Italy | If This is School, Let’s Have Class on the Weekends


If This is School, Let’s Have Class on the Weekends

One of the most central aspects contributing to my time in Florence has been my elective class: The History and Culture of Food in Italy. I’ve mentioned it in past blog posts, but haven’t given this once in a lifetime class nearly the attention that it most certainly deserves. So here it goes… I hope I can do it justice.

Months before my departure to Florence, after reading descriptions of the culture courses my study abroad program offered, I decided that I wanted to take the food class (the other options were Art History and the Sociology of Love– both of which students in my program are currently thrilled to be taking).  In reality, after seeing the word “food” in the course title, no further reading was necessary; the class chose me.

The enrollment period came around in December of last year, and having had friends go through my exact study abroad program in the past, I was advised to set an alarm for an ungodly hour in order to sign-up immediately, and ensure my spot in this highly coveted class.

Due to the different time zones, unsure of when the enrollment email would find its way into my inbox, and mostly because I am neurotic, I set an alarm to go off in twenty-minute intervals starting at 3:45 am.

After almost two-and-a-half hours of 8 jarring alarms, I received the enrollment notice at 6 am. It was a slightly tortuous night of restless sleep—but I reserved my place in the food class, and boy was it worth it!

Once in Florence, at orientation, Dr. Peter Fischer, the enthusiastic and beyond knowledgeable food professor, was only described to us as being, “very German and very loved.”

On the first day of lecture it became crystal clear why, Peter (as we call him), was so raved about. He passed out the class syllabus that set the tone for the incredible class and instantly deemed all future syllabi disappointing bores. Most thrilling was the class date labeled, “Midterm Exam Followed by Gelato Tasting.”

Class itself is always something to look forward to. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Peter begins lecture by asking us students to share stories of interesting food experiences that we’ve encountered since our last meeting. We talk about new dishes we’ve tried, look for the cultural reasoning behind why the waitress rolled her eyes when we asked for a to-go box after dinner, or tell stories of how when we’d tried to order a caffe coretto (espresso with a shot of liquor) but, lost in translation, received what we had accidentally asked for: cornetto (a croissant).

In class Peter brings Italy to life for me through analyzing the history of the food—one of the most central aspects to human survival in general, and encompassing even more grandiose, far-reaching meaning in Italy, where the meals taste like memories.

Peter has taught us some Italian food survival skills, like why a true Italian will never ever drink a cappuccino after breakfast (because the high milk content is thought to be hard to digest). And, I specifically, learned the valuable lesson that an Osteria is not a restaurant that sells oysters, like I’d originally thought and told a friend (sorry Sofia), but rather, typically, a less expensive restaurant.

Peter has lectured on a variety of fascinating food facts, like the American fast food movement, and the Italian counter-movement, Slow Food, which was sparked in protest of the opening of the first McDonalds in Rome in 1986. Californian chef and Farm-To-Table advocate, Alice Waters, is the Vice President of the international movement today.

We learned that potatoes, tomatoes, and corn originally came to Italy from the Americas, but Italians considered the Native Americans to be cannibals and initially refused to eat the food of “savages.” It wasn’t until a food shortage that the Italians turned to using these American vegetables, however, they made sure to disguise the foods’ original form, transforming potatoes into gnocchi and corn into polenta.

We learned that Italy wasn’t politically unified until 1871, and wasn’t culturally united for many years after that. Italians attempted to create a sense of solidarity through their cuisine. Pasta functioned as a unifying symbol, as its different shapes, sizes, and ways of being prepared, represented the regional diversity, but its same basic ingredients signified a one-ness.

We learned that during the first wave of Italian immigration to the United States, Italy was not culturally unified, thus there was not yet an archetypal “Italian.” It wasn’t until migrating to America, that Italians, as outsiders, honed their identity and discovered what it meant to be “a true Italian,” all while learning how to be “American” at the same time. Studying this, led me to examine what I think it means to be an American, through my own experience as an outsider in Italy.

Last week we all turned in our research papers that we wrote with the freedom to discuss the food related topic of our choice. If you have to write a paper, what better topic than food to write about? As long as you have snacks handy in the drafting process. My essay was titled “Dinner the Implications of the Italian Verb and the English Noun” and writing it, made me even more enchanted with the Italian family style dinners.

Besides learning in the classroom through remarkably engaging power points and lectures, Peter has taken us on numerous field-trips (like on a chocolate tasting!!) that I will remember even more fondly than the crunchy, savory, taste of my most favorite panini.

This Thursday, Peter walked us over to the Florentine Community Garden. The old running track, turned herb garden, was covered in raised plant-beds, and pink flowering trees (happy spring!).  We met Giacomo, the gardener, at the entrance, and in his hip, plaid flannel shirt and light blue jeans, he looked more like he belonged in San Diego than amongst the other peacoat- enthusiast, leather-shoed Italians.

Giacomo showed us around his sustainable herb garden, focusing most proudly on his composting, his rainwater supplied bathroom sink, and his fishpond that serves as mosquito repellent. We walked around the garden, admiring all of the unique hybrid herbs Giacomo was growing– lavender mint, cranberry sage, tangerine thyme, just to name a few.

As a class, we decided on six herbs to pick, and then we each took turns chopping them up as finely as possible. Once the herbs were hacked to a pulp, Giacomo brought out a stash of fresh, homemade ricotta, separating it into three small bowls. We then combined two chopped herbs into each bowl of cheese and stirred thoroughly. We were given delicious bread and slathered it with ricotta, along with various salts to add if we wished. All three of the herbed ricottas were absolutely delicious, but my favorite was the lavender mint and chive with a pinch of black, Greek salt to top.

Two weeks ago, our class of twenty took a daylong field trip to a small winery in the most enchanting chianti countryside. Chianti Classico wine maker, Paulo, walked us around his vineyard and taught us about growing grapes and the fermentation process. He brought us into his old stone house and showed us his downstairs cellar. The electricity was out, so we did our tour and wine/olive oil tasting by candlelight. It was a far cry from any school field trip to the local library I’d ever been on.

After the winery, Peter took us to a small town to eat lunch and drink some more wine at a bustling, down-to-earth Trattoria where we (definitely) over-indulged in a four-course meal. Our giant meat and cheese plate, was followed by a heaping portion of pasta e fagioli (pasta in white beans). A mixed-meat tagliatelle was next (I’m always a little weary of “mixed” meats, mostly because I’m afraid of eating horse… but if I didn’t think about it too much, it tasted good). Then came the pork stew, which was followed by the dessert wine, delicious biscotti, dense chocolate cake, and the concluding coffee, of course.

By the end of lunch, none of us could walk straight—mostly because we were so full (as if we had eaten a horse) but also the wine certainly didn’t help.

Somehow, we managed to waddle back to the bus that carried our very full bodies back to Florence. On that ride home, feeling happy, plump, and satisfied, I stared out the window as we wove and winded through the most breathtaking Tuscan countryside. Seeing the vineyards that braid their way up the mountainsides, come and go from my line of sight, I couldn’t help but think about how this was unlike any day of class I have experienced, or will ever experience again in my life.

I am one lucky foodie.

Italy | The Art of Raising Parents


It’s been yet another monumental week here in Florence—one for the books.

On Tuesday the professor of our History of Food and Culture Course (I still can’t believe that’s the academic class I’m taking here) led us on our second walking tour through the open markets and around the center of Florence. He pointed out the public water fountain that has spigots for both flat and bubbly water, showed us a hole-in-the-wall, worker-populated, Osteria (that wouldn’t allow the Secret Service to clear out the restaurant before Barbara Bush had lunch there, so she ate amongst the locals anyway), and took us to the stand that makes their delicious paninis on the very best bread. The tour also included a cannoli tasting, for research purposes of course…

While the food tour was more fun than any school day of my wildest dreams, I couldn’t stop checking the time, and not even a cannoli could redirect my focus—my parents were on the last leg of their flight to Florence!!!

As soon as “class” ended, I hopped in a cab and headed to the airport where I planned to surprise my parents outside of baggage claim. They were expecting to meet me at their airbnb. Before they landed, I quickly scribbled out a sign that read “Mr. & Mrs. Giffin” and stood at their gate holding it like a chauffer, anxiously awaiting their arrival.

After ten minutes of waiting inside the airport, and two month of not seeing each other, I was reunited with my parents. With a jet-lag induced, relatively confused reaction to my surprise, we joyously embraced. Nothing could feel better than welcoming the most important people in my life to this unbelievable temporary home of mine.

I loaded my zombie parents into a cab where I spoke to the driver in my very broken, just-getting-the-point-across Italian. My parents seemed to be impressed, but only because they don’t know a lick of the language—during his visit, my dad frequently confused “Buenos Aires” (the capital of Argentina) with “Buongiorno” (Italian for good morning).

I was a little worried that my language abilities may have directed the driver to Sicily, but luckily we arrived at the airbnb without a missed turn.

When my parents originally reserved their apartment a few months ago, I gave them a very vague, general, idea of where to stay because you really can’t go wrong in Florence. I simply suggested that they not book a place too far outside of the city’s center and my advice narrowed the search down to a whopping 400 possible airbnbs for rent.

Before their arrival, I spoke to my parents about their finalized apartment arrangements. I asked for the address of their place, hoping to go find it, and snoop around from the outside. I ended up not having to search at all. Completely by coincidence, they’d reserved the apartment building directly next to mine (my address is 11 Borgo Dei Greci and their airbnb is 12 Borgo Dei Greci).  We still can’t believe it!

After they’d settled in next-door, we hit the ground running and got straight to eating. I took them to Osteria Santo Spirito, the cozy restaurant directly across the street from my school. This place was the very first bullet point on my compiled “To Show Parents” list, because they dole out the most delicious olive tapenade with their bread, they serve truffle gnocchi that has a smell that makes me weak at the knees, AND they offer 5 euro half portions of pasta (just substantial enough to make you want to undo the top button your pants, but not so much that you need to change into sweats altogether).

We thoroughly enjoyed our delicious dinner and walked home in a pants-unbuttoned, blissful, fullness.

In a strange, removed way, having my parents here has allowed me to witness and re-experience my own acclimation process to Florence, through watching them figure out the ways of the city and the Italian lifestyle. As they struggle with which direction the river is in, which way to turn down the street to get to their apartment from mine, or what Italian greetings are appropriate for what times of the day, I am reminded of experiencing that same utter confusion when I first got here. Watching them absorb all of this new information has made me appreciate just how much I have learned and adapted, without knowing it, since I’ve been here. Now those things that I once had to struggle to remember, are more etched in my mind than the lyrics to “Happy Birthday.”

In spending time with my parents, I have discovered exactly what it is that I’ve learned; I know how to determine the seemingly ambiguous moment in which I should pay for my coffee, the specific time frame during which it’s acceptable to drink a cappuccino (only mornings and after 4 pm), how to find order, and wait for things in this line-less culture, how to skillfully jaywalk while dodging Vespas, bikes, the fastest mini-cars, how to carve out multiple hours of time per meal, and how to discern which yelling matches are arguments and which are just friends saying good-morning.

I’ve come to realize that I’ve also learned the importance of having a big city mentality. There are times here, like back in LA, when people beg for money or are pushy with selling you things or asking you to sign petitions on the street. While my safety has never felt threatened here, I’m usually not interested in buying the products or signing the clipboards; when approached, I keep walking and just shake my head, not saying anything, as to conceal my true, tourist identity.

I’ve particularly grown accustomed to ignoring the large number of harmless yet pestering men that walk around asking you questions, in attempt to grab your attention, in order to sell you a bracelet and a selfie-stick when its sunny, or an umbrella and a poncho when it begins to rain.

On my parents’ second day in Florence, I met up with them after class, for an afternoon so jam-packed with 14 plus miles of tourism, that my mom’s feet actually bled. Sorry Mom!

First and most logically, we grabbed some gelato from Gelateria Santa Trinita and scarfed it down on the bridge by the river.

With sugar-filled bellies, we began walking to the next of our many destinations for the day. On our way, one of the infamous men selling bracelets approached us. I kept walking, as it is ingrained in me by now, and my mom followed suit. My dad, on the other hand, being the trusting mid-westerner that he is, couldn’t deny the bracelet seller a friendly handshake when the man motioned to “bring it in bro!” Thinking that would be the end of their pleasant exchange, my dad tried to keep walking after shaking the bracelet man’s hand, however the seller held on tightly and walked along side my dad (a classic bracelet man tactic that I see tourists fall for everyday).

Hand in hand they exchanged pleasantries and talked about where they were from (another one of their classic “buttery-you-up” tactics). Meanwhile, I fast-walked, hiding my face, pretending to fit in amongst the Italians, and definitely not associating with my dad, who was committing the most fragrant “I’m not from around here” foul.

My mom, however, grew more and more concerned, assuming that the bracelet man was distracting my dad with the intentions of pickpocketing him. Still holding his hand, the seller pulled out a bracelet and put it on my dad’s free wrist. In a panic, my mom whipped around to my dad, who was walking ten yards behind us, and shouted, “Phil! We need to go NOW!”

Confused as to her unnecessarily extreme reaction, my dad responded with the elation and enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning, “No, look honey!” He exclaimed,  “He’s giving me a gift!!! And he has one for you too!” …

My dad thanked the generous gift giver and tried to go on his way, until the vendor said, “I need money for those bracelets to give to my children.”

My dad gave back the gift and learned his first lesson in Florence: walk past the bracelet men.

The rest of the week was full of other learning experiences and more fun and laughter than I ever thought possible:

  • We tasted olive oil and fresh fruit at the central market
  • We climbed the tiny, windy, 500 step staircase to the top of the Duomo where we watched a stunning sunset over the cityscape
  • We shopped with laser focus and negotiated like lawyers at the outdoor leather market
  • We visited churches and lit candles for loved ones
  • We ran into a good friend from home in an empty, downstairs inventory of a shoe store
  • We saw Michelangelo’s The David up close
  • We went to a Florentine Jazz Club
  • We got (lovingly) scolded by an impassioned grandma running a restaurant who told us—in Italian of course—to relax when we asked for the check after a long meal
  • We walked to Piazzale Michelangelo where we enjoyed the best view of the city
  • We listened to an Italian street singer fudge words to American songs on the bridge overlooking the moon lit Arno River
  • We took a day trip by train to the most spectacular coastal National Park, Cinque Terre
  • We braved a lightening filled storm to get to our favorite restaurant where we ate by candlelight in a power outage
  • We drank enough coffee to keep us awake for the rest of our lives
  • We ate more gelato than I’d like to admit
  • And most importantly we consumed enough spaghetti to wrap around the circumference of the globe.

Tonight their fun, food-filled week here came to a bitter-sweet end. At the close of the evening, my mom and dad walked me over to my apartment where we hugged tightly, and said our sentimental see-you-soons.

I waved as they headed back to their apartment to collect their luggage before their departure. I chuckled again, as I watched my mom turn the opposite direction and head the wrong way down my street.

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

Italy | Weekend Trip to Switzerland and Exploring Florence



I’m back from what feels like a very long one-week blogging hiatus. Life has been wonderfully busy, where even the dullest moments (like taking out the trash) are filled with profound beauty and endless exploration.

I wasn’t able to write last weekend because I was sans computer in the Swiss Alps having the most exhilarating, fun-filled, picturesque, three days that I’ve had thus far in my life.

With a group of friends, I took an eight hour bus ride to Interlaken, where we gobbled up mounds of authentic fondue, learned to make chocolate at a cooking school (and quickly devoured that too), sledded forty-five thrilling minutes down an enormous mountain guided only by moonlight, visited Zurich, took a hike, stumbled upon ancient German ruins, and…wait for it… paraglided through the clouds over the incredibly stunning Swiss Alps. (I can barely stomach going down an escalator, so the thought of paragliding was absolutely horrifying to me… and also the best thing I’ve ever done).

After a phenomenal weekend away, I’m back in Florence, and like anytime I step foot outside of these city limits, I’ve returned with an entirely new prospective and appreciation for this unparalleled city. After Switzerland, I feel completely rejuvenated from that fresh mountain air, but I’m fondue-ed out, and ready to realign my loyalty with my beloved spaghetti.

Almost every weekend, I’ve travelled at least for the day and a night. There is a group mentality that I’ve picked up on amongst study abroad students here towards seizing every single moment so as to experience as much of Europe as possible (and sometimes even Africa). Every Monday the professors go around the class and ask, “dove siete andati durante il fine settimana?” (where did you all go over the weekend?). Responses never fail to include cities scattered across the entirety of Europe. It’s strangely easy to feel like staying in Florence is commonplace and even a little bit boring. I know… can you imagine?!

I am infinitely grateful to have been able to travel to so many fascinating places  (Interlaken, Zurich, Rome, Pisa, Lucca, Verona, Venice, Siena, and San Gimignano). For many students, frequently traveling outside of Florence and experiencing the beauty that is Europe was the initial goal of studying abroad, however, for me, it wasn’t. My original objective was to spend so much time in Florence that I become completely and utterly enveloped and swaddled up tightly in the warm, welcoming, rich, aromatic, and tasty culture here.

This weekend I reminded myself of this intention, and was adamant about staying in this beautiful city that contains more than I could possibly see, experience, or eat in seventy-eight lifetimes.

Last night, it rained harder than I ever thought possible. I considered turning on my rain-sounds white noise app, just to cover up the natural, cats-and-dogs pelting rain outside.

But this morning, I woke up to the most miraculously, crystal-clear, brilliant, blue Saturday sky. What a great day to be in Florence.

After making a quick breakfast at our apartment, Ruby and I decided that the garbage sitting under the kitchen sink had long past reached its expiration date. We gathered up our trash bags and took them outside where we dumped them in the city garbage receptors 300 meters away from our apartment (I’m trying to learn the language of the metric system).

That walk to the trashcans is one of my favorite parts of the week. We pass quaint gelaterias, hip bars, ancient buildings with antique terraces, incredibly innovative street art, and the unbelievable Santa Croce Church, which houses amazingly intricate frescos along with the tombs of Michaelangelo, Machiavelli, Dante, and Galieleo (not to name drop or anything).

Today, on our way back from dumping out the garbage, we decided to go inside the Santa Croce Church, instead of simply admiring it’s outside beauty from (the close) distance of our garbage cans.

Ruby had been in the Santa Croce before with her Art History class here, so she was able to spare me the time and energy of reading the explanatory plaques on the wall, and she gave me a condensed, more lively version of the most interesting facts about this 13th century church.

While I was admiring Michelangelo’s elaborately decorative and enormous tomb, a group of five monks asked me to take their photo on one of their iPhones. Not only did I get to learn about the incredibly fascinating and overwhelmingly exquisite history of the church, but I also learned that monks love selfies too!

When our stomachs began to rumble (as they seem to do about every twenty minutes here), we headed a few steps around the corner to La Prosciutteria, where met up with our friend Sofia. Ruby and I shared a decadent, artfully displayed board of prosciutto, salami, ham, several types of cheeses, roasted vegetables, olives, different breads, and some fig marmalade to top. This gluttonous feast was considered to be a “sampling plate” for two, but in reality it was so enormous, it could have fed my teenage brother.

Of course, lunch wasn’t complete until we got our gelato fix from Gelateria dei Neri (a place that was recommended in the Florence guide book my parents got me for Christmas). The three of us all ordered the “burro di caramello” flavor (butter caramel). It tasted rich and delicious like Werther’s Candy in ice cream form (aka heaven really is on earth, and it’s in a gelato shop right by my apartment).

We tried to walk off our lunches with some good old-fashioned window-shopping. We wandered through the leather market, gawking over the artisan bags, and snooped through the chic racks of the Italian boutiques and department stores. Along the way we listened to street musicians and watched brilliant chalk artists create temporary masterpieces on the cobble stone roads.

Somehow our shopping turned into yet another excuse for a snack break, as there was a coffee shop on the roof of one of the department stores (thanks for the recommendation Andrea!). We sipped on espressos and munched on our complimentary peanuts while looking out at the café’s breathtaking view of the Duomo, the cathedral in Florence and the most iconic monument in the city.

We attempted to climb to the top of the Duomo (where you get a panoramic view of Florence) but the lines were far too long, and we decided to wait until a weekday rolls around and all the tourists get out of our city 😉

We each went back to our apartments to regroup before we’d meet up for dinner later, where I’d indulge yet again in Florence–in another new restaurant, on a street I’d never walked down before, with waiters that could become future friends, and dishes that I hadn’t yet tasted that could very well be my new favorite meal.

Florence, what more could I ask for?

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

Italy | Shouting Sweet Nothings


“This is a cowslip,” I enunciated carefully, while pointing at a picture of a dainty yellow flower I’d never seen before. Muddled little third grade Italian voices attempted to repeat the new English word that I was asked to teach them. The intended response of “Cowslip” turned into a variety of similar sounding words amidst the chorus of kids (“gossip”, “colic”, “cowlick”, etc.).

“Almost!” I corrected with enthusiasm, “Cow, come una mucca” (Cow, like a cow) “e ummmmmm…. lip”.  I pointed to my mouth and resorted to my go-to: English with a poor imitation of an Italian accent.

“Ohhh!!! cowsleep” the eight year olds repeated with such pride in their newly acquired, yet severely infrequently used English word.

Close enough, I thought to myself, before moving onto the next flowers’ name that I’d never heard before. “This is a Caladium”…

It was my first day working at an Italian elementary school that my study abroad program put me in touch with. When the day started off, I had absolutely no idea as to the kind of crash course in Italian culture that was in store for me.

That morning I had my language class, and at 12:30, when it finished, I grabbed a cappuccino and panini from Ricchi, the beloved caffè in the building adjacent to school. My internship that afternoon didn’t start until 2, but the bus ride was supposed to be lengthy and I have a knack for somehow misunderstanding even the most fool-proof GPS systems; so I ate my lunch and headed to the bus stop early.

I walked with my friend/ bus-taking consultant, Lizzy, who was assigned to the same school as I was. Lizzy is living in a home-stay towards the outer edge of Florence, so she’s had plenty of practice navigating the different lines.

After a short, beautiful walk, we waited at our bus stop and stood amidst a group of ten chic Italians that made me ever aware of how American I looked in my scuffed up gray Chuck Taylor Converse.

All of a sudden, an authoritative, official-looking man walked up from around the corner. He announced something fast, loudly, and in Italian, to the crowd gathered at the stop. The group of bus-goers let out a collective sigh, and immediately started moving in response. Uh oh. What was happening?

Lizzy and I looked at each other, each hoping that the other had understood every other word of the man’s speedy Italian. But nope. Not a lick.

Not really knowing what else to do, we decided to follow the crowd, with the hope that maybe the man had announced that our stop had been relocated for the afternoon, and therefore all the bus-goers could migrate to the new stop together.

Our plan of playing tag-along failed almost immediately as the crowd started to dwindle and the bus-goers dispersed in every possible direction. However, Lizzy and I held out hope, and followed two older women who stuck together and looked like they were well-versed Italian travelers, with their heavy fur coats and practical, yet obviously classy, leather shoes. Like undercover cops, we covertly trailed the women, assuming that they knew where they were going, and therefore would somehow lead us to where we were going as well.

Only after the fur totting women stopped directly in the middle of a street with heavy traffic in order to study a giant map, did we realize that the women we had secretly assigned to be our fearless leaders, were just as foreign and confused as we were. Following- the- Italian-looking-women, mission aborted.

Lizzy and I ended up walking on our own to the train station where we got on line 21—not without complication—but we (mostly Lizzy) figured it out.

After a 45-minute ride, we got off at our bus stop. It was raining pretty heavily and we got a little lost (yes, even with Google maps open on two different phones) but we made it to the school with one minute to spare.

We entered the building and were immediately greeted by two warm women working the school’s front desk. In quasi-Italian, we said hello and attempted to explain that we were the volunteers who were there to teach English.

Lizzy and I parted almost immediately as she was sent off to her assigned classroom. Then one of the women looked at me and motioned down the hall, “lavorerai in terza elementare”. Oh shoot. This was a verb tense I had yet to learn. And what did “terza” mean?

I asked the woman to please repeat (“ripete per favore”—my most used Italian phrase). Hearing the reiteration of unfamiliar words didn’t clarify much, but I nodded convincingly, like it did.

Ok. I could figure this out.  “Terza”, probably like “terrace”… Ok. So I’ll just go upstairs whenever I find a staircase.

I went down an extremely long hallway that seemed to extend off into the abyss, but eventually I came across a staircase.

My out of shape, full-of-pasta body took me up the flight of stairs. I opened the door at the top of the staircase, only to see that I’d walked into a janitor’s closet. So nope. Terza does not mean terrace.

Still confused as to what to do next, I stood, staring into the closet at the assortment of brooms and mops and cleaning fluids. This was definitely not the classroom that I was supposed to be in.

“Ciao??” I heard from down the stairs.

I whipped around, “Ciao!” my head in a janitors closet sandwiched between two brooms, was not the way I’d expected to get introduced to the teacher I’d be working for.

Nevertheless the teacher greeted me kindly and with gratitude, and then led me into the gym where her 28 third graders were doing volleyball drills with a student teacher. Turns out “terza” means third.

She motioned for me to sit at the sidelines. I relaxed on a folding chair and observed the class dynamic.

I was immediately struck by the frequency and volume of the yells and hollers that bounced off the walls of the gym. To me, the tone of the two teachers’ scoldings sounded furious, especially when the smallest eight year old couldn’t get the ball over the net. Then again, I didn’t even know the words that were being yelled…. The teachers could have been shouting, “you, young man, are an incredible athlete!”, but maybe they were just screaming these positive affirmation very loudly and with significant aggression.

I also saw more classic Italian hand gestures, whipped out and flying around, in my first ten minutes in the gym, than during my entire month so far in Italy.

I guess I should have expected these sorts of impassioned outbursts, given the stereotypes I’ve seen in Italian movies from the yelling grandmother, stationed in the kitchen, going on fiercely about how her grandson needs to find a nice girl who can make him the lasagna he deserves.

Sitting there, thinking back to my own gangly, uncoordinated elementary school days, I couldn’t help but feel slightly rattled by these apparent scoldings. The Italian kids, however, didn’t seem to be phased even an iota. They were completely used to it, and even laughed it off.

After about a half an hour of observing surprisingly intense third grade volleyball drills and holding two tiny pairs of the students’ “occhiali” (reading glasses), the class finished their gym period. They began to line up and I joined them at the door.

A group of five girls giggled to each other, whispering behind their hands, and keeping their eyes fixated on me. With so much excitement about the new, tall, American in class, one girl, Marina, built up the courage and asked, “what is your name be?”

“My name is Willa, Mi chiamo Willa.”

“Wella” they all repeated in unison.

Asking me my name, with an extra verb at the end, seemed to be close to the only English the kids knew. My work was cut out for me, and I was excited.

Unlike most adults I’ve encountered, the kids didn’t dumb down their Italian for me, even though I clearly had a very minimal grasp on the language, but rather they spewed out Italian words at lightning speeds, erupting with rapid-fire questions.

“Sai di Hollywood?” (Are you from Hollywood), “Ti Piace i Lakers” (Do you like the Lakers?) “Hai incontrato Michael Jackson?” (Have you met Michael Jackson?) “Ti piace gelato alla vaniglia?” (Do you like vanilla ice cream?) etc.

One little girl asked me, “Da quanto tempo sei stato in un aereo dagli Stati Uniti a qui?” (How long were you in an airplane to go from America to here?)  Feeling an irrationally strong urge to fit in amongst the group of eight year olds, I got a little flustered and attempted to answer her question quickly, like it didn’t even take me any thought. I  rattled off, “14 anni”, to convey 14 hours. I felt cool, like I had carved out my spot in the in-crowd, until I noticed the completely appalled look on the little girl’s face. It then dawned on me that although I meant to say “14 ore” (hours), instead, I said 14 years! I had just convinced a little girl that I had spent more than half of my life on an airplane and she probably thought I was an alien.

After everyone changed out of their gym clothes, we walked to class, accompanied by more yelling. When we reached the room the kids took their seats, and there was some more yelling.

The teacher, who was very kind and gentle to me, explained that I would be going over English translations of flower names to half of the students at a time, while she took the other half outside to eat lunch, and then we would switch groups after an hour. (The school day here is from 8-4:30…).

I looked through the list of English flower names that I would be teaching and didn’t recognize half of the words. I felt slightly confused as to why I was teaching these kids who could just barely ask me my name, words such as “cowslip”, “cornflower”, and “larkspur, but I wasn’t about to suggest otherwise and risk getting yelled at.  I would cry.

We went down the list of flowers, projecting their images on the wall, and writing out the Italian names and their English equivalents. Each kid then decided which flower he or she liked the most, and made a labeled drawing of it.

I walked around the class and looked at their magnificent artwork. I alternated between saying “bravo” and “brava”, all the while wishing I had a wider repertoire of Italian compliments.

While maybe slightly frustrating at first, it was so nice trying to communicate with the kids, with only a few shared words, and many smiles.

When everyone finished their drawings, the other half of the class came in from lunch. I did the same floral exercise with the new group.

At 4:25 the teacher lead the remainder of the first group of students back inside the classroom. She carried a tub of apples and gave them out to each student. She hugged each kid goodbye and kissed them on the forehead.

Then, everyone lined up by the door in order to meet their parents at the school’s entrance and go home for the evening.

As we all walked out of the class, Marina grabbed hold of my hand, and held it tightly. She looked up at me with beaming eyes and an enormous smile, “Quando tornerai?” (When will you return).

I think I told her one week, but I might have said one century.

Willa Giffin studied abroad in Florence, Italy 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:

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:

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: