Stanford in Florence, Winter 2016-17
Major: Electrical Engineering
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: This is a photo of me and my best friend at the top of the Brunelleschi's Dome, which tops the Florence Duomo -- in the back, you can see Palazzo Vecchio, and the Arno river!
Why did you choose to study abroad in Florence?
So many reasons! I had a friend who studied abroad in Florence and highly recommended it, but who could blame him? Italy is in many ways the cradle of modern civilization, the birthplace of the Renaissance, and even today one of the most visited and beautiful countries in the world. Even more interesting, Italy, despite being so much smaller than other countries, is as, if not more, diverse in its culture and lands -- the cultures you find between Northern and Southern Italy vary wildly, and each city has its own pride, loyalty, and culture that is unique to itself -- truly, it sometimes feels like you're still in the Holy Roman Empire, visiting various nation states living on the same peninsula -- something truly interesting to behold and be a part of.
What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Florence?
I wasn't sure how I'd make things feel normal -- I figured it'd feel like a quarter away from home in an exotic place, and I'd go to class, adventure and find cool and unique places -- rise, wash, and repeat. It certainly started off as an exotic adventure, but it didn't take a long time at all for it to feel as homey as my actual life-long home in Florida or Stanford itself. I had a Cafe I visited every morning, a gym by the Duomo, and a lunch place I went to everyday, where the owner knew me and my order by name. I truly developed an entire life in Florence that I was so sad to part with!
What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Florence?
Where do I start? Timothy Vernon, one of the professors in Florence, is not only famous in Florence, but world-renowned, and being in Florence you have the chance to not only take a class with him, but take TWO classes with him -- venturing through museums, historical landmarks, and masterpieces of art. Professor John Hooper has had countless years of journalistic experience covering Spain and Italy, and has an extraordinary depth and breadth of understanding that is hard to put into words -- with him, you get to understand Italy in a way that normally takes years. Studying Italian was made easy not only by the amazing professors, but also being in Italy itself, and even cooler -- classes in grocery stores and cafes! What a better way to learn a language? Not to be outdone, being in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, is an amazing opportunity to fine-tune your artistic abilities -- and the abstract art & photography classes are spectacular in what they teach, and Florence is the best place to put those skills to the test.
What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?
When people asked me where I was from, I used to say a phrase I always kept close to me -- "Russian by birth, American by way of life" -- because I was born in Russia, but lived most of my life in the US. After Florence, I've changed the phrase to "Russian by birth, American by way of life, Italian by choice." More than anything, I found the part of me that feels genuinely at home in Italy, and only in Italy. I also thought I could never understand art -- for my entire life it was an abstract randomness that, no matter how much I stared at a painting at a museum, seemed impossible to understand. I even went into Florence expecting to flounder through my art classes. But after my class with Timothy Vernon and my photography class with Nigel Bennet, I can say that's changed dramatically. Even walking in San Francisco or New York, I can notice and appreciate the corinthian columns, the geometric proportions of buildings -- the contraposto of a certain statue, or the elements of a painting that make it so so visually appealing to look at, and the messaged imbued behind it. It was one of the most amazing transformations I went through in Florence.
What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?
Time management. Ten weeks sometimes feels as good as ten days -- it really is an unfortunately short amount of time to enjoy your city and country. It's hard to decide what to do with your time, both on a day-to-day basis, and a weekend basis. You don't want to feel like you didn't utilize all of your time abroad, but you also need to give yourself a chance to work, relax, and enjoy. I learned that you really can't beat yourself up over what you do and don't do -- no matter what experiences you partake in, it's hard to regret. If you spend your weeknights at your homestay watching TV with your family -- that's precious. If you spend your weekdays adventuring through the winding roads of Florence -- that's unforgettable. And if you spend all of your time zooming from city to city on Trenitalia's bullet trains -- that's cool too. No matter what you do, there's no need to worry about missing out. You're always exactly where you need to be.
What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?
My biggest adjustment was probably surrounding food. Italy has a BIG food culture, and it's very different from ours. It comes in a lot of ways. For example, your breakfast is expected to be really small -- a tiny toast with a glass of milk (or something similar). Coffee comes in really small glasses, not 20 oz cups -- and you drink it in minutes, not over the course of an hour. Lunch and dinner are times you sit down and eat -- you don't take it to go or eat while walking home or to work -- it's a moment to sit down and enjoy your company.
What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Florence?
It was EASILY my commute to and from the Stanford center. I lived in the west-most part of inner-Florence, right by the river Arno. Every morning, I walked 30 minutes along the river, by all of Florence's bridges, finally crossing the Ponte Vecchio, to get to the Stanford Center. You see cars start to hum, people walking their dogs, the level of the river changing day-to-day, and the city coming alive in the morning. It's also arguably one of the most beautiful walks you could take in all of Italy. After 50 days of class, it never got old. I can't wait to take it again.
What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Florence?
To be totally frank, it was probably my last day. I had met a few Italian friends through Stanford's "Friends in Florence" program, that I hung out with throughout the quarter for dinner or coffee occasionally. On my last day in Florence, we got Panini and ate them sitting on the bank of the Arno, and then afterwards got Gelato and ate it sitting on the steps of the Uffizi. After, we went to the Duomo to take a final picture, and I walked them to the train station where we parted ways. The most amazing part of the day weren't our activities -- which I still treasure -- but the fact that, in that entire five hour timespan, I never spoke a word of English. I understood practically the entirety of what they said to me, and I always responded in Italian. It made Florence feel more like home than any other day of the entire quarter.
What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?
Humbling, Adventurous, Eye-Opening, Home, Perfetto (Italian for Perfect)
What was your favorite food you had in Florence?
This is by FAR one of the hardest questions I've ever been asked. It's hard to remember all the foods I had (It is Italy, after all), but one of the most memorable is at Osteria dell'Orsa, in Bologna. I have a sweet tooth, and we ordered a bunch of desserts -- the Flan was unforgettable, as was everything else.
What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?
I took a journal with me -- because I knew I'd have so many stories and adventures from Florence that I never wanted to forget. By the end of it though, the journal I brought felt like it was insufficient. I needed something more. So, on my last day, I bought a 300-page, genuine Italian leather-bound journal with the Florentine Lily (the symbol of Florence) embezzled on the front and back covers.
What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Florence?
I actually started listening to a lot of Italian music, but one of my favorite is definitely an artist called Fedez (also a favorite of Prof. Fiorenza!), especially a song called 21 grammi.
Every Stanford undergraduate should give serious consideration to studying overseas.
Regardless of the academic path you choose, you will be enriched by time spent in another country. Achieving cultural literacy and gaining substantive understanding of other perspectives in the world will deepen your awareness of yourself, your educational goals, and your own society. Nearly one-half of each graduating class studies abroad through one of Stanford's overseas programs.
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