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Dear Study Abroad Student just getting to Florence,

I wanted to write to you to tell you a little personal story about my time abroad. Because though I know you get a thousand emails a day and a million articles online and a billion pieces of advice, most of these you don’t pay attention. Maybe this one will catch your attention.

I was once the girl in your shoes listening to my professors tell me I shouldn’t travel on Thursday or Friday because we were going to a museum and I shouldn’t miss it, and then I went anyway. So I missed out on the museum and I took the late bus back to where I studied (Ascoli Piceno) and my teacher was angry I missed it but I didn’t care because I was living the best semester of my life.

I do what I want.

And I know some of you are the same way. Because it’s inevitable. If you can go to Africa for forty Euro, is there even a question here? I am so happy you have been bitten by the travel bug. But this disease has phases and you are only getting through that first high fever and are a bit delirious. Sit on the couch for a second with some soup and breathe while I tell you a story.

A few years ago, I went back to my study abroad home. I wanted to show Rami the city, I wanted to eat my favorite food (Fried Olives) and feel the way I felt in the spring semester of 2010.

When we got there, we checked into our hotel and I loved it, but I had never been on that side of town before. And when Rami asked what my favorite restaurant was, I told him I could honestly only think of one pizza place because I never ate out in town – I always saved my money for weekend trips. My meals were in my kitchen.

I brought him to my favorite gelateria to get ice cream, but the man only looked at me like there was a glimmer of recognition. I didn’t have the heart to ask him if he remembered me. To him, I’m sure I was just another American face that barged into his shop every so often to ask for a piccolo cono in a terrible accent. I never had a conversation. I never tried. And now I knew how it felt to be him when students from a few years back on one weekend trip think that I will remember them from checking them on and off the bus. Except for a particular few, their faces have been all blurred into one.

I didn’t feel like Ascoli was my home anymore because even I had spent a lot of time outside of town. Yes, I had good parts (we met a group of Italians and I hung out with them a lot) and I still talk to my friends I made there – but even they were from outside the city center. I regret not cementing my place in the city I fell in love with.

Nothing was the same. Nothing was magic. I didn’t belong anymore, and I began to realize I never did. I never talked to the shopkeepers enough because I was too embarrassed. I didn’t hang out at the bookshop because the seating arrangement made me nervous – nevermind the student café with the brilliant view over the city. I wish I had asked the baristas names. I wish I had tried more so that when I went back, they would smile.

That is why I urge you to break through the study abroad barrier. Get involved in any way you can. Go talk to your local barista at the coffee shop, search for conversation partners (if you’re interested, please let me know!) but another way to do it jumps into community service. I know you have a lot on your plates but there are ways to give back to this city that will not only benefit the heart of Florence but also your own.Finding an organization that fits will all of a sudden put you in the center of a community. Practice Italian, and learn how Florence lives beneath the surface. These people are the ones that make this city what it is – and they’ll still be here when you come back. Make friends with the Florentines. Be interested in their passions, and soon Florence will be home forever – because you showed you loved it enough to give back to it.

Here are a few organizations to start:

Angeli del Bello is a volunteer organization in Florence which organizes projects to help keep Florence clean and beautiful. Ongoing volunteer projects include picking up litter, painting over graffiti and planting flowers in Florence’s public spaces. For more information, go to www.angelidelbello.org/eng/.

The Orti Dipinti Community Garden in Borgo Pinti, 76 is a space for the Florentine community to gather and learn about urban sustainability, green living, and healthy eating. Volunteers are needed to weed, garden, clean up, help set up for events, help build more products out of used wine boxes, help make tea bags out of the herbs, and help prepare herb salts and other products whose proceeds are used to fund the garden, just to name a few ideas they have done. For more info, visit their website at www.ortidipinti.it/.

Oxfam Itali/Firenze Urban Trail is part of an international network of 17 volunteer organizations committed to fighting poverty and injustice around the globe. Oxfam Italia works to promote development and sustainability in impoverished countries, combat hunger, and provide much-needed assistance to victims of violent conflicts and natural disasters. For more info about Oxfam, visit www.oxfamitalia.org/.

Piuma Onlus is a grassroots organization dedicated to helping refugees in Florence. These refugees come from many parts of the world and need help with learning Italian, getting jobs, and integrating into Italian society. Roberto, the organizer of the foundation, is always looking for people to assist him with promoting the program, editing their English on their websites and flyers, as well as sometimes working with graphic design and web design for their website as well as other promotional materials. The organization also has a soccer team that it may be possible to get involved in. For more info visit www.facebook.com/Piumaonlus.