I don’t think I ever expected a completely authentic experience when coming to NYU Florence. Florence is such a tourist city, a mecca of tour buses and selfie sticks, almost inescapable. I certainly didn’t expect a Jhumpa Lahiri moment, I’m not about to publish In Other Words. I really thought, to fully immerse, I’d have to learn Italian in its entirety, and I felt guilty believing I wasn’t interacting with real Italians. But I quickly realized it wasn’t me who was the problem, but instead Florence, nearly enabling me with all its English speakers. With one look at me, shopkeepers ask me if I want dinner instead of “cena.” Men on the street even choose to catcall in English.
Bursting the bubble seems to come only with travel. On a recent trip to Milan, a friend of mine brought up traveling with the wrong kind of group. She realized, after we found ourselves in a small town we never expected to be in on our way over, that we were forced to interact in Italian with locals, learning their stories. Only because few people spoke English, and because there were little to no American tourists in town, we had breakfast with the mother of the woman who owned the B&B. It was the kindest, most authentic experience I had. As we walked around the city that morning, I felt the first drop of culture shock I had ever felt. No one around me was speaking English, the town was small and absorbed in itself. There were no tourist rip-offs, only restaurants full of locals laughing and uncorking bottles of wine. The first feeling of otherness occurred to me, but I enjoyed every second of it. It felt like I had finally come to a different country to study.
Those interactions, the idea of myself sitting in a bar laughing with locals, quickly ended when I came on the NYU Florence campus. It’s huge, gorgeous, wonderful, all of those things, but it’s also one big bubble of American students studying American things. I transferred out of a class which focused on slavery and human rights in the U.S., and into a class focusing on Italian literature. I’m sure there are students here studying the U.S. while in Italy, although most of American public education is centered around the States and its involvement with other nations. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose a bit?
Let me get this right, though, I did choose Florence because I knew I wouldn’t be stranded in another country, lost and alone. I chose Florence because the American population is high and study abroad programs flourish. I knew this would be my most gentle first time out of the U.S., with the size and amount of resources I expect from my NYU New York home campus. There is a developed presence of tourists, and it allows me to feel safe in some ways, not like an intruder to a new culture. I may be brown and only speak English (well), but I’m certainly not alone in that, and I find great comfort in that sometimes.
It’s a balancing act, like most difficult things in this life. (Pretty much everything, if you dig deep.) There’s a way of feeling one with the culture, but also a feeling of community with other students studying in a place unfamiliar to them, a basic human need to find common ground with those nearest. NYU Florence is always battling these two things, and it’s fine because so are we.