From Charlottesville to Florence

Last semester, one of our producers studied abroad in Italy. Here’s how it made him a tourist back home.

With spring semester study abroad deadlines quickly approaching, it feels as good a time as any to reflect on my study abroad experience in Florence last semester. That said, I’m not trying to write just another blog post about travel, how desperate I am to go back, or how the drinking culture is soooo different in Europe. Instead, I figured I’d take my readers (hey Mom and Dad) on a tour of Florence to highlight a few staples of the Tuscan city.

Now, you might be asking yourself, what does this have to do with the Pioneer and UVA? Well, my experience abroad could be relevant to students interested in studying abroad in Italy or elsewhere. But perhaps more importantly, I think some of the things I learned about Italian dining, art history, and culture could make life here on grounds a little bit better for all students. Being a tourist in Europe and then returning to Charlottesville only to find that there’s plenty of exploring to be done wherever you are is worth noting. 

Italian Cuisine 

Sheeeeesh, nothing better than wining and dining on some Italian cuisine for 5 months and then getting back to school and having soupy eggs for breakfast at Newcomb. That said, I’m not interested in dwelling on all the incredibly delicious food I had while in Italy. That’s why I’m not going to further discuss the four-course meal I was served on a Tuscan farm where all the food came from the soil we were standing on or the bottomless wine or the savory pizza with handmade dough or the delicious gelato.

Alright, alright I’m done flexing about the food, but if there is anyone reading this that’s interested in studying abroad or just traveling to Florence, here’s a short list of spots to go:

  • All’Antico Vinao: This spot has the best sandwich in town. Period. The place gets swarmed by tourists in the mid afternoon, especially in the spring and summer months, but a “Favolosa” is worth the wait.

  • Trattoria Pizzeria Dante’s: Bottomless house wine included with your meal. Delicious food. One of my personal favorites is the gnocci-just be sure to be heavy on the “g” in your pronunciation while ordering.
  • Trattoria Za Za: One of the most bougie meals I had in Florence. Don’t worry too much about what you order because everything is incredible. Only downside, it’s a little expensive for a college kid on a budget.

Oddly enough one of my favorite culinary experiences while abroad had nothing to do with wine tours or fancy restaurants. My roommates and I started a tradition we called, “Mega Breakfast.” Usually the morning after a long night out morale in the apartment would hit an understandable low. We found one of the best ways to revive everyone was to make a grocery run and get copious amounts of breakfast food to eat together. It just so happens that communal eating is popular and practically expected in Italy. Give it a shot here stateside with some good people and chill tunes and you won’t regret it.

P.S. Almost forgot to mention that Charlottesville is an incredible town when it comes to food and drink. Check out some wineries or food downtown if you’ve got the pocket change.

Art History

Michelangelo’s David, Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Palazzo Vecchio, Piazzale Michelangelo; it goes without saying that Florence is rich with beautiful art and architecture.

Frankly, the day I took these photos I felt as if I was trivializing these great works of art by shoving a Pioneer logo in front of them. But it wasn’t just the logo. It’s taking photos of some of the best artistic works and edifices on the planet with the same nonchalance that you’d screenshot a funny text message. Right then, I scanned the crowd to find a sea of selfie sticks and people blocking their eyes with cameras. I’ve got nothing against photography, and I’m grateful for the photos I have, but I’m glad that I realized then how important it is to consciously stand and be and live in the moment.

PS: Did you know we have an art museum on grounds? Because I didn’t. The Fralin Museum of Art is free entry, located right off Madbowl, and gets great reviews. Not to mention we have a piece of the Berlin Wall in the middle of grounds and countless opportunities for student to get involved with or check out art. I’m not trying to equate Charlottesville’s art scene to Florence because it’s not even close. I’m just saying search for works of art, activities, or places where you can stand in awe and be present. I promise it will serve you better than overworking yourself with schoolwork or wasting time watching dumb videos on the Instagram Explore tab.

Italian Culture

Phil served as a counselor of sorts for my study abroad program and accompanied our entire group on an excursion into the Tuscan countryside several weeks into my study abroad program. He was English, well-spoken, almost entirely bald, and charismatic. We spoke briefly on the train about his backstory, American politics, and why he made to decision to move to Italy permanently to grow old.

Phil asked me what percentage of Italian culture I felt I understood or had a grasp on. I’d lived in Florence for nearly a month and traveled to several Italian towns, so I hazarded what I thought to be a modest guess of 5%. He told me that estimate was far too high. He went on to explain that 5 months may sound like a long time and I may even pick up some Italian, but I would always be a foreigner. As it turns out he was right. After my five months abroad I know that I know very little about Italian culture – consider your grain of salt delivered. Here’s the majority of what I learned about Italian culture.

  • In Florence you don’t tip. Gratuity is usually included. The Mediterranean Diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, bread, pasta, and minimal red meat is worshiped as a way of life. Wine with dinner is expected, but mostly for the purposes of complimenting the meal. For binge drinking college students that one is a little tougher to grasp.
  • Exercise culture is hugely important and evident. Ride-share bicycles called Mo-Bikes are everywhere, commuting on foot is very popular, and Florence’s streets are narrow and made of cobblestone which limits car traffic.

  • Like anywhere on the planet, Florence has friendly and not so friendly people. I was lucky enough to meet people mostly of the former group. For instance, I went to the same cafe 4-5 times a week for lunch. After a few months went by and the whole staff new my name, food order, and the pathetic extent of my Italian. Basically, we had a lot of amicable conversations about the weather.
  • Unfortunately though, in Florence pick-pocketing is a real issue, some Florentines despise or disregard tourists, and entry into certain venues and clubs comes at a much higher price for foreigners. Maybe Florentine annoyance with tourists is valid. The population of Florence is under 400,000, yet the city saw a whopping 10 million tourists in 2017.  Also, it doesn’t help that just a few months ago American exchange students in Florence nearly burned down their apartment by cooking pasta without water.

Frankly, that’s about the breadth of my knowledge of Italian culture. How little I do know or was ever capable of learning about Florence and it’s people in five months is painfully clear. That got me thinking, how much of Charlottesville do I really know? I’m quickly approaching the end of my time as a student at University of Virginia and I couldn’t tell you more than 3 restaurants on the downtown mall, and I didn’t know we had an art museum on Grounds.

I guess my point is, explore! I find it helps to lean on those around you, as cliche as that is. Whether it’s throwing together a Mega Breakfast with your friends or traveling with people who are trying (and often failing) to figure things out just as you are- seek new experiences. There’s so much to learn about what’s going on around the world and right here in your backyard. Make efforts to learn and take comfort in knowing there’s always more to discover, if you choose to seek it out.

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