The minute I stepped foot into Ascoli Piceno, Italy in the spring of 2010, I was on my own. Sure, my study abroad program gave me an apartment, a little introduction tour of the city, and were advised on important things, and they (the two staff and handful of faculty) were generally there if we had a question, but I can’t ever remember meetings of any sort apart from our classes. I was told what legal paperwork I had to do to register as a student in Italy, but it was up to me to actually do it – and if I traveled, no one was watching out for me. It wasn’t until another student got stuck on a broken-down train in Germany overnight that our program gave us emergency cell phones – I guess we also had their numbers for emergencies? Few things were expected of me: show up to class most of the time, not cause any trouble in the city, and preferably not die…because they just didn’t want to deal with that.
Today, after working three years in a study abroad program here in Florence, I look back eight years to my own experience abroad and feel like a dinosaur. Today, students interact and meet up with each other over dating apps. In Ascoli, I had a blackberry and made friends by shouting out apartment windows. Today, if there’s a craving for some food from home, there is at least one restaurant in Florence that’ll probably have it.
I came to Florence two years later with this Ascoli mindset – ready to take Italy on for the second time with a steady foundation under my feet. I wanted to hear Italian in the streets again, I wanted to smell the fresh fruit as I passed the market, I wanted to feel that calm that takes over when living here. Instead, I was met with sidewalks flowing with a constant current of tour groups, I heard the English language and saw the americanized culture clawing at what Florence once used to be – and what it was famous for. I fell into the it at first – mostly because my job description apparently included becoming a Bars full of university t-shirts and karaoke, free tequila shots because the bartender said so. I’d meet people from California or New York. Students that would stay in the city for a few months, getting drunk on Tuesdays and throwing up on the steps of 700 year old churches. They’d spend their days at places with wifi and iced coffee, never meeting Italians, taking off to another country every Thursday through Sunday, speaking Italian only in Italian class – and that’s only if they were taking any language classes in the first place.
It wasn’t anything like my previous experience. Here, everyone was given the experience of living abroad in eye-dropper-sized portions.
After a while, and with thanks to my husband, Rami, I did find the “Ascoli” of this city – the quiet corners far away from the international glow, where Italian rings true in the air and families have lived for centuries. Some spots are neatly tucked inside downtown Florence, and we enjoy them just as much as we sit unnoticed, watching the tourists go by. When I find the right people, I show them these places so they can experience how I experienced Ascoli and see real Italian life.
Working in a study abroad office was worth it because of the students. It was meeting these people every semester, listening to their stories, understanding their worries, their fears. So many heartfelt conversations – hours standing in Piazza Duomo after a cooking class, 2am in the Emergency room, on the top deck of a Venice vaporetto, on a hiking trail in the hills of Tuscany, secrets whispered in the streets of London, excitement shouted from the top of the Eiffel tower. Each one had a story to tell, dreams to pursue, wishes they hoped they would realize later in life.
I miss FIT entirely too much, but I miss those conversations – not the job. The job took away my voice. The job took away opportunities for these people to grow and learn in Italy. Instead, we struck fear into them immediately in Orientation: Don’t walk alone. Don’t put your drink down. Lock your windows at night – no matter what floor – or they will climb up the drain pipes to get you. Get a travel money belt and wear it at all times. I’d cringe as the US Embassy would pull up their powerpoint, showing the numbers for sexual assault and deaths of US students over the past few years. I’d hope I would have enough time to talk some of them out of hiding in their room the entire semester. Sometimes I would, sometimes I wouldn’t.
And the next fall, I would put on my same outfits and stand in front of the same classroom with different, nervous faces, and throughout the weeks and months, I’d see the anxiety mostly melt away. The only regret I have is that I didn’t have time for each one of them. Maybe I even let some of them down.
The job showed me that there were other people who are curious about the world – who want to get out beyond borders, go see beautiful places, feel alive as they walk through history, speak other languages, learn about everything from a different perspective.
So I sit here, hoping that I made a little difference as I watch their faces awkwardly smile at the camera and do silly poses that they definitely didn’t know they signed up for :-). Maybe learn some of what I’ve learned, and enjoy their time in Italy just as much as I did when I was in Ascoli. I hope they found out a little more about themselves, about how powerful their voices are, about how creative and inquisitive their minds are, to know the strength and position in this world.
I hope at least some of them read in between my carefully-spoken lines, took some of my advice and got those magical moments out of this year. I hope they had experiences that will make them more than just US students that partied abroad, but people who love each other for their differences, pursue their dreams together in an international future full of understanding and appreciation instead of fear and hatred.
I spent three years working for the FIT’s study abroad program. From day one, I expressed my motives for taking the position and why I loved that job. I personally had seen what Florence can do to an international education, and I knew how difficult it could be to find a genuine cultural experience here. I wanted to help people make friends, learn the language, grow from these experiences and go home with a more open mind for the world. If my experience helped me, I could help others do the same.