Spring 2024: Florence Welcomes American Students

On February 7th, all American students in Florence were symbolically welcomed at the beautiful Salone dei Cinquecento in Palazzo Vecchio. ISI Florence’s Director Stefano Baldassarri and Prof. Marco Bracci, with his class of Intercultural Communication, were there to represent our school. The event was hosted by Elisabetta Meucci, Councilor for University and Research, Daniela Ballard, Consul General of the US, and Fabrizio Ricciardelli, President of AACUPI, and it has been a customary appointment at the beginning of every Spring semester for around 20 years now.

The speakers took the chance to introduce the students to life in Florence, and highlighted the importance of international education and how this experience can really enrich one’s personal and professional life. Everyone brought their personal stories to the table, as did Stefano with his welcome speech (below), where he gave an insight into his various adventures in the US and reflected on the impact they had on his life, especially when it comes to cats and pipes…

“First of all, I wish to thank the organizers, AACUPI and the “Comune di Firenze”, for inviting me to this joyful, important event. It’s an honor for me to be here. I must add, though, that it’s not easy for me to make speeches of this sort. That’s why I wrote down a few lines, which I’m going to read to you now.”

“The fact is, I’m skeptical by nature. I have doubts on many things. Come to think of it, one thing I’m sure about is that I’m good at smoking the pipe. That much I know. I have been smoking the pipe for almost four decades now. Sometimes my friends tell me: “Quit smoking!”. I answer: “Why? It’s the only thing I’m really good at!”.

Among those who want me to quit smoking is my best friend, Paul Levine. He is an attorney (born in New York City, now living in New Jersey). I first met him and his cousin JP Patafio (also a great friend of mine) when they were studying here in Florence, at a local AACUPI program, some 35 years ago (fall of 1989). One day they had a photography class assignment: take black and white photos of something here in Florence that you find interesting. They met me at the Boboli Gardens while I was feeding cats (as I did almost every day back then, when I was a university student here at the “Università di Firenze”). They thought it was interesting enough. They asked me if they could take some pictures of me and the cats. “I have no qualms with that,” I said. The cats did not object either. That’s how Paul, JP and I became best friends. As for the cats, I eventually adopted one of them (Giamblico was his name) and six years later I took him with me to Yale University. Emotionally speaking, that cat helped me out a lot as I wrote my Ph.D. thesis.

But studying at Yale in the mid 1990s was not my first experience in “international education”. My first long experience abroad started in the summer of 1985. I was not yet 17 when I left for the US to spend a year in high school as a Junior. I was part of a program called Experiment in International Living. Of all places, I ended up in Daytona Beach, Florida. Maybe, only Las Vegas could have been a better destination. I went to the local school: Seabreeze Senior High. “The Fighting Sandcrabs.” Yep … I still have that 1985-86 yearbook and I cherish vivid, colorful memories of that Spring Break in Daytona. More importantly, I’m still in touch with my Florida host family. It was with the youngest of their three kids, William Sorvillo, that I started smoking the pipe. Eventually, Billy became a famous, successful painter. He lives in New York City now.

Understandably, that first year I spent in the US back in ‘85-‘86 turned out to be an eye-opening experience for me, a turning point in my life. Mostly because of that, a few years later I studied at The Catholic University of America (Washington DC) for a Master’s Degree and – finally – at Yale for my PhD (taking one of those Boboli Gardens cats with me, as I said). All great experiences. All of them were significant journeys.

But where to? That is, where is it that I truly traveled?

As I often tell my ISI Florence students at Orientation: “You are abroad, but this is truly, above all, a trip to yourselves. It’s part – it can be an important part, if you want it to be that way – of the longest trip of all; that is, the trip to the self.”

What am I talking about? I’m talking about using this semester abroad to better understand who you are, what you want from life, how to get it, with whom, and what kind of contribution you wish to make, so that – thanks to you, your friends, and many others – this world (which is already beautiful) can become a more pleasant, beautiful, peaceful place.

I’m almost done. Don’t worry!

One last thing: Having studied – for many years – Latin and Greek (or Laughing and Grief, as Lewis Carroll put it in Alice in Wonderland) I tend to pay attention to words. Especially, I often consider their etymologies, that is, their origins, their “essence” or their “personality”, so to speak. A great Italian linguist (Giovanni Semerano, whom I met when I was a university student here in Florence in the late 1980’s) once said: “Words are a bit like stars. They may have died thousands of years ago but they still shine.”

When is it that words shine? Well, it’s like with most human beings: words shine when we truly pay attention to them, when we care. For instance, think of the word “adolescent”: it comes from Latin “adolescere”, a verb meaning “to become strong”. Or the word “adult”: also from that same Latin verb, but this time it’s the past participle, that is, “a person who has become strong”.

Studying abroad can make you strong, that is, it can help you become truly adult. By that, I do not mean physically strong; that is part of adolescence. I mean emotionally and mentally strong. That is part of adulthood. And, though skeptical by nature, as I told you, it is my conviction that this is the kind of strength that the world – that is humankind, the community we live in – really needs: ethical, educational, and emotional strength.

So, I encourage you to make good use of this semester abroad, of this crucial stage which is part of your “trip to the self”. Thank you!”