. So when we arrived on the top floor, we looked out the windows to see the entire city right before our eyes. Everything was lit up and glittering, and right there in the middle of it all, was the Duomo.
Dinner was so fresh and delicious that it encouraged us to try every single thing they offered us. There were about ten plates dedicated solely to cheese and tomatoes, bread by the ton, and of course, pasta. It almost felt like someone wrote down every single stereotypical Italian cuisine and served it to us. The only thing missing was the wine. However, we had our own solution for that.
We decided that since it was the first night in our new town, we would go out exploring and maybe have our first legal drinks! We walked around for about an hour and a half, wandering down long, winding streets full of food, shops, and culture. Everything was so unbelievably beautiful; there were no words to describe it. Pictures didn't even come close to comparing what we were seeing with our own eyes. We were all immediately falling in love with the city.
Eventually we started wondering why we were having so much trouble finding somewhere to get a glass of wine in Italy, until we realized that Italians do not usally go out until around 12:30-1:00 because most pubs and clubs stay open until 5 or 6 in the morning. Despite this fact, we managed to discover a little pub called, "Joshua Tree Pub." Yeah, I'm not kidding; that's what it's called. Apart from the odd name, the pub turned out to be pretty interesting. They were playing 80's American rock songs, but the place looked like a mix between a Mexican restaurant and an Irish pub. We decided to give it a try seeing as everyone in there was so welcoming. We ordered a couple drinks and sat around getting to know each other. There was about seven of us; seven strangers from all over the United States sharing stories and showing pictures of family and friends. At one point, we realized how amazing this semester was going to be. Upon this realization, we held up our glasses and said, "salud!"
Despite this wonderful time we were having, I do have one tip for you; there is a reason Italians do not drink their own beer.