The “Panini” That Make Florence Home

By Elsa Vellone | University of Rochester | ISI Florence Spring 2024

Studying abroad is exciting, and it creates memories for a lifetime. It can truly be a life-changing experience, but I don’t mean it in the sense of making you a globetrotter.

Although most people are quick to fill their semester with travel outside of where they are studying abroad, it means largely missing out on experiencing what has the potential to be your new home, which, in our case, is Firenze. Firenze is filled with gems and jewels discovered outside of the classroom while wandering the streets, getting to know the locals, and immersing yourself in the everyday life of the area, but it’s only possible if you take the step forward to make it happen. Four months fly by in a literal blink of an eye, and before we know it, we’ll already be looking back on our experiences. Whether those experiences are in Firenze, or in every city but, is up to you to decide.

Twice a week, I go to the same panificio to eat my lunch. I don’t always have the need to get a panino, but the low price and kind hospitality make it worth it even just for a conversation. I typically go after the lunch-hour rush, so the owner, Mario, sits with me and we chat in Italian while I eat. We talk about who is staying in the B&B he rents out, if he had a busy day at the shop, what kind of people he had in the store, and sometimes he offers me a caffè as he fills me in on the local drama. These panini that I eat while Mario keeps me company open the door into a whole other Firenze outside of studying abroad, making it feel a little more like home and connecting me to the city. It’s small moments like these that truly make the experience of studying abroad unforgettable.

The initial allure for most people when thinking about studying abroad is the opportunity to fill their weekends with travel, given the proximity and ease of traveling to neighboring countries. However, it’s not always the most fulfilling part; instead, studying abroad offers a unique opportunity to immerse oneself in and explore the host country. This allows for a deeper connection to one’s new home on a much more profound level than simply being a tourist could ever offer.

The special thing about studying abroad is you get to be a real-life resident and student in a brand-new country that you’ve never previously been able to call home, while also averting the larger responsibilities of being an expat. You get to experience things that are similar to those that other people in that home country experience in their everyday lives, that are so different from what you are used to back home. This is by no means an easy process, and attempting a certain level of integration doesn’t happen in a day, a week, or even a month; however, you slowly begin to learn how to live like a local, which is an incredibly rewarding experience: getting to know street shortcuts, saying hi to your neighbor, and frequenting the same places where the owner already knows your order when you walk in. It also means trying to adapt to some of the unwritten customs of Italian culture such as avoiding ordering a cappuccino in the afternoon and always making sure you say hello and goodbye when you enter and exit any type of establishment, something we as Americans are not necessarily accustomed to doing.

Attempting assimilation and integration does not come without difficulties along the way that make you sometimes want to escape to other countries and resort to being a tourist with no responsibilities. When navigating a new country for the first time, learning new customs, cultural norms, and the small changes that are different from your home country such as bagging your own groceries or turning a key in a different direction in a lock can seem like much bigger deals than they are.

Learning how to communicate in another language is yet another challenge –arguably the largest of them all– but also one of the most important you can face in your study-abroad experience in order to achieve a level of integration that you otherwise would not be able to accomplish speaking in English. This doesn’t mean becoming fluent, but a simple hello, how are you, or nice to meet you, spoken in Italian, goes a long way. All of these changes we adapt to allow us a greater sense of independence and problem-solving skills to take back to our home country at the end of our journey and help to teach us about ourselves through how we handle different bumps we have along the way.

In one of my ISI Florence classes, we read a great article referring to the words Firenze and Florence and the different experiences that come with the deeper significance of each word. Firenze is symbolic of the true Italian culture, while Florence represents the Americanized destination version of what Firenze is for many people. I highly recommend reading this article because it can teach us a lot about having a truly authentic study abroad experience. It teaches us that there is a side of Firenze that opens our eyes to a culture completely different from our own and that penetrates the American façade that has become so prominent in recent years. Firenze is a completely different city from that of a tourist-oriented Florence. It separates you from Florence being just a place you’re staying in for four months and Firenzebecoming your home.

In the end, studying abroad isn’t about writing your name on the outside wall of The Lion’s Fountain and being another on a list full of other American names. Studying abroad isn’t about leaving a superficial mark staking a claim on a city that has seen countless tourists over a millennia. Instead, it’s a more permanent, profound mark the city can leave on you through a new Italian friendship, an attempt at a new language, a new sense of independence, and experiences that connect you to the culture you are living in.

Studying abroad in Firenze opens the gates into small and characteristic neighborhoods full of tiny ristoranti, pasticcerie, panifici, macellerie, and other negozi with little to no English that are filled to the brim with a rich, antique, diverse culture and a subset of people that have stories and conversations that are what make Italy one of the most beautiful places in the world if you allow yourself to experience what Firenze has to offer.

 If there’s any mark of ourselves to be left on this city in the four short months we are here, it’s not going to be a jumble of letters scribbled onto a wall that will soon be painted over, with no significance or meaning to them. Instead, it will be the friendships created through our embrace of the beautiful community we are privileged enough to be a part of in our short period of time here in Firenze. My advice to you? Don’t let Florence be just your house, or a ‘homebase’ for traveling for the little time that you have to experience it. Instead, go out, eat a panino, and make it your home.