Ciao Da Firenze! Hello From Florence! Fordham Student Finds Passion Under the Tuscan Sun

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Florence is one of the many cities that offer Study Abroad programs. (Jackie Hutcherson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

By Vincenza Di Maggio
Contributing Writer
Published: February 3, 2011

“You mean you live in New York City and you come…[to Florence]?”  I can’t tell you how many times my Italian classmates looked at me with raised eyebrows and facial expressions that showed their utter disbelief when they learned that I was a New Yorker choosing to spend my Spring 2010 semester studying in Florence.  I thought, why wouldn’t I choose Florence? But as I reflected on it more, I realized… they had a point.

I was already getting a first-class education at Fordham as an art history major. With the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the MoMA less than 20 minutes away, I was in the ideal location to study the subject I was so passionate about.  In New York City, everything I could possibly want was at my fingertips. Naturally, I wondered why I felt that Italy, a country that is sometimes politically, economically and academically disorganized, could give me what New York City couldn’t.

Of course, there was the obvious: I was accepted into Middlebury College’s School in Italy program.  It is a credible institution with an intense language program that would allow me to take courses at the University of Florence.  I wanted to perfect my Italian, and hearing, speaking, studying, writing and reading the language for six months would undoubtedly help me to do so.  I study literature and art history at Fordham.  Spending a semester in Florence, a city whose history of the Renaissance is deeply grounded in its art and architecture, would enrich my studies.  In Florence, the history is embedded into the cobble-stoned streets.  I studied in the same piazzas Dante Alighieri spent his days in, walked the same route home over the Ponte Vecchio as Cosimo de’Medici did in the 14th century, and as I passed Brunelleschi’s Duomo four times a day, every day, I admired it firsthand. I wasn’t studying the history; I was living it. It was passion that I longed for, and in Florence, I found it.

All of that was true, but to be honest, my reasons for wanting to study abroad ran even deeper then that.  Every time my family and I vacationed in Italy, the scenery, the language, the smell and the warmth and friendliness of the people mesmerized me.  My parents always told me, “It’s different when you actually live there.”  Well, I wanted to see for myself. I wanted to know what it felt like to be Italian!

For six months, I was an Italian student studying at L’Universita’ di Firenze.  I met with friends in Piazza della Republica for gelato on nights when we had nothing to do, witnessed student riots at the university, cheered with the “tifosi” (fans) at the Fiorentina-AC Milan soccer game, watched the women in their high-heeled shoes zip past me as they rode their bikes to work, and every morning I walked into the bar and pushed my way through the crowd of business men and women in their suits to order my “cornetto and caffé.”  I suffered through bone-chillingly cold winters without heat, sweated through the hot summer months without the luxury of air conditioning, learned to take five-minute showers (water supply is low and the cost is achingly high) without flooding the bathroom (most bathrooms in Italy don’t have shower curtains) and didn’t sleep for nights stressing over my Roman architecture oral exam. My professors told me that they wouldn’t be giving me special treatment because I was a foreign student; I had to study like every other Italian.  And so, I spent a month studying in the library, on the bus, at my desk and in my bed, memorizing my art history textbook, stressing over the fact that my less-than-friendly professor could flip to any page in the book and with an impatient glance expect me to describe it in detail.  I had never studied so much in my life.

On Saturdays, I always found something to do.  One day during my parents’ visit, we walked to the Santa Maria Novella train station, purchased three tickets, and in 20 minutes we found ourselves in the middle of the Carnevale parade of Viareggio, shaking the confetti out of our hair and admiring the gigantic, colorful and originally handcrafted floats.  What a celebration!  On any other Saturday I could hop on a train and in 45 minutes I could be standing in front of the tower of Pisa (I’d seen the infamously slanted landmark countless times in textbooks and on calendars, but here it was, right in front of my eyes—amazing!).  Or in two hours I could find myself in the country side of Puglia.  I was warmly welcomed into the home of close family friends, who made sure to cook my favorite dish of the region, “panzerotti,” fried pizza dough stuffed with mozzarella, prosciutto and a touch of sauce.  I enjoyed a completely different kind of culture from the one I found in the city.  I walked through the “masserie” (farmhouses), tasted the most delicious melt-in-your-mouth cheese of the region, scamorza, and watched the women as they picked cherries from the trees.  On Sunday mornings I woke up, had a quick breakfast, ran out the door and immediately felt that something was different: cars didn’t buzz through the streets, buses were few and far between, shops and restaurants were closed.  As I walked past the open windows of people’s apartments, I could hear the whistles of the soccer game on the televisions, the pots clanking in the kitchen and could smell the sauce boiling on the stove.  There was a sense of peace and serenity that blanketed the city.  It was Sunday, and it truly was a day of rest.

After just a few weeks of living in Florence, one of my classmates asked me if he could borrow my notes from a lesson he had missed.  I told him I didn’t mind, but he might want to ask someone else since I’m a foreign student.  He responded, “Non sei di Firenze?” (“You’re not from Florence?”). That made my day—no, my month. They stopped asking where I was from, and I no longer needed to explain that not everyone in New York City lives like Blair Waldorf.  I blended in; I was one of them.

The deadline for Study Abroad applications for next year is approaching in April.  As I look back and remember the stress I felt planning my semester abroad, I know that another Fordham student is now asking herself the same questions: “Am I choosing the right program?”  “Can I really spend five months away from home?”

In the months leading up to my departure I was gripped by the nerve-racking sensation that maybe I was making a mistake.  Almost a year has passed since I boarded the plane to Italy and I can say with complete confidence that the six months I spent in Florence were more than just “study abroad.”  They were, and still are, the most rewarding months of my life.