by Melinda Gallo

Meeting an American student

I received an email yesterday through my blog from an American student, Erica, who is doing her semester year abroad here in Florence right now. She asked to meet up with me to talk about a project she is working on for school. She's putting together a project detailing her experience in Florence and she wanted to contrast it with other people's experience in Florence. I was flattered by her request and met with her today in Piazza Santa Croce.

I arrived in Piazza Santa Croce a little early and started to reminisce about what my life was like when I was living behind the church only a few years ago. Now that I have my bici (bike), I rarely take the time to walk around Piazza Santa Croce. It was nice to have a few minutes to take in the piazza, chiesa (church), and all the different people from the tourists, the artists, and the Chinese women selling scarves draped around their arms. There was a small band playing as well, which livened up the piazza a little bit.

Erica and I met near the fountain at the other end of the piazza and we quickly walked to a relatively new bar on the corner of via dei Benci and Borgo dei Greci. We ordered our cappuccini from a welcoming cameriera (waitress). We sat down at the counter against the wall and she began to ask me about my life in Florence. My life seems fairly normal as I have friends, work, and other activities, like running, that I enjoy. She asked me if I felt at home in Italy and told me that she knew it was a difficult question because some people never feel at home anywhere. I have lived almost 13 years of my life, a little less than a third, in Europe and I don't see myself going back to my "home" country. For reasons that I just can't explain, I do feel more at home in Florence.

I was happy when she asked me if I had any questions for her because I did. I rarely meet any students who come to Florence to study here and was eager to know what her experience is like in Florence. I wasn't surprised to hear that many students tend to hang out together and unfortunately feel like outsiders in Florence. Not speaking the language is definitely a handicap for them, but there are not many opportunities for them to truly meet the locals either. They seem to live in a bubble here and have limited interactions with the locals.

I wish there was a way for students to have a deeper experience of living in Florence, but their time here is so brief that it makes things difficult for them. I did a year abroad in Lyon, France and was a fille au pair, so it was my job to take care of four children when I wasn't attending class at the French university.

After living here awhile, I can usually spot the American students around town who wear flip-flops in the winter and speak rather loudly in the narrow streets. Many of the expatriates I know try to differentiate ourselves from them because many of the stereotypes aren't positive about Americans already. I, for example, have seen many students in my palestra (gym), but I don't talk to them. I do say hello to them in Italian, but I don't make any steps to get to know them. It's difficult when they are here for a short time and have a defined group of people they hang out with. And, I'm sure they're not interested in talking with someone who could be their mother.

I am grateful to Erica for our meeting as it made me realize how different life is for these American students who come to spend a few months in Italy. It would be nice if the schools somehow got together to find a way to help these students experience Italy a bit more in a way so that they could get more out of their experience. Because what I'm certain they crave is a better understanding of the language, the city and the locals, and in the end a better understanding of themselves. An experience abroad should open them up and not force them to stay in small, safe groups.

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