lunedì 3 ottobre 2011

ISTITUTO EUROPEO STUDY ABROAD: Living in Florence with a Host Family

My family

 By Paige Gherardi

It has been almost five years since my first study abroad experience, but I will never forget the first day I arrived in Florence and met my host family. After a long plane ride and a disorienting experience trying to find our luggage and a taxi at the Peretola airport, I had to call my host family to let them know that my roommate and I were on our way. A sweet, older woman picked up the phone and suddenly I forgot what I was supposed to say. I had made an attempt to learn Italian by taking a beginner’s course the semester before I left, but everything I learned escaped me in that phone call and I could only manage to say our names. We arrived at the house, which was a large apartment on the third floor of a palazzo near Piazza San Marco, and we were greeted by two women who hugged and kissed us and grabbed our luggage to bring upstairs. Caught in a whirlwind of so many things happening at once and not being able to understand the language, we somehow managed to communicate through broken Italian and gestures. Our host mom, Gianna, and her mother who insisted on calling her Nonna, spoke in slow Italian to help us understand where we could put our things. They showed us around the large house and I understood that four other students were living there along with Gianna, her husband Paolo, their three daughters, and Gianna’s parents.

Before arriving I was confident that I would be able to communicate, but I was surprised by how little I could speak. On that first day I made my first big mistake in trying to Italianize an English word. While unpacking my toiletries I wanted to ask Gianna if there was cabinet space in the bathroom that I could use. I asked if there was a “cabinetto,” which she interpreted as “gabinetto,” and she couldn’t figure out why I wanted to put my stuff in the toilet…

A bit embarrassed and discouraged from my fatal errors during the first few days, I thought I would never come out of the experience learning the language. I was thankful to have roommates at all different levels of Italian to help out with the language barrier. After a week or so I realized that if I wanted to get a lot out of the experience I needed to force myself to speak. Fortunately, my host family didn’t speak English and I could practice with them each day. I sat next to Nonna and Nonno at dinner every night and they picked new things to teach me each week. I brought a pocket dictionary with me every time I went out at night (yes, big nerd) and I began to speak Italian in more and more situations.

The experiences I had with my host family are some of my most treasured memories of studying abroad in Florence, and I honestly would never have become fluent if it hadn’t been for them and my determination to learn. They took us on trips to Carnevale in Viareggio, wine tasting in Montalcino, to the chocolate festival in Perugia, and so many other places I would have never seen as a student living in my own apartment. Students become part of their family and I continue to consider them an important part of my life here in Florence.

Whether you live with a host family or not, I encourage students studying abroad to take advantage of the opportunity to learn Italian culture and lifestyle. Don’t be afraid to use your Italian – no matter how little you speak. Try using your Italian in supermarkets and stores in the center even if you think you’re butchering every word you say. You can’t imagine how good it feels on that first day that no one responds back to you in English and you understand them! Do some research on where locals hang out and meet new people. Find someone who can show you the true Florence and you will discover things you would never be able to on your own. 

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