The beginning of my study abroad story sounds similar to the experience of most students: I researched programs, found one that aligned with my interests, and applied to study in Florence, Italy during the summer of 2013. With one semester of Italian under my belt, I hoped my language skills would improve as I took Italian and Renaissance art courses in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I chose William and Mary’s Summer Program because of its wonderful student reviews and homestay component, though I felt that I might want to live in Italy for longer than the program’s 4 weeks. With that in mind, I independently found a family willing to host me as an “au pair” nanny for their two children after my W&M classes ended.
While I was a bit nervous about working alone in a foreign country, the added value to my study abroad trip was immense. I was able to practice communicating in situations that I didn’t experience as part of an academic group, from bonding with my Italian kids to navigating the extra-urban bus system in Tuscany. I also had several opportunities during my time off to explore on my own. Day-trips I planned included visiting small towns throughout the beautiful Chianti countryside and wandering the narrow Florentine streets at my own pace. I was even lucky enough to attend two historic festivals, La Festa di San Giovanni in Florence and Mercantia in Certaldo, both of which were once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Working as an au pair in Chianti gave me a different perspective on Italian life and culture that I may have missed as a student. The multigenerational family that I lived with was so tight-knit, yet they welcomed me into their home like I was a long-lost relative. I gained an insider’s view on what childhood in Italy is like— parenting techniques and family dynamics were totally different than what I experienced growing up in the U.S. Moving from my study abroad homestay apartment in central Florence to a tiny town in rural Chianti wine country also broadened my view of Tuscany. I loved the slower pace of life in the hills above the city almost as much as the breathtaking pastoral views I awoke to every morning.
One of my favorite words I learned this summer is agrodolce, meaning bittersweet. Boarding the plane to come home, I felt both sad about ending my stay in Italy, but ready to build on what I learned this past summer. I’m now continuing to improve my Italian and fill in the gaps in my vocabulary and grammar. I’m furthering my art history knowledge beyond the Renaissance, though I’m glad to have a foundation in the Italian masters. I’m also finding ways to integrate the cross-cultural skills I developed into other fields of study. As an International Relations major, I hope to bring a nuanced understanding of culture to the realm of diplomacy and international organizations. Most importantly, I’m happy knowing my study abroad journey didn’t end when the plane landed.