You have no idea where you are, who is around you or why you’re there. You have no money, you can’t do anything quickly and you don’t have anywhere to go. Sounds like a bad dream, right?
That about describes the first couple hours of being abroad in a foreign city. But I only need two words to describe how I felt in Florence: abroad and confused.
Even if you’ve taken the language for a few quarters or have visited the country before, that first moment — when your host family is talking to you quickly and you’re grasping onto words you recognize like life jackets tossed from a sinking ship — is overwhelming.
For me, stepping through the front door and into the home of Giuliana Calamandrei-Santini, an 80-year-old widow, was exactly like that. Here was a woman a foot and a half shorter, four lifetimes older and much louder. She attempted to explain to me how to lock the triple-locked front door with a six-inch key, how never to use more than one light in the house at a time and how to never (ever) touch anything in the kitchen (ever!).
After getting whacked with my general incompetence, I was forced to take a brief walk around the neighborhood to clear my head and keep my sanity. However, it is remarkable how quickly the language comes to you. I write this a full five days after I arrived in Florence, and I just finished having a full and rewarding conversation about Berlusconi (a nightly topic at the dinner table and an impressively disliked man).
I’ve spent many hours on the Farm struggling to absorb (by osmosis) some last-minute textbook materials for class, with my head just resting on pages trying to soak it all in. Only now does simply being around the Italian language finally allow me to learn it. Before, it would take me a week to learn a simple list of kitchen vocabulary, but here it takes me one or two repetitions and the word is seared into my memory.
One morning during orientation, the program directors explained to us some cultural differences about Florence that we should understand. For instance, strangers on the street will never say a word to each other but will make eye contact for an insanely long period of time. Italians never drink cappuccino after lunch, and you’ll most likely be refused if you ask for it. Buses run on whatever schedule they feel like.
One of the most famous differences, as everyone the world over knows, is that Italy has a much slower pace of life. This can take the form of waiting 30 minutes in a line for a taxi when there are clearly more taxis than people lined up, or it can mean family dinners that last two hours instead of two minutes. But my favorite example of how slow-moving it has been here occurred at a TIM store (a cellular provider).
The time from my “buongiorno” at the beginning of my conversation with the sales lady to my “ciao” at the end was a resounding one hour and 18 minutes. I wanted to purchase something that cost less than 10 euros. Instead, I witnessed one of the finest masters of procrastination I shall ever see. My sales person managed to have a cup of coffee, two phone calls with friends, multiple text conversations and a brief chat with her coworker. She even helped another customer — all while holding the tiny card I needed for my phone the entire time. By the time I ran out of the store, I desperately needed a gelato pick-me-up.
Being abroad is a lot to experience, especially when you lose most of the people you know, places you recognize and possessions you have.
But despite it all, there are still those moments you hoped for when you first picked up your plane tickets for that nine-hour flight across the globe in tight, dark, back-of-the-plane-near-the-bathroom seats.
Hiking up to Piazza Michelangelo today, I looked over the entire city of Florence at sunset, soaking in the power and history of one of the great jewels of Western civilization and seeing reflected back my own hopes and aspirations for greatness. It is one of those moments that will remain with me and inspire me for a lifetime and more. The daily moments of respite are what make me grateful for the opportunities I have and the things I will experience while away from my beloved Stanford.
So after a few days, I’m ready to add another word to my description: abroad, confused and happy.
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