Column: Immerse yourself when studying abroad

By Bernadette Myers

University Daily Kansan, U. Kansas via UWIRE

I spent last weekend in Florence, Italy — home to Michelangelo’s “Davide,” Botticelli’s “Primavera,” and Brunelleschi’s awe-inspiring dome. But what stuck with me from that trip wasn’t the art.

On Saturday, we stayed out so we could go to the midnight bakery. This phenomena is common in Italian student cities. When bakers get to work around 3 a.m. to start preparing the day’s bread, they’ll sometimes sell pizza and pastries out the side door to drunk students coming home late at night. It’s technically illegal for them to be selling outside of regular hours, but at the bakeries I’ve been to, everyone waiting in line knows how to play the quiet game.

Not at the bakery in Florence. There’s even a sign on the door written in English asking customers to be quiet. But when I arrived at the door tucked around a corner in a residential neighborhood, I found a group of Americans loudly proclaiming how “sick” the music at The Red Garter had been that night and that their rum and cokes had been “waaaahaaay” too strong.

My boyfriend went up to ask them to be quiet. We would never get any pastries if they proceeded to wake up the entire neighborhood. They all laughed. And then one of them shouted after my boyfriend as he walked away, “Who cares! This is Italy, man!”

Some people may associate Florence with “The Inferno” and the birth of the Renaissance. I’m more familiar with it as Mecca for American study abroad students. When most students think of studying abroad in Italy, Florence seems like a logical option. It’s smaller, centrally located, and chock-full of Italian art and culture. Who wouldn’t want to go live for a few months in the capital of the Renaissance?

But, that’s just the problem. Everyone studies in Florence. And a city like Florence is no where near the size of Paris or Berlin. So the result of this American pilgrimage to fulfill the societal requirement for cultural “immersion” is, well, the loss of any form of immersion. Universities like New York University and Syracuse create entire campuses in this already small city. You’ll here more English than Italian when walking down the streets. The bars play Lady Gaga and Ultimate Fighting Champion. There’s even a restaurant that sells onion rings — something I haven’t seen since August.

Francesco, a friend of mine who is from Florence, told me that when he was younger, him and all his friends used to go to Prato if they wanted a night out. A ten minute train ride, but worth it to get away from the American students. They’re running away from us. So much for breaking down barriers and building a real cross-cultural experience.

Italy isn’t America’s playground. But it isn’t a pretentious retreat for cultural snobbery either. Italy is a country, like any other, where people work, sleep, eat (maybe a little better than some countires) and generally try to make a living.

As study abroad students, we should be studying that rhythm, learning to understand it, adopt it, and then maybe add our own American spin on it. As hard as it is to believe, people actually live on those dreamlike streets of Florence. People with a different way of looking at the world than you may see it. And you should care. Not because your University tells you to, or because your art history professor tells you to, or because I tell you to, but because you’ll understand yourself better in the process. Those same people may want listen to you too, if you just turn off the Kesha for a few minutes.

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