Getting the Most out of Florence

This week, Accent Florence interviews three students who decided to remain in Italy for the entirety of their study abroad program. The students reflect upon their commitment to fully immerse themselves in Italian culture and discuss how this decision positively impacted their study abroad experience.

For lots of students, study abroad is an opportunity to see the world – once in Europe, it’s easy to hop on a plane to visit a new destination each weekend. But there is also tremendous value in spending those weekends exploring your host city or nearby destinations, doing all the things that a busy weekday schedule doesn’t allow: wandering through museums, perusing outdoor markets, trying new restaurants, and soaking up the authentic local experience.

During the Spring 2019 semester, we talked to three students who chose to spend the entire semester in Italy, never leaving the country for weekend trips: Maria Heinen (University of Minnesota), Emma D’Esopo (UCEAP), and Karlianne Rubcic (UCEAP). These three students explained the advantages of spending their free time in Florence and other Italian cities, which deepened their cultural understanding, allowed time for personal growth and reflection, and helped them feel at home in Florence. Here are their thoughts:

1. Why did you choose to study abroad in Florence?

MH: “I have always dreamed of studying abroad in Italy. Since I am Italian-American (my great-grandparents immigrated from le Marche, Italy), I have grown up with a deep love for Italian culture, traditions, food, and fashion. I wanted to immerse myself in the Italian lifestyle. I chose Florence, in particular, because I had never traveled there before, and because it’s the birthplace of Italian fashion, a career I would like to pursue after I graduate.”

ED: “I really wanted to improve my Italian– I had some prior knowledge from college courses I had taken, but I wanted to refine and improve my language skills. In addition, having never been to Europe before, I wanted to go to a city known for its rich history and cultural sights. Lastly, I thought Florence was a great place to go to due to its location and size. It’s centrally located so it is easy to get to other parts of Italy, and the city itself isn’t large, so it is very easy to navigate. It was lovely to have the “small-city” feel of Florence, because nothing felt too far or difficult to get to, but the city never felt “too” small, since there was always something to do and see.”

KR: “I chose to study abroad in Florence because I liked that the program was language intensive – learning Italian has been a goal of mine since I was a freshman in high school. Additionally, I thought Florence would be a nice alternative to the touristy chaos of Rome. I’ve also always been a huge fan of art, food, and the countryside, so Florence was a perfect fit!”

2. Lots of students choose to spend their weekends traveling around Europe. Why did you choose to stay in Italy/in Florence during your weekends?

MH: “I truly desired to completely immerse myself in the Italian, and Florentine, lifestyle. I wanted to spend four months living as a Florentine does, not necessarily how a European does. Though there is nothing wrong with traveling throughout Europe, I wanted to use my time to practice my Italian, learn the ins and outs of the city, and make connections with the locals.”

ED: “I wanted to experience what it was truly like to live in another city. I wanted to be able to relax on weekends and check out local spots like cafés, restaurants, parks, and shops. I am glad that I stayed in Florence for several weekends. It allowed me to have a truly immersive experience and gave me time to just explore the city on my own and at my own pace.”

KR: “Because language acquisition was a big part of my study abroad experience, and I’ve always been completely fascinated with Italian culture, I wanted to take advantage of everything this country had to offer. That being said, I had heard from previous students who had gone abroad that having only a semester abroad feels too short simply because people spend so much time traveling – that by the time they are just getting comfortable in their host city, it’s time to leave.”

3. What are some other Italian destinations that you visited? Can you describe your favorite one?

MH: “Besides Accent’s trip to Sicily, I traveled to Ravenna, Ascoli Piceno, Venezia, and Verona. I did not travel any more than that! My favorite city was Ascoli, because my relatives are from there and I still have close family friends who live there, which made me feel at home. Being in a small town was quite different from the Florentine experience. Unlike Florence, Ascoli does not draw as much attention from tourists, so it was much calmer. Ascoli is near the sea and the mountains, with a beautiful view from all sides of the city.”

ED: “I visited Rome, Venice, Sorrento, Positano, the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii, Siena, and Bologna, all of which were magnificent. My favorite was probably Bologna! I loved the people there – they were all so friendly and excited to speak with me in Italian (something that I sometimes had trouble with in Florence, since most people speak English). And the food was absolutely incredible!”

KR: “I went to about 23 different Italian cities during my program, including very popular cities such as Roma, Milano, Venezia, Bologna, Cinque Terre, Verona, Napoli, and Trieste. My favorite experiences were in Cortona, the Amalfi Coast, and Lake Como. It’s nearly impossible to pick only one.”

4. Can you describe your favorite day in Florence?

MH: “One of my favorite days in Florence I spent with my girlfriends that I met through Accent. One day in particular, the girls and I walked to a park and brought blankets, snacks, and books, and laid out under the sun by the Arno river, listening to music and laughing. Simply spending time together in this beautiful city was enough for us. I will cherish those kinds of days in my heart forever.”

ED: “My favorite weekend in Florence was actually when a friend of mine visited me from Spain. We had an absolutely fantastic time exploring Palazzo Pitti, Santo Spirito, and the city center. We stayed in an AirBnB and had a fabulous time making a yummy home-cooked dinner one night, and eating out at Trattoria Zazà another night, not to mention the beautiful sunset we witnessed from the Arno river. Overall, it was such a joy for me to show my friend a city that I had grown to know so well. I love to be a tour guide, and I think that she was impressed with my knowledge of the city and language!”

KR: “It’s hard to narrow it down to only one memory, but my favorite day was probably when my sister arrived in Florence. That morning I met up for coffee with my friend Emma at this small bar in Santo Spirito where we were supposed to do homework, but instead, we just talked for hours until we had to meet my sister at Santa Maria Novella. Afterwards, we surprised her with a sunset picnic along the Arno river, complete with fresh delights found at our local supermarket. After the sun had set, we walked along Ponte Vecchio after most of the tourists had retreated for dinner, but before the jewelry stores closed, so we could enjoy looking at the shimmering jewels against the dark Renaissance backdrop. On our way back to my apartment, we had to stop for an obligatory gelato at Sbrino, where the workers always offered to help us with our Italian as we ordered our usual flavors. It was a near-perfect day.”

5. Did you ever feel like you were “missing out” when others in your program were traveling to new countries?

MH: “Honestly, no. Though I would have loved to spend the time with my friends while they were traveling, I never felt like I was doing my study abroad experience “wrong” by staying in Florence. I just was doing it differently. I am happy for my friends who were able to experience many different cultures and countries during their time, but I felt it more prudent for me to completely immerse myself in Florentine life.”

ED: “Yes, I definitely felt that I was “missing out” on occasion. Most of the times I felt this way were when almost everyone in the program was out of town for a weekend, so I would be in Florence alone. I think that one of the most important parts of studying abroad is being independent and being able to explore new places on your own, so I found these weekends to be little blessings in disguise. Although I wish that I had more time in Europe to explore new countries, I am glad that I spent the majority of my time doing what I came to do: living, experiencing, eating, and exploring my way through Italy!”

KR: “It’s hard to not feel that you’re missing out when so many people in such a small program all decide to go to Paris one weekend, and you find yourself tempted to just retreat and watch Netflix. But the beauty of staying in Florence is that you can use your time alone to find a new favorite gelateria, hang out in Fiesole or other nearby Tuscan cities, and check out all the small things that others wouldn’t be able to take advantage of because their time in Florence is spent either studying or figuring out their way to and from the airport for another elaborate weekend away. I’d also like to add that many of the cities people visit on the weekend deserve at least a week to experience, and dedicating only three days makes these trips feel very stressful and often incomplete. Instead, you can spend your weekends getting to know Florence or traveling domestically in a way that is more appropriate for budgeting both time and money.”

6. What do you think that you learned from your time in Italy this semester?

MH: “I learned how to take life slowly – life moves much too quickly in the States. Eat good food with the best ingredients you can find. Take time to do things that make your heart happy. Spend time with people who make you a better you. Do not put yourself down – you are doing your best. I learned that learning a new language is difficult and magical. Staying in Italy made me focus on what is around me. It made me take longer walks, practice my Italian every day, and reach out to people I normally wouldn’t have interacted with. It challenged me and I am so thankful for that.”

ED: “I learned to be independent, confident, and self-assured. This was my first time in Europe and my first time being so far away from my family and friends for such an extended period of time. I didn’t know anyone when I first started my program, and I also didn’t know anything about how to travel on my own. However, with the help of my wonderful homestay family, the fabulous people I met at the Accent Center, and my peers, I was able to master the city of Florence and traveling on my own in general. I think that these skills have made me a much more independent and confident person, and I know they will serve me well in other aspects of my life.”

KR: “I learned that I love traveling alone! Living in a foreign country can be extremely daunting, and being separated from your community and support system in the US makes this experience very intimidating from a social perspective. But choosing to travel alone is one of the most liberating decisions one can make. The experience of going abroad already requires a substantial amount of independence, but choosing to experience study abroad the way YOU want to do it, as opposed to what your parents or your friends in your program want, means that you will never have a single regret about the things you’ve done. Traveling more independently helped me realize how much agency I have in my own life.”

7. Do you any advice for future students studying abroad in Florence?

MH: “Do not feel pressured to travel if you do not want to. But do not be afraid of traveling, either. Being in a different culture and country is terrifying, but it will change your life if you allow it to. Everyone at home will be there when you return. Focus your time and energy into the present. Make friends in and out of your program, try new food (even the weird ones), take long walks alone with your thoughts, and do things that scare you. It will be one of the best experiences of your life.”

ED: “It is OKAY to take life at your own pace. If everyone around you wants to leave the country every weekend, it does not mean you have to join, and vice versa. Studying abroad is such a transformative experience, and one of the most important parts is listening to yourself and doing what YOU want to do. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so be sure to spend it the way you want to. I would also recommend living in a homestay if you want a fully immersive Italian experience. My homestay enriched my experience and made it easy for me to want to stay home on the weekends. It was so nice to have a family and people to come home to everyday, and I wouldn’t trade my homestay experience for anything!”

KR: “Once a week, find something going on in Florence and go to it. Some of my favorite days in Florence were spent enjoying live music in the piazza, attending a conference on immigration in the villas, or going to a temporary exhibit. In retrospect, I wish I had searched out more of these types of events during my time abroad because my experience would have been much more intertwined with the DNA of Florence. At the end of the day, that’s what you want “I studied abroad in Florence” to mean.”

Did this post inspire you to seek the unforgettable experience of studying abroad for yourself? Research your study abroad options with Accent.