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:

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:

Ireland | Day Trip to County Meath


Last weekend, we took our first day trip of the program to County Meath! Just an hour from the UCD Campus, County Meath is known for its beautiful countryside. We visited Causey Farm, an interactive, hands-on look into traditional Irish culture. From making Irish soda bread, to dancing a jig, to learning Hurley, we felt more Irish than ever after this trip.


To start the day, we made Irish Soda Bread. It’s such a simple recipe, but it tastes so so good. We paired up and took about 20 minutes to prepare the mixture. The recipe calls for one egg, but there was a catch. Debbie, our guide for the day, would throw an egg from across the room and we had to catch it. Pressure was on. We only had one person drop an egg so I’d so we were pretty successful. I’ll put the recipe here in case any of you want to try making the bread (definitely worth it, highly recommend).


After prepping our bread for baking, we all made our way over to a cute, little barn. These tiny puppies were all snuggled up in a stack of hay with their mom. Everyone was pretty preoccupied with the puppies, but most people still made time to milk the cow. That was a first for me. It was very weird to say the least given that I’ve never done it before. There were all sorts of other farm animals, but my personal favorites were the donkeys and horses. The donkeys were named “Shrek,” “Fiona,” and “Donkey” which was incredible. The animals kept us entertained for quite a while before we moved onto the next activity.


Next up was learning a traditional Irish Jig, an upbeat, folk tune accompanied by a dance. We learned the dance slowly, step-by-step, instructed by Debbie. This was without a doubt my favorite part of the day. I think I was laughing nonstop the entire dance. We all really got into it and gave it our best effort, but despite that we still struggled a bit.


The Bodhran is a traditional Irish frame drum that’s about 16 inches in diameter. Debbie showed us how to hold the drum and we learned a few jigs and a couple reels as well. I’m not the most coordinated person so this part of the day was a bit trickier for me haha. I was able to get away with my lacking skills because there were so many of us playing.


Lunch time!!! For lunch, we were served an Irish meal and we got to eat our warm, home-baked bread. It was so incredible oh my gosh I was amazed. Lunch consisted of a salad, a carrot soup, ham, and scones. 10/10 would recommend.


They called it the fastest sport on grass and I can’t say they’re wrong. It seemed to me like a cross between field hockey and lacrosse because you pass the ball in the air with an oddly shaped field hockey stick. Apparently it’s a very physical sport, but we didn’t really get too aggressive with it. We learned the basic skills of passing and getting the ball off the ground. I can’t say I really thrived in this sport, but nonetheless it was so much fun.


This was the weirdest thing I’ve seen in a while. A bog is basically a wetland that sucked you in like quicksand if you got too deep. It looks like mud, but was kind of bouncy when you first stepped on it before you started sinking down into the ground. It was also very very cold. I’m struggling to describe how strange the consistency of this stuff was, but definitely try going into a bog if you get the chance… its quite the experience.

Causey Farm is a very homey place that teaches you a whole lot about traditional Irish culture. I would highly recommend making a trip out there. The farm itself is so beautiful and the people are so kind as well. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for a post about our day trip to Wicklow coming soon J

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

Ireland | Get Ready for the Time of Your Life


To make the most of your time abroad, definitely do some research on where you’re going. I used Yelp, TripAdvisor, Pinterest, and just general google searches to come up with a list of destinations and restaurants I wanted to explore. If you’re okay with average, a simple word doc will do, but if you really want to take advantage of your downtime, USE GOOGLE MY MAPS! My roommate introduced me to this fall quarter of freshman year when I was telling her about my Los Angeles Bucket list and trust me when I say this, making your bucket lists on Google My Maps will absolutely change your travel game. Most of you probably already have a google account. All you have to do is go to your Google Drive and create a new “Google My Maps.” This document will allow you to add destinations to the map and allowing you to essentially store your bucket list in the form of the map. Not only does this allow you to keep track of where you want to explore, but it enables you to plan the most efficient adventure days by planning around location. I created a “food” category as well as a “places” category so that if I’m just looking for a place to grab a bite to eat, I can filter by category. I’m not exaggerating when I say this: your travel planning will forever be changed by this feature. If you’re too busy (or just too lazy) to create your own bucket list, I’ll link mine below! It has over 100 places/restaurants to visit so hopefully I won’t see a dull moment while abroad.

My Bucket List:


Please, please, please take my advice when I tell you to pack essentials in your carry-on. I know this doesn’t happen often but I had a lot of bad luck on my way to Dublin. My flight from St. Louis to Chicago was delayed, causing me to miss my international flight to Dublin. I sprinted through the airport because the gate agent booked me on a new flight that left in an hour. I got to security 50 minutes before the flight was leaving and was told I was too late because you must check in an hour in advance. I ended up staying overnight in Chicago because the next flight out didn’t leave until 5:50pm the next day. Sure enough that flight was delayed as well and when I got to the Dublin airport, I also found out my luggage had been lost. It was an adventure to say the least, but I ended up fine and made it to Dublin safely. The point of this story is to say I had all my essentials (toiletries, clothes, etc.) in my checked bag that had been lost so I had to replace these for the few days that I was without the bag at UCD. Granted the airline did pay for replacements, but it is definitely a hassle when you’re on your own in a new country and don’t know how to get around yet to try to find toiletries and clothes to get you through a few days.


  • International flights require that you check in at least an hour in advance so be wary of this
  • International flights close their doors 15 minutes in advance of departure time

In order to make your trip run as smoothly as possible, make a folder with all the documents you might need. I would include the following:

  • All boarding passes (if you have connecting flights, printing these boarding passes ahead of time will save you having to print a boarding pass at the airport upon arrival)
  • Passport (have this in a very accessible place; you’ll need it a lot)
  • Acceptance Letter from UCD (needed upon arrival at Dublin airport)
  • Directions from Airport to UCD (just reassuring to know where you’re going)
  • Airshuttle Ticket (prebook if you don’t want to bother trying to buy one there)