Choosing the country where you want to study abroad is only half the battle. Choosing HOW you want to study abroad is far more complicated.
For example, say you decided to go to London for a semester. Would you work an internship? Live in a flat? Would you decide to live in the suburbs of London, or the city itself? Would you pick a roommate that you already knew, or prefer to go in blind?
To me, these questions are as comparable as going to college, maybe even worse. For many students, we only get one semester. A few short months to pretend like this is real life: gallivanting through cities and countries, immersing ourselves in foreign cultures, pretending like we are locals that have been inhabiting this place for years.
For me, I always knew that I wanted to study in Ferrara, Italy. Both my maternal and paternal relatives are Italian immigrants and I grew up listening to stories about the land “back home.” I had never traveled to Italy before; the family that still resided there always chose to come to the United States because it was cheaper. (Thankfully in 2015, the Euro was more gracious to Americans than it had been in past years). I knew that before I wanted to experience someone else’s culture, it was important that I first experience my own. That being said, there are various different ways to go about studying abroad in Italy. Rome and Florence are the most obvious choices. Both are historically captivating cities, filled with vibrant and lively people that fulfill every American’s vision of Italy. Yet, when I gave it more thought, I realized that perhaps I wouldn’t want to spend 4 months in these cities. I couldn’t trust myself to employ Italian if English was so readily used, and wanted to have a truly authentic experience. I wanted to see the Italy that few get to experience.
When I spoke to my first Italian professor, she recommended Ferrara. I had to look the city up on a map, associating it only with Ferrari cars, (which I quickly learned had nothing to do with the name). Ferrara is located in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, about 30 minutes from Bologna by train. It seemed to have a rich history, as there was a castle and ruling family there for centuries. It is surrounded by medieval walls that protect and identify its importance. Famous Italian artists had frequented the city, as it was a strategic location on the Po River. The program offered a homestay option, a choice I had yet to consider.
I was intrigued by the notion of a homestay. Because Ferrara is truly a small Italian city, the family would most likely not speak English. I would eat dinner every night with the family and ride my bike into the walls for classes.
When I decided on a homestay, I was slightly concerned. I realized I would have to be conscious of things that I had never been concerned about. I didn’t have to worry about American standards, but Italian ones. They are fanatics about conserving energy. They don’t eat breakfast, don’t snack, and serve dinner at 9:00. They completely defy everything that Americans are taught to obey: they drink coffee all day and little water, they eat dinner late, they don’t eat breakfast. While these aspects became frustrating, I realize that the whole point of the study abroad experience is to step out of your comfort zone. I wanted to make an imprint on the family, and the city, that I lived in.
Within a few weeks I was great friends with my host mother. The women at the bakery recognized me, knowing exactly my order. The barista at the café near my school smiled and greeted me like a native whenever I walked in. I had memorized the city by bicycle. I knew the allies that were more crowded to avoid, I knew that it was better to take the longer, more shaded way to school. I found out that I was wasting my money buying lunch at restaurants; all university students go to the grocery store. By being one of the few Americans in Ferrara, I had the upper hand of working the charm of being a foreigner, as opposed to be an annoying tourist. I’d like to think that I didn’t just exist in Ferrara, but I had a life there.