This guest blog post comes to us from Joe Frank from UMASS Amherst who is currently studying in Florence, Italy with API.
Millions of tourists visit Florence, Italy every year, but the city itself only has a population of about 380,000 people. It is one of the most visited cities I’ve been to, and the tourist season hasn’t even started yet. The city is filled with so many foreigners that you can’t help but notice them. They’re easy to spot since they are usually dragging suitcases behind them or are taking photos. The irony is that as a student abroad I am one of these tourists, no matter how much they can annoy me.
I came to Italy to embrace the culture, and the culture – food, art, and lifestyle – comes from the people living here. However, I am only beginning to learn Italian, and most of the people I interact with at home and at school are Americans. Partially because of this, it is more difficult than you might expect to meet Italians, and it is even more rare to have Italian friends. You wouldn’t think it would be hard to meet Italians in Italy, but it is. That is why I am such a fan of the language tandem offered by Academic Programs International (API).
Created as a way to help local Italians polish their English and to help American students pick up Italian, API provides a time and a place for four Americans and four Italians to hang out. This can mean just sitting around drinking tea, or it can mean visiting different places around the city. Signing up to participate in API’s language tandem was one of the best decisions I made after I arrived in Florence. I now have seven friends, four of whom are Italian, who I see at least once per week.
My Italian friends teach me Florentine slang. They taught me that “bo” means “I don’t know” and that “ganzo” means “cool.” They also taught me some useful Italian slang that (unsurprisingly) I wasn’t taught by my Italian professor.
They also teach me about Italian food culture, from Coccoli, which are like balls of fried dough paired with a cream cheese sauce (I highly recommend them), to which restaurants to go to. If I hadn’t made Italian friends during my first few months abroad, my experience so far would not have been as enriching.
It is not impossible to run into locals. I have met Italians outside of the language tandem, but it’s harder to maintain those friendships because there is no designated structure or time. For instance, about a month ago I started talking to some Italians in a record store about Led Zeppelin, and we quickly hit it off. They introduced me to some of their friends, and through their social web, I was able to meet many Italians. My goal is to hang out with some of these people more in the future.
The truth is that some college students studying abroad miss out on the opportunity to meet local people. Meeting locals is a vital part of visiting another country. I am fortunate that the language tandem has not only given me the opportunity to meet Italians, but it has helped me maintain friendships with them, too.