Next stop: your little piece of adventure! What if I told you there are no universal “methods” for the “perfect” study abroad experience?
It was two days before I left. I was in my room, staring at the havoc in front of me. Almost on its last leg, “The Chair” was next to my bedside table, stacked with my ripped jeans, yoga pants, and my bright red rain jacket. It’s rainy over there, right? I should bring this. All my drawers were open, half empty. That one! I smiled at the sight of my go-to gray cardigan. I can’t leave without this, for sure.
Deciding what to pack was only the beginning of my endless decision-making. For nine months, I was constantly picking and choosing, each choice a seemingly make or break piece of my “perfect” study abroad experience. On top of my newfound academic curriculum, each of those 270 days sparked further questions. What restaurant should I go to for dinner? Where should I travel next? Are these enough ramen noodles for the entire week? Do I walk to Piazza di San Marco or take the 25 ATAF Bus?
Then came more overarching and profound pressures. Viva Italia! I have to leave Florence loving espresso coffee just as much as the locals. How do I balance school and exploring? I have to memorize my way to the Ponte Vecchio. Remember Margaret, it’s adjacent to Piazza Della Signoria, next to the replica of Michelangelo’s David. Allora! Quindi! Poi! Noted. Italians love saying those expressions.
And now, it’s your turn.
1. Debunk Endless Options: Ask Questions
You are packing your life away, surrendering yourself to a similar sea of choices. Wherever you will be studying in the world, my once indecisive spirit is inevitably inside of you, somehow. We decided to study away to detach ourselves from our all too familiar routines and environments, to allow ourselves to dare—in all aspects of the word. You will yearn for that “perfect” study abroad experience—whether it is in regards to “finding” the most ideal friends, successfully immersing yourself in the culture, or in “finding” your “newly-matured” self along the way.
However, do not let your discoveries, your preferences—and ultimately, your options—discourage you.
Alternatively, continue to pose those similar questions I asked myself, but eliminate the idea of perfection. Instead of pressuring yourself with your own expectations, expect nothing. Solely use those questions as a guide.
Interpret the abundance of choices as your way of conversing with your city.
2. Listen to your city: Be a Shameless Tourist
Attempt to speak the language. Eat all the local food. Mingle with locals. See some art! Post those abroad pictures on Instagram. Watch Rick Steves on YouTube.
I shamelessly admit that I used Lonely Planet’s Guide Packet as my comforting crutch for the first two weeks in Florence. My family and I climbed the top of Brunelleschi’s Dome. We ate ravioli at Eataly. I ordered “American” coffee (iced coffee) at least three times, before bracing myself for the real deal espresso. I stared at Michelangelo’s David for an embarrassingly extensive amount of time.
My superficial buongiorno greetings and gelato-licking interactions, however, stood as a foundation for a more profound and intimate relationship with Florence.
Listen to the voice of your city. Hear its spirits, what it has to offer.
Be a shameless tourist and soak in all of its history, personality, and magic. Much like the interesting man below, who took the classic “”Lean with it” shot and transformed it into “Lean with him” gold.
Have fun with it.
3. Respond to your city: Be A Local
Once you have finished creating that Facebook study abroad album for your study abroad experience, it’s your turn! Respond to your city. Do not let its greatness overwhelm you; but rather, make it your own. Let it be yours. If he ever decided to stay in Italy longer, that tourist from Pisa was well on his way. Being a local means finding comfort in your surroundings, adapting your own lifestyle into a living and breathing place. “Finding” friends or your “new” self will naturally follow.
Create a history or an opinion beyond what has already been created there. It’s your turn to shine, kid!
Being a local also means answering your own questions.
After you have visited the The Thrillist’s “Top Gelato Shops in Florence”, don’t be ashamed that you still prefer Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. Maybe you compensate with your love of Cacio e Pepe over Chef Boyardee’s Mini Os. Who knows?
Here’s a restaurant in downtown Florence aptly named 1950 American Diner:
Here exists a place catered for those who find their “home” somewhere else, whose heart remains with Oreo milkshakes rather than macchiatos. Florentines know that. Florence knows that. It’s okay.
Others may answer their own questions with seemingly unideal responses, realizing that becoming a “local” in their temporary home is not as easy as it seems. And it will never be. Try again. Eliminate perfection.
There will never be a correct and traditional way for your successful cultural immersion; there will only be your own version of the world. The world begins through your eyes. A place, despite its beauty and charm, is meaningless without your participation.
Whether your baggage is overweight, or you forgot your hair dryer at home, relentlessly discover the comforts of the unfamiliar. The best study abroad experience is not attained by methods, but by a shift in your state of being. It is about observing your environment and yourself.
The world is yours if you let her in.