Stepping out of the terminal in JFK the smell of late-spring rain and sun-baked asphalt immediately shook through my core. In that moment, my four month dream had ended, and I was awake.
To say I had the experience of a lifetime is cliche and, frankly, meaningless. The phrase “experience of a lifetime” says nothing. It doesn’t speak about white water rafting in Croatia. Tells nothing of the enchanting performance at the Vienna opera house. Ignores the high-class party we crashed at Harry’s Bar in Venice. Disregards the people I met, the lessons I learned, the beauty I saw in every alley way and street corner.
To actually describe the full extent to which my semester abroad impacted me, I’ve written a list of the 10 lessons I learned from a semester in a foreign country. Some of these stem from hardships, some from good experiences and some come directly from my professors, the best people I met while in Florence.
1. Learn the language, learn the culture. Sure, English is more widely spoken than Italian, but as a guest in a foreign country, you owe it to your host to make an effort to belong.
2. Listen. Listen to everyone. Listen to the guy yelling at you at the convenient store, listen to the street performer talking to you about bubbles, even listen to the man telling you how arrogant and ignorant Americans are. A global perspective means understanding how other cultures perceive you, not just how you perceive other cultures (and maybe they have a point about American ignorance).
3. Being a tourist is ok, but it doesn’t mean you understand the city. A tourist’s eye is temporary and selective. You see what you want to see and what the city wants you to see. It’s difficult to really know a city until living there for an extended period of time. Learn what you can, but don’t pretend to be an expert.
4. Be patient, not passive. When living and working so closely with a small group of people, patience is a necessity. However, your own needs are just as important as the people around you. If you want to stay in the Louvre for another hour, stay in the Louvre for another hour. If you want to go to the Writer’s Museum in Dublin, go to the Writer’s Museum in Dublin. You deserve to have fun too.
5. Talk to people. Yes, the language barrier is real, but if I could have a conversation with a group of deaf tourists from Spain, you can have a conversation with the salesman at the market who speaks broken English.
6. Everything always works out in the end. This is vague and childly optimistic, but it was something I often reminded myself, like when I missed the last train home in Manchester, or got my wallet stolen in Milan. Bad things happen. Life is unpredictable. But even when you’re 4,500 miles from home, you aren’t entirely alone. There are always other ways to get where you’re going. There will be people who can lend you money. You’ll always find a solution.
7. Travel often, travel far. Go to the places you never expected to go. Go spontaneously. Go alone. Just go, and don’t worry about stopping.
8. “It’s not breaking the rules, it’s being creative.” Advice from one of my professors. Sometimes it’s ok to push the boundaries, to shake things up. We aren’t rebels, we’re just artists.
9. It’s ok to miss home, and it’s ok to not miss home. Sometimes you’ll cry for a cup of mac and cheese and a hug from your mom, and sometimes you’ll wish that all of your friends would just leave you alone for a week. It’s normal to feel caught between two homes. By the time you leave you will have found homes all over the world. You’ll miss a little something from everywhere.
10. “Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, fear did.” A resounding piece of advice from another one of my professors. Fear prevents you from opening up and branching out. Don’t let it get the better of you. Muster up every bit of courage that you have, and get out there into that wide, cornerless world we call Earth. No one can teach you that lesson but yourself.
In the very beginning of the semester, in a crowded auditorium full of jet lagged American students, a short Italian man with a soft voice and big brown eyes walked up to the mic and asked of us one thing: He asked us to tame Firenze, and to let Firenze tame us.
Over the past four months I have wavered dramatically between hating this city and its tiny sidewalks and screaming tourists, and loving this city and its traditional recipes and devotion to art. I have learned to live without dryers and free water. I’ve become an explorer and a historian. My world has shrunk and my heart has grown.
Like the sparkling carousel that rotates endlessly in Piazza della Repubblica, I have spent the semester in a bumpy, dizzying frenzy of stumbling over hurdles, helplessly navigating unfamiliar streets and circling madly through tiring routines of homework and studying. But now, after stepping off the ride and watching the lights dazzle the bustling piazza, I can say without a doubt in my mind that I am better for conquering the ride before me.
I am proud that I have tamed Firenze. And proud that she tamed me.