Back to SummaryAlexis Arnold - Student Profile
Being of Italian blood and having spoken the language in high school, I came to Stanford knowing I wanted to study abroad in Florence. More than anything, I sought to satisfy a perpetual wanderlust that countless travels had instilled in me. But it wasn’t until I embarked on my long-awaited study abroad journey that I realized Florence is more than a classroom, and certainly more than a travel destination. To study in Florence is to develop an entirely new way of living that penetrates every part of your being, forever changing who you are and how you approach the world.
Florence also appealed to me because it offered the opportunity to explore academic interests I hadn’t been able to indulge on the Farm, including art history and studio art. (If you haven’t noticed, I’m a shameless Fuzzy, though the Techies would also thrive in this city of scientific Renaissance innovation.) What’s more, studying in the cradle of the Renaissance allowed for unparalleled academic experiences that, for me at least, bordered on the spiritual. At Stanford, I would have been sitting in a dimmed classroom in the art history building, passively viewing a slide gracing a projector screen; in Florence, Italy, I am standing two feet from the famed canvas of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, dwarfed by its sheer scale and humbled by its magnificence. My academic experiences in Florence were far more than PowerPoint lectures and professors behind podiums – they were unforgettable adventures through narrow cobblestone streets, up spiraling stone stairwells, atop soaring Cathedral vaults, and around majestic facades.
One of the most poignant and personally resonant memories I took away with me from Florence was when my host mom brought my roommate and I along with her to participate in the quintessential Italian tradition: olive harvesting. To me, the olive harvest allowed me to truly appreciate one of the lynchpins of Italian culture – the celebration of food and the reverence with which it is created and enjoyed. The painstaking process of harvesting all boils down to the Italian desire for fresh and quality ingredients for their own enjoyment with home-cooked meals. I didn’t fully understand or appreciate the deep cultural importance of the Italian culinary tradition until I witnessed customs like these. After harvest, I enjoyed a typical multi-course, mouth-watering, and button-popping meal with a dining room full of Italians. The small dining room, overlooking the terrace and hillside beyond, reverberated with an amalgamation of passionate Italian strains, hearty laughs, clanking silverware and wine glasses, and the notes of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” (which my roommate and I sang in English to the table upon request). We were family – we had worked hard, played hard, and dined well together on that day. I will never forget how the room brimmed with excitement, liveliness, enjoyment, and love. For me, it was an exhilarating experience that encapsulated the genuine Italian warmth I had come to know first-hand during my time in Italy.
I had always assumed that I would spend only one quarter abroad. Shortly before applying for the program, however, my Italian advisor suggested I do two quarters instead. I made the decision to take her advice, based on a new pursuit for an Italian major and, of course, that wanderlust I mentioned earlier. After living for two quarters in Florence, I can honestly tell you it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. You would be surprised at how life-changing just one more quarter abroad can be, and I strongly recommend the extra time for anyone who has the chance to do so. I returned to a different Florence in Winter Quarter than the one I left behind in Fall. Where once bodies had a definitive form, they now melted into amorphous blobs of marshmallowey jackets and scarves swirled around necks liked whipped cream. The hordes of tourists who once flooded the city, with their cameras, conspicuous travel clothing, and obligatory Rick Steves guides, had dissipated seemingly overnight, the Florentines they once mercilessly obscured finally emerging from the fray. Indeed, the true Florentine (or Italian, for that matter) is a rare being seldom seen by the typical tourist. And, yet, the charming city of Florence remained wonderfully, comfortingly the same. I could still see my friend Gianni through the window of his Florentine paper store, and Pino continued to beam from behind the counter of my favorite place for panini. I could now venture almost anywhere on foot, using the towering, majestic Duomo as a kind of North Star. By this point, I knew where (and what) Tabacchi stores were, the strengths and weaknesses of a variety of gelaterie and eateries, and the direction of any given piazza. Where I once held up an impatient line of travelers when buying tickets at the train station, I could now work the same machines with my eyes closed. And, then, there was my host stay – the ultimate constant amidst the changes. The last time I rang the buzzer outside the high wooden doors with a suitcase in my hand, I was all but trembling with nerves. This time, I blurted a cheerful “Mamma! Sono Alessia!” into the speaker. My host mom welcomed me eagerly into her arms like the second mother she had become with a hearty hug, wide and genuine smile, and the typical Italian double-kiss. My apartment still smelled of delicious Italian cooking.
From the moment I set foot on the now-familiar pavement of Florence’s train platform, I knew I was at home. It was both thrilling and calming at once to feel so comfortable with, and so fond of, a city miles and miles across the ocean that was once completely novel and unrecognizable. And with this newfound sense of security and ease that had taken a whole quarter to develop, I could further deepen my understanding of the endlessly charming city and its passionate, captivating people. I became a regular at my favorite cafes and restaurants; store owners no longer dismissed me as a mere passerby in Florence’s merry-go-round of tourist droves, but began to chat with me about everything from Johnny Depp to the pros and cons of Italian and American men. Whereas I would have known them for only a fleeting moment as an average tourist, these Florentines became part of the extended family I was able to especially enjoy during my second quarter.
The internship experience was an absolutely invaluable part of the second quarter for me. It was a pivotal part of my Florence experience, and marked a personal turning point as well. For three months, I led tours through several multi-colored rooms of artful shoes at the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum. I was faced first with the challenge of creating my own script for the tour, then memorizing and presenting it to guests, and then becoming a more effective tour guide as I got more comfortable. Then, I was thrown a curveball: I would be giving an Italian tour to a group of young Italian design students, and I had little time to prepare for it. I ended up virtually winging the entire tour, desperately hoping I was, in fact, explaining cork wedges instead of a similar-sounding “sugar soup.” It was a trial by fire by all accounts – fortunately, I had gotten used to those by now, simply by living in a foreign country. The everyday challenges I had faced abroad, no matter how small, eventually allowed me to surmount bigger obstacles (like this one) than I would have ever thought possible. During downtime, I talked for hours on end with my Italian mentors at the museum. We taught each other countless words, proverbs, and figures of speech in our native languages, and discussed a wide range of local, national, and global issues. My Italian improved by leaps and bounds as I made Italian friends for life. From my first job interview to giving the Italian tour, my experience was far more than an internship – it was a journey of unparalleled growth, with nervousness, excitement, hesitancy, challenge, friendship, and triumph along the way. Every time I passed my favorite shimmering, red-rhinestone Marilyn Monroe shoes on another tour, I had grown a little bit more.
While abroad, I both witnessed and experienced countless cultural traditions. I lost myself amid the ethereal, tulle-clad beings of Venice Carnevale and marveled at the larger-than-life, confetti-spewing floats of Viareggio’s Carnevale. I learned how to make Tiramisu, Gnocchi, and Chocolate Torte. I made my own Florentine paper with the help of Gianni, a Florentine store owner. Perhaps the most rewarding thing about being abroad, though, was throwing away the traditional checklist. I traveled through countryside off the beaten path, and explored eateries and small towns not even named on tourist maps and guides. I delighted in finding hole-in-the-wall gems, such as little-known restaurants, hidden chocolate stores, and whimsical vintage shops. In culturally challenging situations, I was forced to come up with new solutions, and invited to make valuable and educational experiences out of them. I came out of the study abroad experience richer than ever, feeling as if I had triumphed over the trials I had faced. I emerged stronger, wiser, and closer to my fellow Stanford in Florence students than I could have ever expected. I am, without question, an entirely different person than I was when I first arrived in Florence. In this unforgettable and enchanting city known for being the cradle of humanistic rebirth, I experienced a profound and lasting Renaissance of my own.