Reflections on my study abroad experience in Florence & Taormina by Emily Nagle – API Regional Director for University Relations
Italy has gifted me with an endless list of extraordinary experiences, but my favorite memories from my time there are the small daily moments. Simply, the way life feels in Italy is magic to my soul.
Sicilian mornings started with the sweet earthy smell of espresso–a caffe lungo made by my host mom in her small silver Bialetti Moka. I loved the ritual of it and it fueled my journey to school, which required climbing more than three hundred stairs. As I navigated among bumpy cobblestone streets and up flights and flights of stone steps, the scenery I passed every day never felt routine. Mount Etna stood majestically ten thousand feet tall, covered in snow, beaming over Taormina. To the east, the morning sun sparkled atop the turquoise Sicilian sea. I welcomed the strain in my quads and an increase in my breathing as I hurried to Italian class. Along the way, I smiled at the symphony of spirited sounds, locals shouting out coffee orders to their beloved baristas, fruttivendoli setting up their fruit stands for the day, and neighbors gossiping while walking their cherished pups.
“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” Giuseppe Verdi
My memories of Italy are very visceral. The sounds, sights, smells, and tastes stand out still so many years later–perhaps because I embraced the Italian lifestyle, slowing down to appreciate those little things.
I especially adored Florence in quieter moments, like when it came back to life after a rainstorm. The late afternoon sun illuminated deep puddles with reflections of the golds, tans, and oranges of the architecture. The smell of rain married alluringly with the strong rustic scent of Italian leather. I’d sneak away on my own to try on soft, velvety leather jackets, to practice my Italian ordering a slice of focaccia bread from a local panificio, or to sit in a piazza just soaking it all in. Times like those I’d get lost in the intricacies of the profound, marvelous Duomo cathedral–the greens, pinks, and greys. The wet weather had washed away the crowds, and the splendor of the city stood out even more without hordes of tourists posing for photo after photo. Over the course of my year in Florence, I’d come to resent that I was a visitor too–feeling far from a tourist and more than a study abroad student, I longed to be a local. I’d sit scheming up ways to move to Italy until the booming call of the Campanile bell tower would bring me back from my Italian daydreams.
The “Italian-ness” of these little moments resonated naturally and deeply within me. Italian architecture, monuments, cuisine, and fashion are all truly spectacular, but to me, the culture that fostered the creation of all of that is what makes it so special. I admire that Italians take the time to create something beautiful just for beauty’s sake or to cook something step by step, with only the freshest local ingredients, just for the pleasure of eating something wonderful. Italians value spending hours over a multi-course meal, visiting with family, and pausing to appreciate the fun and delicious moments. Enjoying life is essential, and I adore that.
“Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” Federico Fellini
Sicily has a different type of brilliance than the mainland, maybe thanks to the fresh seaside air, or perhaps due to the influence of the summer heat. The warmer months serve as the perfect excuse for Sicilians, young and old, to eat dessert for breakfast, tearing off fluffy chunks of brioche and dunking them into sweet, cool granita. The midday sun draws locals inside for a rest or down to Isola Bella to melt under umbrellas by the water. The evening reawakens the streets with folks having a walk around town, La Passeggiata, or celebrating the end of the day with an aperitivo. Undeniably the wild, storied history of Sicily adds to its current feeling of authentic liveliness. They’ve been through it all, conquered by countless other nations over the years and devastated by volcanic eruptions now and again, but as Taormina’s ancient Greek theatre has weathered the test of time, so have the Sicilians. Strengthened by these struggles, Sicilians make the best of the sprinklings of different cultures blended into their own. They are known to be warm and welcoming and ready to share their stories, their incomparable scenery, and their bright produce bursting with flavor. I loved strolling down streets lined with lemon and orange trees, admiring laundry hanging from windows. Towels, sheets, and tee-shirts waved alongside delicate purple wisteria in the citrus-scented breeze. I equally adored the fish markets that encompassed an eruption of passion and vigor, vendors vying to sell their seafood, fresh, tender, and salty, right from the sea. Sicily is raw and vivacious.
I loved the feeling of Italian-ness in those moments in part because Italians seem to love their Italian-ness. They radiate pride for their home region and their local specialities, and they seem overjoyed when sharing their treasures with visitors. There is a certain look of an Italian person watching you experience one of their delicacies for the first time, like someone’s nonna watching you taste their homemade gnocchi with a knowing, joyful look, confident that it will knock your socks off.
“Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvelous than the land.” E.M. Forster
After spending my first year of college there, Florence will always have a deep sense of homeyness for me. Walking around the city almost felt like an extension of my living room. I felt at home even amongst the surreal depth of history and magnificence of the architecture. I felt cozy even when the wind whipped around the Duomo, causing me to tighten my scarf around my chin like a true Italian woman. On brisk winter evenings or rainy nights of spring, things like the sweet aroma of warm roasting chestnuts in San Lorenzo comforted me. Stressful days at school or feelings of missing family could be eased by the view of the city from Piazzale Michelangelo. I loved the way the bridges over the Arno seemed to stretch contently and charmingly over the river. I could also go on for days about the magic of December in Florence–twinkling lights illuminated the old stone streets, making it feel like an enchanting Italian snowglobe. I’d long for an indulgent, creamy risotto, covered in salty, nutty Parmigiano Reggiano as I jingled my long almost medieval-looking apartment keys. Even through my dense, solid wooden front door, I’d hear the nostalgic melodies of an old man playing the accordion somewhere nearby.
I begin my American mornings by carefully spooning fragrant espresso powder into my stovetop Bialetti coffee maker. Having this staple from Sicily stowed in my suitcase eased my reluctant return to the United States. It takes a few minutes for my coffee to brew, but waiting for it to gradually bubble up to the top of the Moka reminds me to slow down and appreciate the little moments, like an Italian. While I was in fact just a visitor in Italy, the sense of home that I felt there has impacted me every day since I left. As I sip a caffe lungo, I glance around my apartment. Large prints of my Italian adventures hang on my walls, images of Florence, Taormina, Lucca, Chianti, and Sorrento inspire me. They remind me of the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of Italy that I loved so dearly. My bookshelf overflows with Italian novels and Tuscan cookbooks. I stock my kitchen with Italian olive oils, fresh herbs, and as much local produce as I can find. I try to transport myself back to la dolce vita with the simple, routine parts of each day. I know that I will never stop yearning to go back to Italy, but in the meantime, I stay connected to my Italian life as much as possible. Above my desk hangs the most important reminder of all, a sign that reads “Ritornerò,” meaning “I will go back,” assuring me that no matter what, I will always return to Italy.