Each Fall, the University of California Education Abroad Program partners with ACCENT to send three lucky groups of UC students to Barcelona, Syracuse, and Florence to study Mediterranean Politics, Food & Culture. Each group goes to all three cities in different orders, the academic content of the program altered to cater to each group’s different itinerary. Students visit small local farms, non-profits, and governing bodies, tasting the unique flavors of the Mediterranean along the way.
Join Ava Lalezarzadeh as she describes the joys and struggles of studying abroad in three different locations, and how the program helped her learn how to seize opportunities when they present themselves.
As my time abroad comes to a close, I reflect on my experiences in Florence, Sicily, and Barcelona. Some people in my program have found personal growth in immeasurable ways, discovering their capability to be fully independent and open to new cultures. As for myself, I didn’t experience the same kind of growth I expected I would when living in a foreign country. But growth comes in many different forms. So before putting expectations on yourself to come back as a culturally-refined European, just know that your takeaway might be far more internal, and that you will definitely come back with newfound knowledge and growth, in your own unique way.
In Florence, I was determined to learn as much conversational Italian as possible. In such a tourist populated city, Florence, a city rich in art and history, seemed to often cater to touristic desires. So I made a personal effort to not let the locals change to accommodate me, and I instead immersed myself in their customs.
It was during my time in Syracuse that I made some invaluable connections with the locals, in spite of the language barrier. On our trip to a lemon grove, Monica, the lemon grove owner, shared with us her passion for natural, organic plants. I loved what she stood for so much that I left the grove feeling the same way I do after I watch a piece of remarkable theater. In that moment, I realized there is art in everything. I walked away feeling inspired and incredibly grateful that she had opened her farm and her heart to us.
After that experience, I decided to be more open and reach out to fellow Syracusans about events around town. One day I was taking a stroll back to my apartment from Isola di Ortigia, when I came across a small bookstore that caught my eye called Libreria Zaratan. As I glanced at the stationary, I overheard the owners talking to a customer about a film festival. While I paid for my stationary, I started making conversation with the owners, Maria Vittoria and Giovanni, about any local concerts or open mic nights. Giovanni met me with great enthusiasm and suggested we throw an open mic night at the bookstore! Maria Vittoria suggested the next day, which fell on Halloween. With great excitement we planned our open mic night in less than 24 hours. They called their friends. I made flyers and a Facebook event. I reached out to my friends in the program. This was exactly the opportunity I had been looking for! The turnout was spectacular, and I realized that so many Syracusans were craving events like this: a chance to gather and share music, stories, and poetry. I was met with such kindness and openness from strangers, who then became beautiful friends. This experience taught me to take risks and to create your own opportunities!
As I end my journey in Barcelona, the reality is that I’m a bit worn out. Some people are itching to see their families, while others have mixed feelings about heading home. We can see the end is near and everyone is responding a bit differently. This is all okay. Don’t beat yourself up for not going on 10,000 excursions in a weekend. Listen to your body and don’t push yourself to exhaustion. There are plenty of ways to immerse yourself in Barcelonian life without completely destroying your sleep schedule. Explore the different districts in the day or evening. Go to look-out points. Eat churros dipped in hot, thick melted chocolate.
I traveled abroad because I was thirsty for a taste of something new, a shift in pace and habits. Even though that came with its occasional hardships, I knew that I needed this in order to grow. As an artist, I felt like it was vital for me to see more of the world, to have new experiences, to meet new people. But it doesn’t take an artist to crave those desires. Every person will benefit from widening their landscape of the world.
For more information about the Mediterranean Politics, Food & Culture program, see the UCEAP program guide here. If you are a University of California student and wish to apply for the program, visit the UCEAP website and your campus Study Abroad Office.