UCLA student Leilani Gaugin Rosenthal is no stranger to the beauty and culture of Florence. After a successful summer with us in 2016, Leilani returned to Florence this Spring to study Language, Culture, Food and Business with UCEAP and ACCENT. Although she was already a well-traveled student when she arrived, Leilani’s second trip to Florence opened her eyes to the complexity of not only Italian culture, but the experience of Americans as they explore this brave new world.
Let me preface this with a little bit of background. I grew up alternating between the United States and France, attended three different high schools in different states and countries, and before returning to Florence for the second time, I had already spent nearly half of my university career studying abroad. That’s right, I was a Florence returnee. Any culture shock that I may have experienced had been absorbed long ago and any chance that I had of being saved from my European “snobbishness” had long been lost.
So why had I decided to return? Simple. I love everything about Italy. From the moment I first set foot in the country, I found myself returning every year without fail. When I’m not in Italy, I watch Sorrentino and Fellini films and dream of living a life of perpetual dolce far niente. To say that I’m a bit of a restless romantic would be an understatement. Which is why, when I was sitting in a hipster Los Angeles establishment eating an eighteen-dollar plate of mediocre pasta, I decided that it was time to leave. Flash-forward to six months ago, in the cold depths of winter, when I found myself dragging my jet-lagged body through the Florence airport and into the backseat of a taxi. I had rehearsed the information that I would have to give the driver, but my Italian had gotten rusty and I ended up stumbling on my words. As the city flashed by, memories that tasted of summer heat and melting gelato came flooding back. I vaguely remembered that two and a half years prior, in the wake of my first summer in Florence, I had promised myself that I would return. Well there I was, holding on for dear life as the taxi careened its way through the labyrinth of small cobblestone streets, going many kilometers over the speed limit.
Making a home for yourself in a new place is always difficult, whether it’s twenty or two thousand miles away from home. You would think that, with all of my experience living abroad, I would have it down to a science. However, the days following my arrival proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated. I quickly realized that I wouldn’t just be pressing “play” again; many things had changed, including myself. So, after a brief existential crisis followed by a pep talk and a solo dance session in our little apartment, I decided to set aside my expectations and see this second experience in Florence not as a continuation, but as an entirely new adventure.
To begin with, my Italian professor, Simona, quickly became a best friend/second mother to me and my two other classmates. As we were such a small class, we sometimes got distracted, often realizing too late that our discussions had veered off into tangents that spanned all aspects of life. Love, dating, gender roles and social norms, politics, food, culture: you name it, we covered it. Outside of class, life quickly fell into place. The formalities dwindled and the big group outings to the bars and clubs every night gave way to some quieter nights, hanging out in clusters. Slowly, a family began to form. By the second week, my apartment mates and I had inside jokes. By the third, my roommate and I had pushed our beds together to form one big bed. By the fourth, we were cooking dinner together and inviting ourselves to The Boys’ House, one street over from ours. And by the fifth night, while returning from one of our many weekend trips, my roommates and I realized that we had started calling our little apartment by Santa Croce “home.”
It was fun to watch my friends get used to life in Europe and begin to notice the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in culture and lifestyle. I, on the other hand, was not only learning so much more about Italy and Italian culture than I had previously, but I was also experiencing American culture in a new way. I had become friends with many different kinds of people, some of whom I had never thought that I would grow close to.
While my summer experience had been exciting and rewarding, it had felt like an extended vacation, and had only provided a glimpse into what life in Florence could be. This time was different. My Italian had improved exponentially, as had my understanding of Italian history and culture, which enabled me to become more profoundly connected to the country and its people. Over the course of the four months, I had also learned a great many things about myself, as well as the people I had become close to. But most importantly, I had made lifelong friends and together we will always share this unique moment in our lives. When it finally came time to leave, I couldn’t believe that four months had gone by, and I was certainly not prepared to leave the life that I had created there. The first time I had left, I had promised myself I’d return. So, as I watched the sun rise over the Tuscan hills from Piazzale Michelangelo, the laughter and chatter of my friends echoing in the cool spring air, I couldn’t help but make the same promise.
If you can take one thing away from this somewhat nostalgic reflection on my time living in Florence, it’s that you should never come into any study abroad experience with expectations. The only thing you should expect is that you will have to study. And you should, because gaining understanding of the language and history will allow you to make a more profound connection to the place in which you live. As for the rest, embrace spontaneity and the highs and lows of life, because study abroad is just that: life.
~Leilani Gaugin Rosenthal
If you promised yourself that you’d return to your second home abroad, now is the time to fulfill that promise! Go to the ACCENT Program Finder and select your second study abroad experience: http://accentintl.com/find-a-program/.