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  • Katherine Cooke

Study Abroad Diaries - My Year in Florence

I spent my Erasmus year in Florence, Italy. I was doing single honours Italian and chose to spend both terms studying at L’università degli studi di Firenze. As a history nerd with a penchant for wine and gelato, living in a city that was the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region and the home of many masterpieces of Renaissance art and architecture, was an excellent decision on my part.

It is easy to paint a romantic picture of Florence. It is bursting with artworks and Renaissance buildings and has gorgeous winding cobbled streets. I have slowly come to accept I will probably never live anywhere as pretty again, even if I did get lost frequently.

Thanks to the website I ended up staying in a flat just outside of the ‘historic centre’, about 1km from the Galleria Dell’Accademia that houses Michelangelo’s David. The flat was very family homely. I lived with 3 flatmates, there was the landlady’s daughter, another Erasmus student, and an evil cat called Larry (which is still the best Italian cat name I have ever come across) who frequently during the night would slowly creak open my very creaky door like a horror movie villain and come and would either curl up on the edge of my bed or balance himself precariously so he was pressed down on my bladder.

The weather in Florence was ridiculous. I arrived in the middle of August and I had never experience warmth, and mosquitoes, like it. The winter was freezing but picturesque. By the time I left the following June, it was 39/40 degrees most days and the suntan I came back with made my grandma quite jealous.

I have coeliac disease so throughout my undergraduate degree had frequent fleeting thoughts along the lines of “why am I doing an Italian degree? I am gluten intolerant, often painfully shy, and don’t speak Italian very well”. It was not a problem that year. I learnt the importance of the daily tub of gelato from the gluten-free gelateria and a daily Aperol Spritz, and I discovered how fun walking around the supermarket in another country is. Most of my Erasmus loan probably went on Esselunga’s extensive selection of prodotti senza glutine.

Pre going to Florence, the main piece of advice I had received was to join Erasmus groups to meet other Erasmus students. I think I joined 3. It certainly is the best method of meeting people and gave me opportunities to socialise and travel that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. I didn’t exactly make lifelong friends, but I know other people do. The best decision was signing up for free Italian lessons with one group, and not solely because the lessons were at a wine bar.

I was determined to make the most of the year, and while I did fall in love with solo travelling, I also went on numerous Erasmus group trips.The valuable nuggets of wisdom I gained from these trips include:

  • Touching the right breast of the bronze statue of Juliet in the courtyard of la casa di Giulietta, according to lore of unknown origin, is said to bring luck.

  • While Verona is ridiculously gorgeous, you might want to put off going there until you do not have a sprained foot, as you will do a lot of walking and regret every decision you have ever made.

  • You should not go to Venice in a thunderstorm.

  • To make sure you have at least one fully charged portable charger when going on a day trip.

  • That you will not appreciate going to Pompeii as much as you should if you spent the night before drinking cheap red wine and Jägermeister in the lobby of a dodgy hostel with some Greek and Russian teaching assistants.

  • San Marino’s is worth going to for the torture museum alone.

  • If you go on one of those trips that are not to Italy, it will most likely be with a large group of American study abroad students. This will be a different experience to going on trips with Erasmus students, but you will get the opportunity to cross yodelling on a coach in Salzburg off your bucket list.

As part of my Erasmus year, I enrolled at the University. My lessons were in buildings spread out around the city centre. My favourite was the history of cinema class because the lecturer was lovely. My least favourite was the module that introduced me to the concept of the 4-hour lecture. I do regret not even considering the option of working instead of studying on my Erasmus year. My choice was fine up until the first exam period in January. In Italy, the university exams are mainly oral-based, and I hated them with a passion.

My mental health suffered during my Erasmus year. At times everything was just too much to cope with. I did not realise quite the extent until I went to the doctors a few days after returning to the UK.

Looking back, I consider myself quite lucky as my year was the last to not be affected by Covid-19 in any shape or form. I fully intend to go back to Florence at some point. Studying or working abroad is something I would 100% recommend doing if you get the chance, as long as you: a) Make the most of it, and b) Look after yourself.

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