Feeling “Real” While Studying Abroad | PART ONE

By Isabel Anderson
University of Maryland – ISI Florence Fall 2022

Coming to live in a new country can be both exciting and overwhelming all at once; new smells, languages, social mannerisms, delicacies, and traditions might leave your brain scrambling to keep up. And when it’s a city like Florencea metropolis of piazzas softly broken in by the steps of thousands of people for thousands of years, flanked by Apple stores and the palazzos of the elite centuries ago– it can be even harder to really register your surroundings. In the presence of such historic monumentality, how does one ground themselves in reality?

In the months leading up to my arrival in Florence, I often encountered the obvious question “are you ready/are you scared?” My answer was always the same: a nonchalant, both-shoulders-in-the-air “it hasn’t hit me yet.” Lying in bed one night, about a week after I got here, I stumbled upon the question in my brain and realized that my answer was still the same. It hadn’t hit me yet; the reality that I was living in a country with a different language and an entire ocean away from where I had spent my entire life; the reality that I was walking through streets whose walls echoed the sounds of war, plague and artistic movements; the reality that I was living here– spending too long looking at prices for pasta sauce at the supermarket, getting woken up by my roommate because I slept through my alarm, and taking out the trash from my apartment.

The next day, I got up early, walked to an unfamiliar piazza, and journaled about my epiphany. I watched the people pass by, felt the flies buzzing around, and heard shop doors open and close. I gave myself a series of action items to ground myself in my surroundings which have helped me so much, and I’m going to share them with you, dear reader, in a series of posts! For today, here’s the first crucial part of my action plan on how I can “grant myself reality in Florence,” as I originally scrawled in my planner.

This might seem obvious because we generally experience life through sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch. However, I often have to remind myself to slow down and feel my surroundings. I like to touch the stone of the buildings while I walk, listen to the conversations around me (which I can almost never understand), or eat slower at restaurants to really savor the amazing food. You could even write your observations down to make them feel even more real. There are so many ways to use your senses to learn about the city unraveling in front of your steps! This tip is a great and more manageable start to feel “real” when you’re abroad, so feel free to test it for yourself.

Keep a look out for the rest of the action plan in upcoming blog posts!