La Vita è Bella: Study Abroad in Florence, Italy

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Laurie Hamame – Florence, Italy

My STEP Signature Project included a study abroad trip to Florence, Italy, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region and the birthplace of the Renaissance, where I stayed for seven weeks. While staying in Florence, I studied at Accademia Italiana, one of Europe’s premier institutes for art and design. Located in two beautiful renaissance buildings directly across from the famous Pitti Palace in Florence’s Oltrarno district, this university offers a variety of courses offered in both Italian and English.

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I spent two months learning about Italian life and culture and getting to know the people, the place, the language, and the traditions of this exuberant country. I took two classes, Photographing Florence and Italian Language, during my time, and I documented by stay through photography and blogging on my personal site.

http://lauriejeanblog.blogspot.com/search/label/study%20abroad

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I learned that the best skill you should attempt to hone abroad is to do absolutely anything you can to embrace the culture as fully as possible. I learned that in order to have the most authentic experience, I had to shed my inhibitions and run straight into the language barrier, which is more of an obstacle than a barrier. I was shown that I am more independent that I think I am. I taught myself Italian, traveled all over Italy alone, and interacted with people from every walk of life…all without my mother on speed dial.

Before this summer, I have never traveled alone, never stepped foot in an airport by myself, or planned travel arrangements on my own. I came back with valuable lessons about my own ability to live and thrive outside of Ohio. I have a a new, flaming confidence regarding my ability to adapt to different environments. To reiterate this point, I must share that when I came back to Ohio State, I tested into Italian 1103; I didn’t speak a work of Italian prior to my trip!

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Every day in Italy was filled with excitement, but something I will never forget is running in the second oldest road race in Italy: the 76th annual Notturna di San Giovanni (The Night of Saint John). I ran a 10k with thousands of Italian athletes through the  city of Florence. Holy. Smokes. When I started running a little over a year ago, I never imagined I’d run in a different state, not to mention a different country.

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Running in this race allowed me to immerse myself even deeper into the magic atmosphere of Florence. Running on cobblestone roads past historical monuments, gorgeous bridges, and breathtaking churches with 1,500+ other athletes in ITALY is undoubtedly one of the greatest things I have ever done in my entire life. No words will ever exist to describe the feeling. The energy was electrifying. I smiled the entire hour it took me to finish. At one point in the race, the joy overtook me and I yelled out to the sky, “LA VITA È BELLA!” Life is beautiful.

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Those seven weeks of pleasure, the 49 days of eating and speaking Italian, will always count amongst the happiest of my life. I realized that it is our duty and our entitlement as human beings to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight and small. If something licks at the flame within you, grab onto the ankles of that happiness.

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Before Italy, I did not know what I deserved. I thought the best kind of life was an active life. I plunged into social gatherings; I thrusted myself at all opportunities; I studied until day turned to night and back to day again.

I justified my glorification of busy by referring to it as seizing the day or being an active participant in my life. I swapped balance for busyness and freedom for the fear of lost time. I stopped caring for myself and taking care of myself. I obsessed over every detail and panicked over every empty calendar space to the point where I substituted meal time for meetings and let my fridge sit empty for weeks.

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But Italy changed me. The easiest, most fundamentally human way to say it is that I have put on weight. Of course I did. Every day, I took in ghastly amounts of cheese and pasta and bread and wine and chocolate and pizza dough and gelato. I’m didn’t exercise (besides the miles I walked every day), I didn’t eat enough fiber, I didn’t take any vitamins, but my body was such a good sport about all it all, as if to say, “It’s OK, kid. Live it up.”

I know when I go back to America and After Italy Laurie arises, my little experiment with overindulgences and pure pleasure will tone down. I will leave Italy a little bigger than when I arrived, but I cannot even be bothered to think about it.

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I exist more now than I did a few months ago. There is more of me. I am not even speaking solely in regards to physicality. Learning the art of il dolce far niente and living in il bel paese and experiencing la dolce vita, has left me an expanded person. I left Italy believing that the magnification of my life was an act worth experiencing, that the expansion of and the amplification of myself was an act of worth.

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Before Italy, I didn’t know what I deserved. I didn’t know that I deserved a break– even two breaks. I didn’t know that I could slow down without wasting time. I didn’t know that I could engage in pure pleasure without feeling like I needed to be punished. I didn’t know that by saying yes to something, I could be saying no to myself.

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 This is probably why, when I thought about coming to a country where I’d learn the art of pleasure, I felt completely irresponsible, as if this trip was a self-indulgent luxury. When I realized that the only question at hand was, “How do I define pleasure?” and that I was truly in a country where people would permit me to explore that question freely, everything changed. All I have to do is ask myself every day, for the first time in my life, “What would you enjoy doing today, Laurie?” Instead of measuring the number of errands I’ve crossed off my to-do list, I measure my success by the number of times I’ve smiled about nothing, watched the sun set, or by how long it took me to linger over dinner.

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These experiences have been very personally valuable, but also academically valuable. I have been able to experience a culture very different than the community that I grew up in and also adapt to a new environment, which will help me to adapt and understand new cultures in the future as a journalist when I work with many different people. I have been able to gain many practical skills including learning how to navigate traveling independently, speaking another language, maintaining a blogging website, and also meeting and interviewing many new people I would not have been able to connect with without this experience.

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I had always wanted to study Italian, but the lack of practicality turned me away. My opinion quickly shifted after studying in Italy. I realized, “Does everything I do in life have to have a practical application?” I decided the answer is a profound, “No.” When I came back to Ohio State, I dropped the language I was studying and picked up Italian, a language that sparks a fire in me. Do I want to work in Italy? Of course. But if it doesn’t happen, I will still hold another country in the palm of my hand and have an experience that was utterly transformative.