Boy does studying abroad take stamina! I have a newfound sympathy for tourists, who, yes I know are annoying, but are also exerting a huge amount of energy just to get to know the history/culture/architecture/etc. of a new place. This past week I had the ultimate tourist experience, as my study abroad program took us on a four-day trip through the beautiful (and rainy) hills of Tuscany. The first stop: Florence. We took a 7 AM train out of Rome and arrived at the Firenze – Santa Maria Novella train station at around 8:30 AM. A quick diversion: Italy has an incredible system of high speed trains, which the country developed during a time of great economic success, but this was short-lived and most of the remaining Italian infrastructure remains in its pre-modern state. Anyway, we were in the city EARLY, and therefore had the entire day to be tourists. According to my architecture-focused guide, this meant spending hours inside freezing cold churches, learning about their design history and meaning. When we arrived home later, everyone went to sleep almost immediately, successfully educated, but also exhausted.
The next morning we had some more of the same – churches galore, as Italy is a country whose history and development can also be traced through its churches. In the afternoon, a group of us urban planners split off with our professor, Mildred Warner, and headed over to the Innocenti Research Center, which is the main research foundation of UNICEF. This was very applicable to the class we are taking, CRP 4160, which involves making a policy proposal to improve the child-and-age-friendliness of Rome. Our visit was super-interesting because we got to learn all about how UNICEF functions and the current research that the organization is doing in various countries throughout the world. In addition, the building in which the Center is now located is the former Ospedale degli Innocenti, an orphanage designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 15th century. Definitely not a bad place to work!
The next day we left Florence and went to the small town of Barga, which is a quintessential, medieval Tuscan town, and we got to meet with the mayor and his team to hear about how Barga has incorporated its World War 2 history into the fabric of urban life today. After, we took a bus up a winding road to reach the even smaller hill town of Sommocolonia, the location of an important WW2 battle that involved a good number of American troops. Here we were able to get lunch with a number of the local residents (actually probably half of the town’s population, given that during the winter they only have about 30 permanent residents!) It was really touching to be able to go into this town and speak with the people who clearly have a very strong connection to their townsman status. None of them spoke English, so I helped translate for some of the students. It was interesting to hear that even though the town is so physically small, it is so full of culture and history. The residents have developed an extensive WW2 history museum, just with information about the one significant battle, and it serves as a collective historic memory for the town.
That night we drove into the city of Lucca, which is surrounded by a large system of walls that date back to the Medieval age. We took a quick street tour, before splitting off for dinner. I actually was able to meet up with a contact that happens to live right near Lucca, who I met through my Italian language class last semester. We were assigned to be Skype partners for an assignment, to help the both of us practice speaking in Italian and English, and we continued talking after the project ended. Surprisingly enough, I ended up in Lucca just two months later and we were able to go grab a pizza in person!
The last day we got to visit some WW2 bunkers, and finally, finally, got on the bus to go home. It was an exhausting trip, but one that I think I will look back and remember fondly, given the number of incredible people we were able to meet and communicate with. My recommendation for anyone interested in studying abroad is to investigate carefully the fine-print of your program description. Are you taking any group trips? What are the living arrangements for these trips? Are you allowed to travel on the weekends? All of these things can be overlooked in the application process, but trust me – it’s good to be aware if you have any obligations outside of class!