Japan | Fruits & Fast-Food

By Deran Chan

I’ve been in Tokyo now for about 2 weeks. I moved into my dorm at International Christian University (ICU), started my classes, and played tennis indoors for the first time. This is my study abroad experience. Once I got to Japan, I needed to stock up on snacks (priorities) so I started at the local markets. If you didn’t already know, fruits and vegetables in Japan are SO EXPENSIVE. This mango peach costs 600 yen at the supermarket (roughly equivalent to $6 in the U.S.) and this is because Japan gets a lot of their fresh produce imported from around the world.

After my Japanese produce haul, I ventured into the world of fast-food. Just a 10 minute bus ride away from campus, Musashi-Sakai Station offers a wide range of restaurants and shops. So where did I go?

McDonald’s. Yep, that’s right. I travelled to the other side of the world to eat the most “American” restaurant known to man. In my defense, the menu is completely different, but more importantly it’s way better. The McNuggets taste like actual chicken and the whole experience feels like anything but fast-food. I also tried their grape float since their ice cream machine was actually working <shocker> and I was pretty satisfied overall.

A few days later, I went to a chain called “MOS Burger.” The burger was really flavorful and I could tell that MOS Burger was the In-n-Out of Japan. Unlike the United States, a lot of Japanese restaurants will have a second story for additional seating. When you’re done eating, make sure you put your dishes and trash in the appropriate area. In Japan, you are required to sort your trash into different categories: combustibles, non-combustibles, bottles, plastics, etc.

Australia | Orientation Week


The first week here in Brisbane, Australia can only be described in one word: brutal. The spirits of Brisbane surely wanted to provide me with the warmest welcome, hence the 90F weather the week I arrived. One would have guessed I would have adapted well to the weather, but nope – I ended up getting heat stroke the second day here (absolutely amazing and possibly record breaking, I know). Anyway, here is a little insight into UQ’s O-Week.


Prior to arriving in Australia, I received an email from the UQ International Student Office with information on the compulsory Incoming Study Abroad and Exchange Orientation. The session would take place on Tuesday, February 21 at 8am in Building 50. The day before orientation, a plethora of questions ran through my mind:

             “How many students would attend?”

            “Would I be one of the only Americans/Californians there?”

            “Would I feel intimidated, welcomed, or a mixture of both?”

The next morning, I arrived early to the lecture hall to secure a seat in the first row. When I arrived, the total number of students in the room did not exceed 20. But each passing minute introduced a new wave of eager, diverse, and nervous group of students. By the start of the first presentation, the lecture hall was overfilled with more than 300 students. The director of the office kicked off the session by asking students to cheer for their respective region/country. After cheers for Asia, Europe, South America, and Canada, the biggest roar erupted when she said “America.” More than half of the room erupted into a massive and load “WOOOO” and it was truly extraordinary (and a little painful).

After a general introduction informing us about the academic, career, and health services available on campus, a professor from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Department led us in a traditional Australian chant. Performing the chant with hundreds of students from all over the world was one of the greatest experiences and to hear the words “Welcome to UQ, this is your new home” was the ultimate cherry on top. At the conclusion of the orientation session, student ambassadors from the center divided students into little clusters for a campus wide tour. I remembered viewing the campus from the airplane, looking at how the Brisbane River provided the perfect border. I did not, however, anticipate the size – a campus filled with over 89 buildings, nine libraries (five are open 24/7 hours and are fully equipped with sleeping pods, showers, a kitchenette, and vending machines with packages meals), nine playing fields, and a lake. To say it differed from UCLA would be a major understatement. I also got to get my University of Queensland student ID, making the exchange tangibly real.

Following the tour, the Queensland University Exchange Student society (QUEST) hosted a Welcome Sausage Sizzle to end orientation day. Other than hearing the phrase “Shrimp on the barbie” in reference to Australian food, I had absolutely no idea of what an authentic meal would be. After patiently waiting in line for 15 minutes, I received a sausage placed diagonally on a single slice of white bread (yes, you read that right) topped with caramelized onions and ketchup. I initially concluded that given the size of the group, the club ran out of hotdog buns, but nope – this was it. I tasted the sausage sandwich and it was fantastic. Also, the greatest part (by far) about the Sausage Sizzle was the mini farm featuring llamas and baby pigs. SO CUTE!

Market Day

The day following the International and Exchange Student Orientation, an event known as Market Day consumed the Great Court. Market Day transformed UQ into a festival filled with stalls, giveaways, and performances. All of the clubs and societies at UQ had a booth set up and eagerly tried to encourage students to become a member of their organization. From the UQ Sci-Fi and Fantasy Society to the UQ Surfers, the range of clubs extended every social, departmental, cultural, and sporting interest. As I walked toward the Great Court, I felt overwhelmed by the hundreds of clubs and thousands of students there. I surveyed the major tents at the center of the Great Court because of the giveaways available. UQ Union, the largest student organization on campus, provided students with welcome totes containing school supplies, a planner, and information pamphlets outlining the host of student support services. Before moving on to the clubs, I picked up a reusable water bottle from the UQ Sustainability department and a free University of Queensland t-shirt from UQConnect.

After circling the Great Court and talking to representatives from clubs I felt interested in, I officially became a member of UQ Volunteers, the UQ Latin American Student Association (LASA), the Queensland University Exchange Student Society (QUEST), and Law Society. Here lies a major distinction between joining a club at UCLA versus joining a club at UQ. While at UCLA’s Enormous Activities Fair, a student can simply fill out an information sheet to be added to the club’s mailing list, a student at UQ must pay for their membership in a club. The price varies depending on the resources/benefits the club promises to provide to members and its overall popularity. To gain membership into the clubs listed above, I paid a total of $15 (which is equivalent to $11.50 USD). Although the idea of paying to join a club/society seemed strange, the cost ultimately is returned through club activities throughout the semester.

UQ Union’s Ignition Party

O-Week finished off on Friday night during UQ Union’s Ignition Neon Party. Held on the Forgan Smith Lawn, the party featured live acts, lots of neon paint, and free food. Tickets for the party sold for $10 and students were encouraged to purchase neon paint. Comparable to UCLA’s Bruin Bash, the festival was an equally massive success. To paint the picture for you (pun intended), you are alongside hundreds of students on a large lawn on campus, dancing to the music of up and coming artists, while getting drenched in neon paint. The paint gets everywhere– (hair, shoes, mouth, eye, etc.) and no place is safe.

Reflecting on orientation week, I can genuinely say UQ does its best at ensuring every single student feels welcomed and supported. Although I am more than seven thousand miles from UCLA, I truly feel at home here at UQ.

Monica Martinez studied abroad in Brisbane, Australia in Spring 2017: http://eap.ucop.edu/OurPrograms/australia/Pages/host_Queensland_AustraliaImmersion.aspx

South Africa | Arrival and Getting Settled in Cape Town


The day had finally come. I was off to South Africa. After arriving late to the airport due to the daunting Los Angeles traffic, I was in line at Qatar Airways waiting to receive a ticket, an hour being take-off.  To my surprise and delight, however, the plane had been delayed. Once I got my ticket, I said goodbye to my mom and went through security. After a 16-hour flight, I was in Doha. After I snapped out of the daze that the stunning Doha Airport put me in, I headed to the Transit Accommodation Desk. Qatar Airways has a deal that if you have a layover that is longer than eight hours, they will put you in a hotel room, free of charge. The hotel room was lovely and featured two showers. I decided to explore the country with the free time I had so I headed to Souq Waqif, a popular square in Qatar. It was 100 degrees outside but the architecture was what took my breath away. After a few hours, I headed back to the airport to board a plane to my final destination of Cape Town, South Africa.

Qatar during layover

After another 11-hour flight, I had finally reached Cape Town, a city I had been dreaming about studying in for over a year. I joked with the immigration officer that he needed to endorse my visa and passport correctly so he didn’t have to see me again and I was off to my home in the Southern Suburbs, where I was to reside for the next four months. I was the first one to the house so I got to choose my room and of course I chose the master bedroom with a fireplace in it. The house was so cute, clean, and homey, so I was ecstatic! I met my three other housemates, one girl from UCSB, a guy from Boston College, and another guy from UC Davis, and we all gelled. I knew it was going to be a great few months in Cape Town.

Home for the next 4 months!

My Cape Town room!

That same evening, we decided to take a tour of our university before sunset. The University of Cape Town, a ten-minute walk from our house, was STUNNING. We got to see the sun set over Table Mountain, which is conveniently right behind the school, as Capetonians played rugby. I could hardly contain my excitement for orientation the following day. At the orientation, student leaders performed dances and got the international students.The highlight of the orientation was the drumming lesson! We had local South Africans play drums for us and then they distributed drums to every single student to play along. It was the best orientation I ever attended. The subsequent days we enrolled in classes. The process of getting pre-approved for courses was a bit challenging, and something everyone should look into during study abroad, but ultimately everything worked out. I was ready to immerse myself in Cape Town academic and cultural life, and I knew this was just the beginning of my wonderful South African journey.

University of Cape Town Stunning Campus

Kelli Hamilton studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, in fall 2018: http://eap.ucop.edu/OurPrograms/south_africa/Pages/univ_of_cape_town.aspx

Scotland | Airport Woes and Getting to Scotland


Having traveled internationally more than once and having had my share of interesting experiences while travelling, the beginning of my travels to Scotland began a bit rocky and challenged my travel experience. I decided to depart approximately a week before the program start date in order to insure that I’d arrive in Scotland on time. My mom, who has never left the country, and I decided to travel to Europe for the holidays. My flight was cancelled/delayed for about 5 hours. That was okay because I found out about it before leaving for the airport; unfortunately, the new route had a layover of 23 hours in Russia. I’ve done long layovers before but I really didn’t want to do that; especially because the 23-hour layover would be on Christmas day. Airports are not a conventional Christmas destination and also not particularly fun. Go figure. Upon arriving at the airport, I asked about our airline rerouting us onto the quickest flight to my destination, or at least something that didn’t have me stranded at an airport. Luckily, they found something that would have a short layover and have us arriving on Christmas day. We arrive at the airport to check in with our rerouted airline… who then tells us they do not have a ticket under our names. Of course, I begin to panic because the original cancelled flight had departed hours before. Neither our original airline or our new airline knew who we were supposed to fly with. Thankfully, everything was eventually situated, although we are still not quite sure what happened. All that mattered was that it was fixed.

After the holidays, I flew to Scotland and arrived at 1am, exhausted from travelling. The flight attendants began passing around visa forms that needed to be filled out before arriving at the visa stations. After exiting the plane, I rushed to the front of the line. My nice, warm hotel bed was calling my name. I got to the passport control officer, handed all the documents to him. He then asked, “Where’s your acceptance letter from the university?”. I pointed to the document I printed out and he said, “No, that isn’t acceptable. It doesn’t have the start and end dates of your semester program.” I then apologized because I didn’t realize it had to have the dates. He proceeded to tell me that all the other documents I had brought to him didn’t matter. I was thoroughly confused and starting to worry; what happens when you fly to a country and they don’t let you in?? Luckily, I didn’t have to find out. He let me through with a warning and my visa for Scotland perfectly stamped into my passport. I have been preparing for this trip for months. Prior to Scotland, I was studying abroad in Senegal. I thought I knew what to expect and all the things I needed for a smooth arrival. But, even in my plethora of lists, I still wasn’t fully prepared. Travelling is a finicky trickster, and it’s necessary to be flexible throughout the journey. Eventually, everything works out.

Traveling can be a scary thing, but it can also create the most interesting stories that tests your patience and flexibility. This may be a stretch, but the traveling to point A to B really adds to your character and teaches you a lot about yourself and interactions with other people. Although going to the airport and flying internationally can be stressful, I always look back at the downside and find that all the stress and worry I possessed at that moment turned out okay, sometimes even wonderfully.

Caitlyn Pickard studied abroad in Edinbugh, Scotland, in Spring 2018: http://eap.ucop.edu/OurPrograms/United_Kingdom_Scotland/Pages/host_EdinburghUKImmersion.aspx 

France | An Idiot Abroad: C’est Bon


“C’est bon” (it’s good). No two words could better encapsulated and de- scribe my first week in France. This is because these two words are the ones I use the most from my arsenal of flowery French vocabulary: filled to the brim with all its 10 words and elementary sophistication.

I have never taken French before. I have never been to Europe. I have never been so excited.

Coming to a foreign country and not understanding anything may seem scary, but at the end of the day it all comes down to perspective. When I first moved to the US at age 8, I was dropped straight into 2nd grade not speaking a word of English. At that age I was too naive to under- stand embarrassment or comprehend the fact that the teacher did not speak Chinese (I completed all my assignments and gave presentations in Chinese and never thought about the difficulties Mrs. Turner would have). Now, at 21, I am still very much possess that adolescent naiveté and could not be more thankful and happy that I never truly matured in this area. It is this youthful ignorance and complete blindness to bar- riers that has made my time in France, thus far, “très très bien” (very very great). I could not be happier that I never learned as a child to not talk to strangers.

Without any previous experience in French, I dove head first into this beautiful land. Armed with one phrase and one phrase only, “parlez- vous anglais” (do you speak English?), I landed in Lyon on New Year’s Eve at 10:17PM. Completely clueless and shocked by the freezing cold, I managed to get myself to my hostel after 1 train, 2 trams, and a lot of directions from Frenchmen that I couldn’t understand. I arrived at my Hostel exactly at 12:00AM and was greeted by a huge group of people with “bonne année” and other trendy French New Year sayings that I did not understand. It was at this moment that I realized that the hos- tel I had so last minute booked on Expedia was also a bar…The night continued with random conversations with a group of locals who in- vited me for drinks and made sure that I did not have to spend the first moments of 2017 alone. Everything that I had heard about the French hating Americans and being extremely unfriendly were all proven to be complete and utter BS at this moment. Thank you Mohammed, John- Phillip, and all the others with really French names that I do not have the proper education to pronounce.

(Six hour layover in Amsterdam before arriving in Lyon, France)

1) Lyon Airport. 2) Closing in on New Years. 3) Rhone Express to Lyon city center. 4) Friends I made on New Year’s Eve

I spent the next 2 days at the hostel and got really close with the baris- tas and other travelers who shared with me some special local spots and their incredible stories. One gentleman from Australia was espe- cially memorable. Jonathan had been an engineer in Australia and at the age of 48 decided to quit his job and travel the world. On the date that I met him, he had been traveling for almost 2 years. We talked late into the night, and his experiences and stories inspired and made a last- ing impact on me. He didn’t have a lot of money nor many luxuries, but one could feel the appreciation he had for life and the vitality he pos- sessed. Thank you Jonathan, Leslie, Judith, Clara, Sharif, Andre, and Jean for such a great first hostel experience in France.

On the 3rd day my host family picked me up from the Hostel and helped me move into my home for the next 6 months. When I met them, I could not believe how much my life was beginning to resemble a movie. My host-dad Yvan, is one of the most charming and funny people I have ever met and everything I imaged a Frenchman to be. We’ve had great conversations about how to strategize bargains with people on Lyon’s version of Craigslist (Leboncoin) and his favorite French musicians that I have grown to like. My host-mom Caroline, is very sweet and extremely caring. Her square glasses, French accent, and warm expressos just conjures up flashes of every French movie I have ever seen. Their children Paul-Eliot and Lison are also some of the nicest and most entertaining people I have ever met (child or adult). I could not have been more blessed to be placed in such a wonderful family. Even though we don’t always 100% understand each other, there is never a lack of conversation, great food, aromatic cheese, and terrific wine. Thank you guys for opening your home to me and wel- coming me as a member of the family.

Besides roaming the streets and talking to random people like a 7 year old, I’ve also dabbled in the realm of education. After all, academics first right? Classes have not officially began yet, but as a part of the pro- gram we have to enroll in a 2 week intensive French language and cul- ture seminar. The classes in this seminar are all in French. I’m not talking 1 or 2 words in French, a sentence in French, or even half an hour in French. I’m talking 6 hours a day of non-stop French. We’re not talking about elementary level French either. This is some next level, Les Misérable, Amélie, drowning in French type of level. I understand completely nothing in any of the classes. I live for moments when there are words spoken that sound similar to English and short breaks when I can converse with other students in a language that I actually know. Despite my efforts to transfer to a elementary school that I believe would actually be more conducive for my French learning, the powers that be have yet to honor this request.

This past week in the classrooms have been very reminiscent of my first months in 2nd grade when I didn’t speak a word of English and could not understand anyone. Similar to those months 13 years ago, I am still proceeding with a blissful lack of concern and regard for the language barrier and childishly engaging in the ways I can and to the best of my ability. Despite me being eons behind everyone else, these classes have proved to be overall great experiences and I don’t hesitate for a second on whether I should go to class tomorrow. After all, decisions are not made by everyone who understands, but can only be made by those who show up.

(A field trip organized by the University as part of the language program. We got to spend a day in Montpellier, which could have literally been the setting for every single Hollywood romantic film.)

I’ve made friends with the staff and professors who have come to refer me as the class’ collective “baby” and also graciously made accommoda- tions to make things a little easier for me. Although I still understand nothing, I have come to learn through this past week that it is not so much how much you can understand, but rather how much you try to understand that really matters.

I have made some great friends from all over the world in these classes. They are some of the most kind and fun people to be around. It’s amaz- ing how close we all have grown in such a short amount of time and I can not thank them enough for their help and friendship. Thank you: Jonathan, Daniel, Claire, Stasi, Cian, Ollie, Tammy, Elishka, Flevie, and Madam Santos for being the A1’s and all the great times. Looking for- ward to all the possibilities in the 6 months.

Some wonderful instructors who made things very fun even though I understood nothing they said 100% of the time.

(Some extremely fun times shared with some great people. Could not have asked for better compadres on this journey through a foreign land.)

In the words of Hannah Montana: “life’s what you make it, so let’s make it rock.”

Barry Yang studied abroad in Lyon, France, in Spring 2017: http://eap.ucop.edu/OurPrograms/france/Pages/default.aspx

England | Why Study Abroad?


Studying Abroad is an experience of a lifetime. Traveling across the country with students from UCLA and learning the ins-and-outs of London is something that very few people can say they have ever done.  During my freshmen year at UCLA, I knew that I wanted to study abroad. I remember specifically walking through the multiple rows of Ackerman Grand Ballroom where The International Education Office had lines of tables showing all the various trips they offered throughout the summer. The tables had over 20 countries that students were visiting. I remember how excited I felt at the idea of going abroad and studying in a new location. All my life, my mom has always told me to be a sponge and soak up everything I possible could. Studying abroad in Europe seemed like an opportunity that I wanted to soak in. The opportunity felt even more special because I thought it would be my only chance to be able to experience a country as an undergraduate student at UCLA. After talking to previous students who went on study abroad trips and seeing the enthusiasm and excitement that they all shared from their own experiences,  it gave me the encouragement and excitement to pursue a study abroad program with UCLA.

After I decided that I was going to travel abroad my freshmen year, it was just a matter of deciding what program I wanted to go on and where I specifically wanted to go. It was a dream of mine to go to London. My sister and I always used to talk about traveling to the United Kingdom and  was at the top of our list. It wasn’t until my sophomore year when I decided to study specifically in London in the Romanticism Program with Professor Makdisi. Ever since I took English 119 in Winter Quarter at UCLA with Professor Makdisi, I knew that I wanted to explore and build upon what I learned about the city of London in his class. As my sophomore London class sat in Haines and learned about the city of London, I remember something that Professor Makdisi said as he was showing us a first person perspective as if you were on an Omnibus. He explained that although he could show us what London looked like on screen, it is a completely different experience in person. The streets, the city, the nightlife were all things about London that were indescribable and needed to be experienced. And he was right. Everything was different. From the streets, the cars, the city life, and atmosphere, it was completely different than the United States. Something that you couldn’t teach out of a textbook, but rather something that you had to explore in person. I thought what better way to explore an unknown city with people from UCLA. An experience like this is indescribable and is something that I encourage anyone to take advantage of!

Savannah Shapiro studied abroad in London, England in Summer 2017: https://ieo.ucla.edu/travelstudy/English-London/

Italy | Lucky Happenings


The first and longest leg of my flight was officially complete when I landed at the Charles De Gaul Airport in Paris, 30 minutes behind schedule, with only 15 minutes until my connecting flight. I panicked—Florence was on the line.

With bags and limbs flailing, I sprinted through that labyrinth of an airport, which included a subway system and two lengthy security checks, neither of which I had anticipated. There were lines of people everywhere, extending for miles on end. Finally the clouds parted and the angels began to sing, as I reached my gate. Lucky happening #1.

As if making my flight wasn’t miraculous enough, somehow I got assigned the cherished window seat in the exit row—a true gift bestowed on my cramping legs. I was thrilled to be swimming in legroom, and also for the opportunity to have my first view of the picturesque city of Florence be an aerial one. Lucky happening #2.

After taking my window seat, two fashionable Frenchmen sat next to me. In very broken English, they asked me a question, miming and motioning to their friend further down the length of the plane, sitting in the middle seat. I’m not sure if I actually didn’t understand what they were getting at (requesting that I leave my heavenly exit-row-window-seat, and switch to their friend’s limited-leg-room-middle-seat), or it was just selective misunderstanding…. Either way, I gave them a perplexed look, to which they politely replied in concession, “ees okay, ees okay.”

With admirable determination, the Frenchmen then approached the two passengers that were sitting next to their friend. Those generous souls were more than happy to trade-up for more legroom and seemed to have no problem whatsoever understanding the Frenchmen. They offered their seats to the men, and then sat next to me.

Within seconds I discovered that the three of us, who by some serendipitous chance, randomly sat in the same row of the same airplane, are all enrolled in the same study abroad program!! Lucky happening #3.

My seat mates and I gabbed at unnatural speeds for the duration of the hour and a half flight. I quickly discovered that Lizzy, a UC Santa Cruz senior, is an absolute hoot with a heart of gold! Ricky, a UC Santa Barbara junior, is incredibly adventurous and is hoping to travel every chance he gets. I felt so relieved knowing that there were at least two wonderful people in my program. I also took comfort in the fact that three very jetlagged, disoriented brains, should suffice as one adequate brain, and we would most likely be able to figure out transportation from the airport to school, which had been my greatest concern.

We landed and exited the plane directly onto the tarmac of the Florence Airport. My first steps onto Italian soil were bitingly cold and beyond thrilling.

After collecting our luggage from the teeny tiny Florentine airport, we followed signs that read, “taxi”, feeling ever grateful for that familiar word, amongst so many unfamiliar others.

Finding a cab and communicating with our driver was an absolute breeze. We zipped past little gelaterias that gave an entirely new meaning to the words “hole in the wall”, and gawked over the chic dogs that matched their stylish owners in high fashion coats, strutting the streets like runways. As if the beauty were fleeting, I took pictures out of the backseat window like a paparazzi spotting Rihanna.

While he couldn’t have seemed like more of a gentleman, our taxi driver was in fact a Florentine driver, which I quickly learned means throwing all caution (and traffic regulations…and regard for pedestrian… and sanity) to the wind. Within the span of the 20-minute drive, we had three close calls of colliding with Vespas, cars, and famous monuments, before making it to Piazza Santo Spirito—the square in which our school is located. We paid the kind, but reckless driver, and I was happy to plant my feet on the immobile Italian ground again. Lucky Happening #4.

We walked through Piazza Santo Spirito and I could feel its trendy, bohemian air seep into my skin, and make me a little bit more hip.  Luggage in hand, we strolled past its charming fountain, admired its grand statue, and took (a million) pictures of its terra-cotta colored building walls, clad with vibrant emerald shutters and window boxes.

Upon reaching the school’s entrance, we pried open its intricately carved masterpiece of a door, that should be on display in a museum really (as should every Italian door… and ceiling… and clothes line).

Inside we met Daniela, the program’s spitfire housing coordinator, and our soon to be surrogate Italian mother. She gave each of us our keys and maps of Florence, circling our new, respective homes in relation to the location of the school and to other major monuments. To my surprise, students that had requested to live in apartments were scattered (along with their roommates) all over the small city. We share buildings with Italian families, giving us an authentic, rather than dormitory, Florentine experience.

Some students, like Lizzy, decided to do a “homestay”. That means that Lizzy is going live in an Italian person’s home where she will be provided family style, home-cooked breakfasts and dinners every weekday, along with the opportunity to have a live-in Italian language tutor.

Daniela called a taxi to take Lizzy and Ricky to their apartments, but she had me wait in her office, explaining that my roommate, Ruby, had gone to lunch, but would be back shortly. I had expected to have at least four housemates, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that I only had one!

I sat in the office waiting, without the security blanket of my two new airplane friends. So much anticipation began to build up as I imagined meeting the random person I’d be living in a foreign country with for the next three months. What would she be like? Would she be “normal”? “Ruby” seems like a normal person’s name, right? Have you ever met a crazy “Ruby”? Would we have anything in common?

Finally, after maybe four minutes, Ruby walked into the office, and immediately her red hair indicated our first commonality. Lucky happening # 5. We introduced ourselves, and immediately she seemed so sweet, friendly, and normal!! Plus, I knew if we had nothing else to talk about, we could at least discuss our preferred SPF percentages.

We took a cab to our new apartment—which Daniela told us, is sandwiched directly in between two iconic areas of Florence (the Palazzo Vecchio with the outdoor rendition of The David, and the phenomenal Santa Croce Church). During the ride, Ruby and I discovered so much more that we had in common, aside from hair color and propensity to sunburn. We share a deep love for music (our parents both work in the music industry!), we grew up living just 7 minutes apart, and we both have a previously unrivaled passion for eating.

We arrived at our building’s prime location (but really any location in Florence is a prime one), elated to see that we have the quintessential Italian leather shop hugging one side of our building, with a quaint, family-owned gelateria on the other. Because ice cream is my absolute favorite food group, I could not have been more ecstatic. Lucky happening #6.

We lugged our bags (which by their weight and size may as well have housed those family members who’d asked to be packed into our suitcases) up the flight of stairs and into our new apartment.

Ruby unlocked our front door, and we got our first glimpse of our charming new apartment. Our kitchen is sweet and cozy with giant windows overlooking the busy street below, and a decorative retro tablecloth with images of beer bottles from around the world. Our living room is attached to the kitchen and has a green futon couch along with a TV! The bedroom is fairly spacious, equipped with two armoires and two very comfortable beds.

After unloading and organizing our things, Ruby and I decided to bundle up in our snow coats and walk down the street to grab some dinner. Our stroll to the caffé was made exponentially longer, as we were constantly distracted and drawn into each and every store on the block. We stopped in Signum (my new favorite shop that has post cards, and maps, and leather bound journals) and then into a Pinocchio themed cuckoo clock store, followed by a coat shop (that we entered only after the store owner, Mauri, offered us the “deal of the century.” He begged us to try on his extravagant handmade fur coats that made me look like a character in Narnia).

After an hour of walking and window-shopping, we made it the full one hundred yards down our block, and into Caffè Pasticeria. We felt jetlagged and unsure of what meal period, day, or year it was.  We decided to have a Cannoli drenched in powdered sugar for dinner, and call it a day—and a wonderful day at that.

Willa Giffin studied abroad in Florence, Italy, in Winter 2017: http://eap.ucop.edu/OurPrograms/italy/Pages/language_culture_florence_quarter.aspx

Italy | Caught on Tape – En Route to Florence!


When preparing for a trip on an airplane, most parents of young children pack a goodie-bag of sorts, filled with an array of toys to occupy their traveling toddlers: action figures, dolls, coloring books, crayons, play-doh, iPads, and electronics galore.

My mom had it easy. Anytime we’d travel on an airplane, my greatest desire was a single role of scotch tape. That scotch tape kept me occupied and content for hours on end: I’d design tape bracelets for my dad, construct tape rings for my mom, and tape my tray table securely in its upright, and very locked position. While I may have had little regard for the arms my careful creations ripped the hairs off of, or the poor souls whose seatbacks were being forcefully bandaged by scotch tape, I was thrilled—and quiet. What a privilege it was to have unrestricted, free reign over the amount of tape I could use. The sky was the limit. Pun intended.

Today at 21 years old, I’m currently four hours into my flight from Los Angeles to Florence, where I will be studying abroad for the next three month.  As I sit here on the plane, I can’t stop thinking about how drastically things have changed since the days of my tape infatuation. For one thing, today the serrated edge of the scotch tape dispenser is probably considered a potential weapon, warranting an oh so awkward TSA pat-down. For another, I’ve moved far, far, FAR past my days of packing light and needing minimal sources of entertainment.

Within my backpack tucked (“crammed” might be more honest) beneath the seat in front of me, I have 2 travel books about Florence, my old Italian language textbook, a brilliant David Sedaris book, a plethora of snacks, my phone and its endless possibilities, my laptop and ITS endless possibilities, a pair of cozy socks (more for comfort than entertainment, but who can truly enjoy a good book with cold feet?), not to mention the screen on the seat-back in front of me that is loaded with seemingly unlimited movies, TV shows, and games, all available with just the touch of a finger (or a several touches, these seat-back touch screens aren’t very responsive).

Along the lines of over packing, I am embarrassed to say that despite the advice of every past study abroad student who has urged and pleaded with me to leave room in my luggage for future Florentine finds, my suitcase is filled to the brim and pushing the airline weight limit.

The forecast in Florence includes snow—a complete and utter enigma to an LA native like me. As if I were about to embark on some sort of off-the-grid Bear Grills adventure, I did my best to prepare to face the unknown elements that lay before me.

I bought a puffy down jacket at a killer Black Friday sale, a warm vest from Nordstrom Rack, and some nice long underwear from REI.  I packed a pair of well-loved boots that can (hopefully!) withstand the rain, good walking shoes, a pair of cozy slippers, some gloves, two scarves, four long sleeved shirts, a couple of sweaters, a few short sleeved tops, three pairs of pants, one dress (that I will probably never wear), and the rest of the allotted weight in additional socks.

Since my youthful taping days, the simplicity of my attention span has disappeared into thin air. However, my desire to “fix” and “mend” may have manifested in my devotion to packing an astronomical amount of medicine. I received an email from my study abroad program explaining that the medication and vitamins that we might be accustomed to in America are much more challenging to find in Italy. Naturally, I packed myself a makeshift first-aid kit that is (barely) contained in an enormous three-gallon Ziploc bag. I practically emptied out our bathroom medicine cabinet, pouring a generous supply of pills from their original bottles into more travel friendly individual sandwich sized bags, labeling in sharpie the name of each medicine along with its dosage. Then I placed each small, individual bag into the larger bag. I packed Tylenol, ibuprofen, bug spray (we were told that the mosquitos here are relentless, even in the cold), Benadryl cream, Benadryl in pill form, vitamin B, vitamin C, Echinacea, a Costco supply of Zicam (my miracle cold-be-gone medicine), Band-Aids of many shapes and sizes, drowsy and non drowsy Dramamine (for a potential Alps road trip!), a thermometer, Tums, and a lifetime supply of cough drops.

You can call me many things (maybe a hypochondriac being one?), but you can’t call me unprepared. I feel content, like all my bases are covered—but in writing this, I’m beginning to worry that once I land, the TSA will hold me in questioning for days on end without food, water, or sunlight, as my lifetime supply of pills in little bags will serve as potential evidence for my suspected role in the drug cartel….

Besides that faint, lingering worry of spending the rest of my life in an Italian jail, I am so eagerly anticipating the journey ahead of me. For the past year that I have known about this upcoming quarter-long adventure, people have constantly asked me how I feel about studying abroad in Florence. While I am undoubtedly excited to taste the pasta, walk the cobblestone, and see the laundry lining the windowpanes down the narrow streets, the type of excitement I am experiencing now is so different than the type that I am accustomed to feeling on Christmas morning, or when my name is called and my Starbucks order is ready. Unlike Christmas or my Carmel Macchiato, I just have no clue what to expect. No matter how many people recommend what Osterias to frequent, where to get the best cappuccino, or what time to climb to the top of the Duomo, Italy has just felt so distant and out of reach.

Something happened this morning, a random, chance encountering, that seemed to ignite a depth and fervor to the enthusiasm that I have been yearning to feel. My mom, dad, brother, and I decided to take our puppy on one last walk all together around our favorite bluff overlooking the ocean, before my 3:00 pm departure from LAX. With just a few hours until takeoff, I was nervous for the long flight ahead of me, and overwhelmed with emotion surrounding my imminent journey. Besides the four of us (and puppy makes 5), this particular walk was especially quiet and the streets were fairly empty. The only person we passed by was an older woman wearing a conservative, long black dress, tights, and shiny black loafers. As I crossed paths with the woman, I grinned and said, “hello”. Her face lit up with the most enormous smile, and with such incredible warmth, she replied, “buongiorno!”

If that’s not an omen for a wonderful Italian adventure filled with kind and charming people, I don’t know what is.

Willa Giffin studdied abroad in Florence, Italy, in Winter 2017: http://eap.ucop.edu/OurPrograms/italy/Pages/language_culture_florence_quarter.aspx