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: