Spain | A Weekend in Cádiz


On a narrow strip of land, connected to the Iberian peninsula by an even narrower strip of land, is Cádiz- one of the oldest cities in Europe. Last weekend I went to Cádiz with a group of friends in the Exploring Andalucía program, and we had an amazing time! Cádiz is full of history, delicious tapas, beautiful beaches, and lovely people. Here are some of my favorite memories from the trip.

The views. For me, the two best ways to experience a city are on foot and from above. We did plenty of walking, and we also went in two towers and saw beautiful views of the city. Cádiz is really small so you can see most of the city if you are high enough. In the center of Cádiz there is a building called Torre Tavira which costs a few euros to enter. Not only does it offer an amazing view of Cádiz, including the Cathedral, the building also has a camera obscura- which allows you to see a live, 360 view of Cádiz. We were able to see the entire city of Cádiz projected onto a large canvas disk, in real time. It was so cool to see the waves of the ocean, birds in flight, laundry drying on roofs, and even people walking around the city!

View from Torre Tavira, including the Cathedral of Cádiz

In the Cathedral of Cádiz you can walk up a narrow and steep spiral ramp that takes you up to one of the two bell towers. From here you have a beautiful view of the city and details of the roof of the church. The bells ring every 15 minutes though, and they are very loud!

Very steep and narrow stairs at the top of the Cathedral!

View from the Cathedral bell tower

Speaking of the Cathedral, it is one of the most interesting buildings I have seen in Spain (besides the Mezquita-Catedral of Córdoba, of course). Structurally the building has two main domed towers and a concave façade in the middle. The exterior is two different colors because the building took a long time to complete, and they used two different materials. Inside, there is large central altar and many smaller chapels all along the sides of the church, all boasting statues of biblical figures and paintings. The church also had a crypt below ground that was designed to produce echoes. In the crypt the air is cool and moist, since it is below sea level.

The exterior of the Cathedral

The central altar in the Cathedral, which is modeled after the two towers

Tapaaaaas. Spain is of course famous for tapas, and there are many typical tapas dishes in Spain. Many of these are meat based, and I am vegetarian, so often my options are limited. In Cádiz however, I had eggplant with goat cheese and honey, salmorejo (a tomato based dip eaten with bread), and sautéed veggies. Everything was delicious and really cheap! I also had my first Spanish paella in Cádiz! On our first night we actually had Italian food for dinner, which was really good, but the other two nights we just went to a few tapas places for food. Although they are small plates, if you get a few you have a substantial dinner for only a few euros!

Adrenaline. Cádiz is right on the water and has numerous beautiful beaches. In the summer it is a popular vacation spot for this reason, and the heat makes the ocean a great place to cool off. As we went in January, it was not nearly warm enough to justify swimming in the ocean, but my friends and I wanted to anyways. We looked pretty ridiculous running in, as no one else was swimming, but it felt great to jump in the Atlantic! There’s something about seeing the sun begin to set over the ocean that’s different when you’re in the ocean, when your senses are heightened from the cold water.

Sunset over the ocean in Cádiz

Vulnerability. When you are put in a new environment where you don’t know anyone, which is often what study abroad is like, you end up making friends really quickly. In my case, I travelled to Cádiz and shared a hostel with people I had known for two weeks-and it was amazing. Because you are sharing so many new experiences together, you bond really quickly and form friendships fast. In my experience, this has led me to be more open and willing to share things about myself. There are many ways this has manifested itself-including a few of my friends and I playing guitar and singing together in our hostel. We spontaneously shared our favorite songs and our voices with each other. That vulnerability and ability to connect through music formed our bond that much quicker.

Traveling also lends itself to making new friends quickly wherever you go. Staying in hostels is a great way to meet people, because many people are traveling alone or in small groups, and there are often common areas to hang out in. At our hostel in Cádiz we met a lot of really cool people and got to talk with people from many different places!

No schedule. One thing that is nice about traveling to smaller cities is that while there are some big tourist attractions, you don’t feel rushed to do everything possible in one weekend. My favorite thing to do when I go to new places is often just to walk around the city, to see what people are up to and to look at different buildings and apartments. We would start our day and have some idea of what we might do, but never any specific place to be at any specific time. And because of this we just wandered, and got to know Cádiz through it’s narrow streets and from the brightly painted buildings that stand out from a sea of crisp white exteriors. On Saturday we walked through a park and stumbled upon a man playing the recorder, while cats darted in and out of bushes. Sunday we took the long way back to our hostel and encountered a large plaza where young kids were learning to ride bikes and scooters while their parents chatted and enjoyed the sunshine. Later, in front of the Cathedral, a woman danced flamenco in the street as people ate in the plaza and watched her perform. We did some of the tourist attractions but we also just walked, listened, and let the day unfold.

Lazy cats in Parque Genovés

What made this trip really special, however, was the people I went with and the people I met. If you surround yourself with good people you’re bound to have fun anywhere! Till next week!

My buds and I in Cádiz!

Celia Cody-Carrese studied abroad in Cordoba, Spain, in Winter 2017:

Italy | Music to My Ears


If you know me, you most likely know that I am constantly singing and humming as I go about my day: in the shower, while I cook, walking to class, taking a hike, reading a book, and yes, I’ve even been known to sleep-sing.

I just can’t help it. A song (or 10) gets stuck in my head, and absolutely no amount of distraction methods or mechanisms can unstick the tune that has adhered itself to every nook and cranny of my brain.

The Italian language seems to have this same effect on me. The graceful words and their corresponding melodies swirl around, and resonate with me, worming their way into my mind. The words replay in my brain like a broken record and I can’t help but unleash them, saying them out loud, over, and over and over again.

Italians converse with a catchy, deliberate melody that swells and dips, with specific rhythm, dynamics, fierce passion, and not so subtle hand choreography.

Music fills the air in any place that there is speaking at all. The train station is operatic. The open markets are symphonic. Melodies spew from all directions, and are conducted by the vendors, who direct and control any discordant tunes of whining hagglers.

I guess it makes sense that the language gets stuck in my head in the same way that a good Adele jam does. Every Italian conversation is its own song; every sentence is a lyric; every word, a note.

Like the songs that so often overwhelm my thoughts, I find myself parroting Italian phrases that I’ve picked up in passing, throughout my day. Shampooing my hair, I mimic the pitch, tempo, and intonation, of “faccio la doccia” (I shower). Making my bed in the morning, I rehearse “Buongiorno, vorrei un cornetto” (Good morning, I would like a croissant.) Studying for my quiz, I hum “in bocca al lupo” (a phrase meaning good luck that literally translates to “in the mouth of the wolf,” which seemed strange, until I thought about what its must be like for a foreigner to learn “break a leg”).

It is all just so captivating and pleasing to the ear. Often times I am so fixated on the beautiful pitches of what is being performed in front of me, that I forget to listen and comprehend the words themselves.

Before I left for Italy, I, of course, had to read Eat, Pray, Love. I paid special attention to the portion Elizabeth Gilbert dedicated to her pilgrimage to Rome, which she entitled “Eat.” (I’m choosing to take “Eat” as a personal, authoritative command to me from the wise and experienced author herself, to eat eat eat! And I have intently obeyed.)

In “Eat…”, Gilbert refers often to her favorite Italian word: “attraversiamo” (we cross over).  She explains that she loved to stroll with friends along the streets of Rome, intentionally walking on the side of the street opposite of her destination, so as to give herself the excuse, when the time came, to suggest that the group “attraversiamo”.

Every time I cross a street in Italy, I think of Elizabeth Gilbert and her favorite word. As I cross each street in Florence, and “attraverso”, I also consider what my favorite, exquisite Italian words that I’ve learned, might be. After a lot of crossing streets and therefore a lot of thought, I have come to the conclusion that my favorite word changes by the day, as does the song that is stuck in my head.

Today my favorite word is “abbastanza”. Yesterday, I overheard a young woman on my train to the beautiful city of Verona, say “abbastanza” playfully over and over, to her boyfriend. While I had no clue as to its meaning, the fun multi-syllabic word filled with pleasing soft “a” sounds, very much became stuck in my head like a pop tune. It became my mantra for the day. I hummed it under my breath as the train rocked me into a deep, ugly, mouth-wide-open, kind of sleep.

**Turns out “abbastanza” means “enough”…. a word, and in fact a concept, that seems to be null and void for me over here. Phrases in America such as, “thank you that’s enough parmesan,” never ever seem applicable for me in Italy.**

Last week, my favorite thing to say was “Mi dispiace”. I couldn’t get the melancholic tune and slow lilt for “I’m sorry” out of my head—and for good reason.  I’m constantly needing to apologize for bumping into people and things and animals, so “mi dispiace” comes in handy, more than I’d like it to.

I was in a little grocery store when “mi dispiace” first cemented itself in my thoughts, after an instance when I’d forgotten it, causing me to swear it would never slip my mind again. A grocery store clerk was attempting to pass by me, pushing an enormous stock-cart full of produce and products in front of him. I initially didn’t realize that I was blocking his path, until he said “scusi” (excuse me—another snappy word that’s fun to rehearse, and always applicable). Desperately searching for the correct Italian response, and feeling excessively panicked that I was in the man’s way, my instincts took over. My mind clasped onto the only word within its grasp, and I said “sorry” in English! Given that probably 80% of Florentines speak English, and the other 20% would likely know the word for “sorry”, apologizing in English was really not a big deal… The problem was the way I said “sorry”—in a very, very, overly thick, exaggerated, Italian accent, that probably seemed like I was making a mockery of the kind grocery clerk, his family, his friends, and his entire culture, all in just a single word. I left the grocery store, with “mi dispiace” in my mind, on-loop.

Right now, as my dinner simmers on the stove, I hum my favorite word for the moment: “mangia.” Mangia mangia mangia mangia mangia mangia.

Willa Giffin studied abroad in Florence, Italy in Winter 2017:

Ireland | Hiking Howth


Last weekend, we made our way over to Howth, a village just outside Dublin. Most of the village lies on a peninsula. Its coastal feel reflects its history as a fishing village. The village is only about a 30 minute train ride from Dublin City Centre, making it very manageable as a weekend day trip!


It is a bit of a process to actually get to Howth, but I promise its so worth it. I would recommend taking the DART, the Irish train system, from Dublin City Centre to Howth. We left UCD at about 11:00am and took the 39A into town to get brunch in Dublin. At about 1:00pm, we made our way to the DART station in Dublin. A round trip ticket to Howth is only about €5. Buy your ticket just outside the station and make your way to the platform. The station is extremely easy to navigate so you should have no problem finding your way. Once you’re on the train, it takes about 30 minutes to get to Howth.


Just across the street from the DART station is a small market with a few food stands and some souvenir stands as well. We picked up a few pastries from one of the stands and a Chow Mein from a noodle stand. Not kidding, the Chow Mein took about three hours for 3 of us to eat, so maybe get one to share with the group.


Once you’ve walked through the market, take your food and hike the Lower Cliff Loop and have a picnic on the cliffs! The hike was so incredibly beautiful and a must-do if you’re in Howth. The entire hike is about 4 miles and takes about 2 hours if you take it at a leisurely pace. The map below shows the path you will be taking, but it starts right in Howth Village and ends there as well. On the trail you’ll be able to see Ireland’s Eye, an island just off the coast of Howth. Baily Lighthouse and Howth Castle are a few other points on the trail to look out for. Our favorite part of the hike was just the beautiful scenery off the cliffs – one of the most incredible views I’ve seen while in Ireland. To end the hike, we walked down a sort of boardwalk/street with restaurants and docks along the side of the water. We were surprised to see seals and jellyfish swimming around in the water below us too!


We didn’t go straight home, but instead stopped by Dun Laoghaire! Dun Laoghaire is on the opposite side of Dublin City Centre from Howth so it took about 45 minutes on the DART to get there. We had already been to Dun Laoghaire a few times, but it’s another beautiful coastal town. It is somewhat bigger than Howth with more restaurants, shopping, and activities than Howth. Maybe I’ll do another post just dedicated to Dun Laoghaire because it is very beautiful and much easier to get to than Howth, but Howth is definitely worth the journey and you do get more beautiful views than in Dun Laoghaire. Take the 46A home from Dun Laoghaire and your perfect “beach” day is complete!

Thanks for coming along on another day trip with me and stay tuned for a “Day in the Life” post next week that will give you an inside look into what a day at UCD Summer Physics is really like!

Grace Heart studied abroad in Dublin, Ireland, in Summer 2017:


France | An Idiot Abroad: From Paris With Love


The French do really operate on a more relaxed pace than Americans.

My host dad gets 9 weeks of paid vacation a year and my host mom gets 18 weeks. This sense of relaxation is extended in many areas of French life. The waiter takes his/her time bringing you the bill, the cashiers rarely have the codes of fruits and vegetables memorized so you spend some time waiting for them to look up the numbers, and the dinners last a minimum of 2 hours. While at times this lack of a sense of expediency gets annoying, especially when time is short, I have grown to enjoy operating at a slower pace and taking the time to soak everything in. For example, our first week of official class was canceled and no one told us beforehand. We essentially had our whole week freed up to do whatever we wanted. This occasional French dillydally-ing is something I could get very use to.

With the unexpected reprieve, my girlfriend and I took advantage of the time to plan our weekend trip to Paris. My host family was extremely helpful and offered us maps, guidebooks, and great tips for things to eat and see. We found some really cheap bus tickets that came out to only $30 roundtrip. Although the ride was close to 6 hours per way, we took advantage of the time to sleep and rest.

We arrived in Paris at 6:00 AM Friday morning and got to see Notre Dame and the Louvre before the waves of tourists. It was an incredibly sunny day and the sunrise hitting the stain glass church windows was a beautiful sight. We spent the rest of the day just wondering and walking around Paris. We did not really plan anything specific because when nothing is planned anything can happen. We ended up in the middle of a French protest (bucket list item check), wandered through the streets of Chinatown, and found a tiny French restaurant that had some of the best cheese and potatoes I have ever had.

We arrived in Paris at 6:00 AM Friday morning and got to see Notre Dame and the Louvre before the waves of tourists. It was an incredibly sunny day and the sunrise hitting the stain glass church windows was a beautiful sight.

Barry YangUCEAP Global Community Blogger

Paris differed from Lyon in many ways. There are a ton more people in Paris, and a surprisingly large amount of immigrants. Due to recent events, security is also incredibly high and we had to pass through metal detectors and baggage checks at every tourist attraction and train/bus station. The Eiffel Tower was especially poignant. The tower itself is completely barricaded and one must pass through security to enter. Arm military guards also patrol the entire park space. Besides the heightened security, the capital is also much dirtier and brusk than Lyon. People are a little less friendly, and there is a definite want of that “small town charm.”

Barry Yang studied abroad in Lyon, France, in Spring 2017:

France | An Idiot Abroad: March to Marseille



If you recall from last week, no delightful learning in the French style took place because all our classes were unexpectedly canceled (though some may say that was the French style in its truest form). This past week we had our very first taste of formal academia in the land of Francois Hollande.

A sunny day in Lyon. Auspicious sign of the great learnings to come.

Imagine an approximate 400 square feet room filled with 5 rows of long desks accompanied with your standard issue schooling chairs. At the front of said room appears a jolly English fellow approaching the ages of 60 or 65 undressing the various layers he had cocooned himself in to combat the Lyonnaise cold. As he hangs his colorful scarf and readjusts his endearing bowtie, one cannot help but see this professor as a harbinger for a grand old time. Professor Martin Porter is one hell of a man, and a great representative of Liverpool as well as England. His speech is the perfect amount of wit, charm, suave, sarcasm, and British accent. He understands the subject matter (Imperialism) masterfully and is a connoisseur at presenting his knowledge in a pithy and entertaining manner. Understanding perfectly well our penchant for travel and novelty of Europe, Porter does not try to make his class more serious than necessary. He avoids busy work and encourages us to live history by visiting various sights throughout Europe as much as read about them. A man who has no need to compensate for his knowledge or status by being pretentious or overtly domineering, Porter is simply a jolly man who has some serious chops and is incredibly fun to learn from. He earned everyone’s respect within the first 30 minutes of the 2 hour class, and is the clear and definite highlight of our weekly curriculum.

The rest of our professors were also overall great. Although some of them dragged on and were overtly biased in their lectures, they all introduced interesting ideas which piqued our attention. Almost none of the of professors had slides or lecture material prepared and simply just talked on and on for 2 to 3 hours. It’s puzzling why classes are not shortened, because no one has the attention span fit for a French lecture. I snuck a look inside some larger lectures with just French students and at least half of them were on Facebook or online shopping.

Morale of the story: no matter where you go, all students zone out the same way.

This past week was a lot of firsts. Besides attending formal French class for the first time, I also got sick for the first time in about a year. The trams get very crowded in the mornings and afternoons, and I have noticed many people coughing and sneezing. Such close quarters and nights at the friendly neighborhood discotheque prove unhelpful in warding off sickness. Thankfully I was only out for one day, and missed only one class. This class happened to be the French language class which is offered at only one level, and that level just happens to be 400 times higher than 0 (the level which I reside and belong).

Needless to say, my absence from that class was sorely missed by Professor Christophe as I’m sure he enjoys just as much not understanding what I’m saying as I do what he is saying.

Hard at work, or hardly working? Definitely hard at work as we search for relevant historical sights on Pinterest.

“Ahhh. Oui, oui c’est bon!”

– The words I use to respond to every question in French.

Barry Yang


There are many beautiful and famous cities in France that are worthy of visiting, at least according to my girlfriend’s Pinterest. Thus, we have made it a goal of ours to travel to as many French cities as possible during our time abroad. This weekend we got the opportunity to visit the port city Marseille. Armed with knowledge from a French TV show on Netflix called Marseille and a travel video about the city made in the 1970s, we set off to the beach by the beloved FlixBus. The FlixBus is actually not so beloved as it has been late every time we have ridden it and also the French police once forbade me from boarding the bus because apparently you needed a passport to go to Geneva (a fact that I’m not so sure is a fact because I had to go to Geneva by train after the 5-0 kicked me off, and nobody asked for my passport on the train or in Geneva). The ride was only 4.5 hours, which is child’s play when compared to the almost 8 hours we endured for Paris.

The city of Marseille definitely has character. While not the richest nor most beautiful city by any means, there is a certain aura about the city that one can respect and find even faintly charming. Prior to departing, my host dad warned me that Marseille was a very dangerous city with many thieves and that we must not wear any jewelry or watches on the streets; the same general thing was said by my girlfriend’s host mom. After going to Marseille, I can definitely see why my host dad and my girlfriend’s host mom said the things they did. The streets are much dirtier than Lyon and even Paris, and the buildings extremely dilapidated. There were parts of the city that were literally falling apart or had already fallen apart. However, given the lack of economic diversity in Marseille it is understandable why the city is at a lower socioeconomic strata.

For over 2000 years the city has been a trade port, and there is little other developed industry to this day. The city’s trade port history also partially explains the number of immigrants we encountered. During our stay we probably heard more Arabic than French, but that may have been due to the location of our AirBnB which felt very Moroccan.

Marseille was an overall good experience that was greatly tempered by the fact that we got sick halfway through the trip. There were many sights that we did not get to see in the city, but all in all we still had a great time. Week 4 in France has been filled with long long hours in the classroom as well as long long hours traveling. Some would say I am getting a very good handle on this work-life balance thing, and some would say I’m not even really in school. Whatever they say, I’am very fortunate and happy to be in France and look towards week 5 with unencumbered enthusiasm.

Barry Yang studied abroad in Lyon, France, in Spring 2017:

France | An Idiot Abroad: Yvan and Avignon



Throughout my years in school, I have seen and experienced my fair share of unique teachers. However, out of all these unique teachers, none have been as poignant as Madame Sophie. The professor for our 10 person Justice and Globalization class, Madame Sophie is probably one of the most confusing yet interesting teachers I have ever had. A non-believer of lecture material, she simply just talks for 2 hours and will actively think out loud and remind us to remind her to not to forgot to talk about certain topics. A enthusiast for books and authors that none of us students from the states have ever head of, Madame Sophie is constantly in shock when half the class responds with puzzled looks whenever she drops the names of supposed renowned modern day political thinkers.

The Tram station at Part Dieu. I make this stop everyday when I switch to my second tram to get to school.

This week was our second time with Madame Sophie, and although none of us really have any idea what is exactly going on in the class, the discussions she sparks are at times very interesting. There are students from Turkey, Finland, Germany, and Switzerland in our class. It is very eye-opening to hear the different perspectives that my classmates have and how their cultures have shaped those perspectives. For example, towards the end of the lecture, Madame Sophie posed a very interesting hypothetical and pushed us to consider the roots of fairness and how our views on fairness are shaped by our respective country’s political and cultural environment. The example was about 3 individuals (Bob, Tom, and John) and who should receive a flute. Bob made the flute. Tom is the only one who can play the flute. John is very poor and has much less than both Bob and Tom. I answered that Bob should have the flute because he made it, while the students from Finland answered that Sally should receive the flute. Madame Sophie then pointed out how my thinking was very libertarian and textbook American thinking whereas the Finnish thinking was more communal. I thought this exercise was very interesting and I am excited to see what other questions she brings up next week.

Madame Sophie is undoubtedly an expert in her field and very knowledgeable of the subject matter. I am very excited for the class to progress and for us to get a better handle on the things she talks about.

Our program has many interesting professors and I look forward to writing about the others in the blogs to come!


My host dad, AKA French Dad, is probably the coolest French person I have met in this country. Yvan is 43 years old and incredibly funny, kind, and genuinely caring. As a social worker for the French government, Yvan deals with many young people and the experience he has garnered from his job really shows when you interact and talk with him.

Always joking around with French and English swear words and not so PG jokes, Yvan is incredibly relatable and joyous. Although there is a pretty big language barrier between him and me, we still talk for hours about traveling, love, and sometimes his wife. He is an tremendously caring father to his kids and a great husband. Although he jokes around with his kids and wife, you can tell he takes his duties as a father and husband seriously. He is incredibly young at heart and thus very fun to be around.

Yvan has taken me on crazy bike rides around Lyon, shown me different types of cheese and wine, helped me find romantic restaurants and places to go with my girlfriend, and genuinely been there as a friend. I am incredibly happy I have this crazy French man in my life.

The rest of my host family is also very cool, and I look forward to introducing them in more detail in future blogs!

Yvan celebrating his birthday!


Unlike our trip to Marseille, my girlfriend and I had an absolutely amazing time this pass weekend in Avignon. Avignon is a fairly small city in the Provence region of France. It is to the south of the Rhone river and home to many medieval remnants. Everyone we met in the city was incredibly nice. From our Airbnb host, to Majib our new friend whose owns the local bakery, to just store owners who find my inability to speak French and my girlfriend’s smile incredibly endearing. Everyone in Avignon just seemed to be more relaxed and very unpretentious. The food there was also much cheaper than Lyon and Paris.

You can easily see most of Avignon in a day, so the city is a very good place to go for a laid back weekend. We saw many beautiful castles and churches and tried a bunch of foods from the various little shops in the city walls (the city is literally surrounded by the ancient walls from medieval times).

Avignon is definitely worth visiting. It is cheap to get there. Accommodations are very nice and reasonable. The people are incredibly kind and laid back. The sights are amazing and the food great. What more could you ask for. I also got the opportunity to fly my drone and make a video of the small town; the video can be found here:

Barry Yang studied abroad in Lyon, France, in Spring 2017:

Italy | Coziness, Culture and Caffeine


Hello to all my readers (comprised of my mom, dad, and if I’m lucky, younger brother)!

I haven’t written in far too long, so I’ll try to catch you up on as much as I can, as succinctly as possible.

I’m absolutely loving my time here so far, largely thanks to my study abroad program, Accent. The program has facilitated tons of cultural immersion opportunities for us, that I would not have been able to find on my own. This weekend they took us to Pisa and you bet I took the stereotypical tourist picture. After, we went to the most quaint, charming, bicycle town, called Lucca, (the birthplace of Puccini) where our waiter took our order and then biked down the street to pick up fresh bread for us to devour with our meal.

On Tuesday, the program is taking us to the opera, and then on Wednesday to a pizza making class, where our instructors are fourth generation pizza makers from Napoli, who speak zero English! Next month, Accent is taking us to Siena and San Gimignano.

One woman who works in the main office has also helped those of us who have expressed interest, find internships in Florence. On Monday, I’ll start working in a third grade classroom, teaching English to Italian children… Wish me luck! I barely have a third grade mastery of English myself (thank you spellcheck for hiding my biggest flaws), let alone the ability to teach it to Italian students.

Also, during our first weekend in Florence, Accent took us on an incredible walking tour around the city. It was so beneficial to hear about the rich art and cultural history of all the monuments I pass by daily, and I also appreciated getting an insider’s guide on where to get the best focaccia and which gelato to avoid like the plague. The tour was fairly long, but because my feet were numb from the cold, I could barely tell I was walking at all!

My individual process of adjusting to the cold temperatures here has been interesting, especially because this winter has been uncharacteristically cold for Florence (temperatures haven’t dropped this low since 1985, when the Arno River completely froze over and the Florentines could skate across it). As a girl from Southern California, I never expected to be so excited by the upcoming warm front in the forecast: a whopping 40 degrees Fahrenheit!

I’ve actually really enjoyed the cold though. It’s nice to bundle up and feel so cozy. Plus, I rarely unzip my jacket, so I could have my pajamas underneath, and nobody would ever know. Also, I like wearing so many layers because I can zip my valuables securely in the pockets of my innermost layer, and not have to carry a purse or worry about pickpockets; no one is getting my euro, buried three jackets deep!  I’m also working on learning how to discern who is smoking a cigarette and who is just exhaling in the cold—so that’s a valuable party trick I’ll hopefully have mastered soon!

One day on my way to class, it started snowing—very, very minimally but it was snow nonetheless! This was the first time in a long time I had seen snow (not including the bubbles they drop on you at the end of the holiday firework show at Disneyland). It was absolutely magical. I was over the moon.  I walked the full 20 minutes to school with my head back and tongue out, bobbing and weaving in attempts to capture the sporadic flakes.

When I got to class, all I wanted to do was stare out the window, and will the snow to continue, and maybe even stick! It didn’t.  But then Cinzia (pronounced Chintsia), my Italian level 3 professor, walked in and immediately turned our classroom into a party, as she does everyday.

Originally, when I heard that my language classes were going to be Monday through Thursday, and three and a half hours long each day, quite frankly, I was worried. Often times at UCLA, no matter how interesting the material, I count down the minutes until my sometimes just bi-weekly, one hour long classes end. But this is so different. Cinzia is amazing, and apparently all of the other Italian professors in the program are too. She is 40 years old, but clad in her red leather jacket, cool leopard print boots, and a nose ring, she’s as hip and edgy as an 18 year old.

Cinzia always makes games out of our Italian lessons. Last week we played Pictionary with our new vocabulary of adjectives for personalities. Later that day, Cinzia placed Post-it Notes on our backs, labeled with celebrities’ names, our temporary identities. Without knowing who we were, we had to ask each other for hints as to who we were portraying, speaking only in Italian, of course. I was given Julia Roberts, but my classmates were little help in my attempt to guess my celebrity identity. Almost every question I asked—sono una atrice? (am I an actress), sono giovane? Vecchia? (Am I young? Old?) —was responded with, “Uh… I don’t know who that is.” They didn’t know who Julia Roberts was! It not only made me concerned that I was losing the game, but I was also worried about the future of our planet 😉

Cinzia’s loves to play Italian rock music for us, although her favorite band is Pearl Jam. She prints out the lyrics, has us stand in a circle, and makes us sing along with the song. Because we never know the melody, let alone the language of the lyrics really, our signing is usually an atonal, cacophonous mess, but a hilarious and fun mess, at that.

This week Cinzia split our class of ten into a group of five girls and five boys. She had us write our own Italian songs. Our girl group translated the lyrics to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” into Italian (Tuttle le donne single) and came up with ridiculous choreography to match. Cinzia videoed our performance, and I’m pretty sure she posted it on YouTube somewhere, but I’d rather that stay hidden in the deep dark depths of the internet (along with anything I posted on social media before the 9th grade).

Everyday, halfway through class, at 10:30, Ciniza lets us out for a 20 minute coffee break. The ten of us leave class and peruse the combined farmer’s market and flea market that is directly outside of the school’s entrance. Students pick up fresh produce for the night’s dinner and try on vintage coats for the next time they go to the opera. Then, without fail, we always go either to Ricchi caffè or Volume for the rest of our break.

At the caffès (which are often called bars here), we all order in Italian, completely humbled, as we hem and haw and stumble over each word. We eventually get the message across, with the assistance of pointing and other types of exaggerated pantomiming. I get a cappuccino, and more often than not, a croissant (un cornettoNOT corretto, which is a coffee with grappa!). We all stand at the counter because there is a “sitting charge” in Italy, plus it feels more sophisticated to stand at the bar. I sip and savor the liquid gold in my little cup, each swallow deepening my regret over time wasted on all past Starbucks orders.  When we’re finished sopping up the last miniscule puddle of cappuccino with the heel of our croissants, we meander back to class, feeling energized and ready for more singing in Italian.

I actually think I am most happy when I am in class here, which is something I was absolutely not expecting to say. Besides thoroughly enjoying Cinzia’s interactive teaching style, going to school, and other typically mundane tasks (like grocery shopping or taking out the garbage) elevates this adventure for me. It transforms this experience from being an extended vacation, to feeling like I’m truly living here in Italy.

I often sit in class, a room that has been standing since the 1400s (longer than the US has been a country, which really baffles me) and I just marvel at the intricately hand-painted ceilings that almost rival the Sistine Chapel (which I actually got to see in Rome last weekend!!!). So much of this experience so far has felt like one big dream, and I’m worried that it will never really hit me that I’m actually here. But moments like these, when I’m sitting in the classroom, or picking out yogurt from the local grocery store, ground this experience in reality for me, and make me really appreciate this time for how truly special it is.

Next time I’ll tell you about my History of Food course, which is on a whole other level of delicious excellence! To be continued…

Willa Giffin studied abroad in Florence, Italy in Winter 2017:

Ireland | Wandering in Wicklow


Having just finished the midterm on Friday, we were all ready to get off campus. Our second program-organized day trip was Wicklow! Just south of Dublin, Wicklow is only about 45 minutes from UCD. The area was originally settled by the Celtics and later plundered by the Vikings from which it acquired its name. Today, the area is full of scenic hills and green fields.