What Florence Taught Me

By Gillian Gurish – API Florence Peer Mentor

Gillian is a senior at Converse College in South Carolina, and studied with API at Lorenzo de’Medici – the Italian International Institute in Florence, Italy during the spring 2010 term.


I can’t tell you how many sentences I start with the words, “If Florence taught me one thing, it’s_______(insert profound advice here)_______.” During my semester abroad, the city of Florence taught me quite a bit. It’s been a year since that plane from Frankfurt touched down at the Vespucci Airport in the place that would change everything. Yes, studying abroad is fun, and challenging, and the adventure of a lifetime. But it’s also a time of some pretty intense hands-on learning. That said, I think it’s high time I jotted down just what all Firenze taught me—the souvenirs that I didn’t have to claim on my customs form.

1. Yes, actually, I can.

This first one is a big one for me. I was always the type of person who instinctively looked at the negative consequences any experience could have. I don’t adapt well to change, and if I could avoid any situation that could possibly be perceived as “scary” or “uncertain,” I did my best to do so. Who doesn’t like feeling safe, secure, sure? Yes, I probably could ask that girl who sits next to me in class for the notes I missed, but it’s easier not to. Yes, I suppose I could do what I really want after graduation, but it’s so much safer to go down the beaten path of graduate school.

Let me tell you, after a 7-hour plane flight when you find yourself completely alone in a foreign airport and have to find your way to a connecting flight—and to the bathroom of the correct gender—you get over that safety complex quick. And I wasn’t even in Florence yet!

Streets of Florence

If I had to come up with a single word to describe my study abroad experience, it would be liberation. After a week or two of settling in to my apartment on Via San Gallo, my classes by the Odeon movie theatre, my roommates and their quirks and habits, I started exploring. I took walk upon walk and got lost more times than I can count. I forgot to validate my train ticket, and stumbled over my third-semester Italian vocabulary in the market. And I loved every minute.

Because the more I got lost, the more the streets became engrained in my memory and in my feet. I still remember that Ventisette Aprile leads to Piazza dell’ Independenza, and Via Faenza runs parallel to Mercato Centrale. I would wander those streets for hours, for no other reason than because I could. Knowing that on a whim I could simply hop on a train and be whisked away to a whole new place amidst the Tuscan hillside was incredible, and freeing. Was it safer to stay in the apartment, checking email and Facebook, watching YouTube? Sure. Was it easier to go to the more impersonal grocery store for food instead of the vibrant, bustling Mercato Centrale? Well, yes. But what I learned – and I learned it fast – was that while something may be easier, that is certainly no way to truly live. Shopping at the market scared the heck out of me, challenged my introverted instincts and my language skills, but it was thrilling to know that I could do it and even succeed at it. Traveling was hard, too, because anything could happen – but that was part of the thrill as well. And what I learned was, as long as I went into an experience with eyes and mind wide open, I could overcome any obstacle. Well, ok – and a map. Because no matter how open your eyes are, sometimes those tiny Italian streets can really mess with your sense of direction.

2. Follow your instincts.

I am not a particularly trustful person – especially when it comes to myself. I always second-guessed myself when searching for the right answer, and never really got a hang of that whole “go with your gut” thing. It’s easier said than done!

When I was in Florence, however, it was like some kind of pressure was lifted. Knowing the right answer didn’t seem to matter as much all of a sudden; I was completely seduced by the Italian laidback lifestyle. “Whatever happens, happens.” With that burden gone, it was easier to listen to myself. I started to notice when I felt full or hungry, when I needed to take a nap or take a walk. The sounds, sights, smells surrounding me were amplified. I felt like a new person – and yet I felt more like myself than I ever had before.

The thing about travel is that as much as it teaches you hands-on about other cultures and countries, it can teach you even more about yourself. Because when you are flung out of your comfort zone, when the familiar is replaced by the strange and new, it’s only natural that you turn to yourself – the only thing that is familiar – for comfort as you take your first steps into the unpredictable. That’s when you will learn just how strong you are – that’s when you’ll figure out how to go with your gut. And the best part is, even if you’re wrong, you’re bound to discover something new!

3. Live in the moment.

This is a big fat cliché, but it is cliché for a very important reason: it’s darn good advice.

I’m the first to admit that I’m a compulsive planner. I have more calendars and to-do lists than anyone I know, and I love sitting down and planning out the next month, semester, year. For me, that’s where my comfort zone is – the intangible, but perfectly planable future. But Florence reminded me that that is simply no way to live.

One of my biggest fears about studying abroad was the notion of regret. What if I got to the end and didn’t feel like I had done, seen, felt, heard enough? How will I live knowing that I could have done _____ and didn’t out of fear? I wanted to follow my instincts, I wanted to feel that freedom – but I didn’t trust myself to actually do it.

San Lorenzo market

There was one morning in late February that I was returning back to the apartment from my early morning Italian class. I was sleepy, cold, and hungry, and all I wanted was to climb back in my warm bed and maybe make some oatmeal for breakfast. While I made plans for the rest of the morning, I didn’t even notice the near-sprinting pace at which I was walking. And all of sudden, in the middle of Borgo San Lorenzo, I just stopped. I felt the uneven cobblestones under my feet, watched the waiters and street vendors try to call over customers, smelled the waves of fresh caffe wafting out of the cafes. It occurred to me for the first time that, yes, I could walk fast, but it wouldn’t make me much warmer or get me where I’m going much faster. And look at everything I would miss! I wouldn’t see the woman who owned the funky clothing store talking to her neighbor with her cute but feisty Jack Russell terrier at her side. I wouldn’t hear the terrible pick-up lines from the San Lorenzo vendors, or the grumbling conversations of little old men eating their morning pastries and reading the paper. So I started walking in more of a stroll, changing the rigid and chilled expression on my face to a relaxed and curious smile, looking in every direction while taking in the smells and sounds all around. I had to remind myself to do that most days, but once I did, everything changed. My outlook on the rest of the day, my mood, my thoughts. I knew my time there was short, and every experience was precious. In fact, my many walks around the city remain more vivid to me than any stereotypical tourist experience does. Sure, the Colosseum is great, and the Leaning Tower makes for some great pictures, but it was in those tiny moments in the day on one of those even tinier streets dotted with Vespas and window boxes where I learned just what it means to live in the present moment.

Duomo at sunset

I still make lists and plans galore – but I walk a little slower too. I don’t always trust myself, but I always remember to focus on what my instinct tells me. And I still get scared of choosing the more difficult, more inconvenient path – but I don’t let that dictate my choice. Florence taught me how to live, and how to live as only I can. I couldn’t have asked for more from my host city.

What will your city teach you?

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  1. Beautiful photos, great stories. I spent some time in Florence with my API Rome group, and it was fantastic. Love it!

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