Alex Li - Stanford in Florence
Major: Civil Engineering
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: This picture was taken after the Bing Soccer game. Me and my friend Daniella decided to take a short walk through Parco delle Cascine before going home. The game was a ton of fun, but we just wanted to find some quiet sit down and enjoy. The park is lined with these beautiful trees and it was a great Sunday afternoon, so she took this photo for me.
Questions and Answers with Alex
Why did you choose to study abroad in Florence?
I chose to study in Florence because I wanted to speak a foreign language and I wanted to visit a part of the world I hadn't been to (I have traveled to East Asia for much of my life). Other than that, I had my pick. I ultimately chose Florence because I just had romantic notions of being in Italy. I had studied the Renaissance and its great thinkers for so long that I thought there would be something magical about being in the medieval streets of Da Vinci and Dante. And, it was absolutely magical.
What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Florence?
My expectations of Florence were mostly based on pictures; I had no clue what actual life in Florence was like. I imagined it to be either like those prototypical Tuscan countryside villas, or a bustling city roundabout (which in retrospect, is what Naples is actually like). Once I got there though, it was far more beautiful than I ever could imagine. The scale of the medieval streets and the Duomo in person were much larger than the pictures made them look. And I realized more as the weeks went by that there's so much to do around Florence, within walking distance of my homestay. From gardens to markets, nightlife to museums, it was just right there! And a quick trip out of town was easy too! I spend nights and days in neighboring cities in Tuscany, all charming in their own way.
What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Florence?
The academic benefits are numerous. I studied art for the first time since middle school, and I learned a lot from sketching things live in museums and in open air. I got to see my sketches and painting improve drastically since the beginning of the quarter! Not only do you get a set of great courses to choose from, but you also get some time to reflect on what it means to be a college student. Stanford is sometimes a pressure cooker, and it helps to give yourself space to figure out what's important in your education. I was a bit burnt out after sophomore year, but after studying abroad, I was ready to return to campus, much more refreshed. I remembered that I didn't just want to specialize in an engineering field but also take classes from many diverse disciplines. I also remembered how much I valued meeting people that aren't like me.
What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?
"I learned that I'm really capable of adapting to new cultures and I enjoy solo traveling. At first life was really hard. On the first day there, I lost my passport (whoops) but also it was the ordinary things that made things hard. Things like: where is the nearest laundromat? how do I buy a train ticket? how do I communicate with my host mom? But once you get used to it, you understand the things that make life different in Italy, and you gain a broader sense of citizenship with the world.
While traveling with friends is a ton of fun and I would travel with many of the friends I made at Florence again, I realized there's a lot to learn about yourself when you're alone. I can plan out my entire day however I want and visit as many (or as few) places as I want, and often, it's much easier to meet new people when you're alone. Europe has a great system of hostels, which are great places to crash for a night and meet other young people traveling."
What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?
The most challenging experience was definitely figuring out how to talk with other Italians. I had only taken one quarter of Italian before coming, which was a big help, but not up to fluency. It was enough, though, to communicate with my host family, the shopkeepers, and the program staff. It was much harder to find younger Italians to talk to. Ultimately, I didn't find as much success in this as I wish I did, but I did still interact with many different types of people! I had dinner with the Friends a Firenze program, played FIFA at night with my host brothers, and played soccer in the Piazza Vecchio with friends from the program and various strangers. It's sometimes hard to interact with other Italians, but it's well worth the try!
What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?
It was the daily schedule. Italian culture is shifted like 2-3 hours later than American society, so everything is later. My mind was just not used the sun setting so early when daylight savings came or the hours of most stores until 10 AM! On the plus side, there's aperitivo, a traditional before dinner drink & snack, and an actual lunch break, pausa pranzo.
What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Florence?
Honestly, the commute and the weather. My roommate and I had the second farthest commute in the program, so everyday, we had to take the tram into town. But during the eight minute ride to Santa Maria Novella and the twenty minute walk past the Duomo, around the Mercato Nuovo, and over the Ponte Vecchio, I felt part of the rhythm of the city. You saw what it was like to be part of Florence, to be an early riser going to the city center, or a kid riding the carousal in Piazza della Republica. And the weather changed with the seasons for the first time in my life. I saw it shift from summer humidity to winter rains. It felt like I lived there for so much longer than three months!
What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Florence?
I think my most memorable experience was just all the time I spent with my host family. They really made me feel at home, and we ended up doing many things together! Me and my roommate would help make dinner with them, we'd watch the X Factor together, and I'd run into my host dad at the gym (he was a cycling instructor). All of those daily "ciao"s and "come stai"s really made my homestay experience just fantastic.
What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?
illuminating, magical, trying, refreshing, fun
What was your favorite food you had in Florence?
La Dante at All'antico Vinaio, Bacio gelato, la bistecca fiorentina at Trattoria Mario, Tagliatelle al Ragù (bolognese sauce), pasta alla carbonara (it's the last meal I had before going home), really any pizza (recommend I Bastioni di San Niccolò Trattoria), Caprino from Conrad with crackers
What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?
I wish I had a good answer for this, but it was probably my phone. It's incredibly helpful to look up words you don't know, find directions (download you maps before you leave!), and store important documents (passport pictures, tickets, etc.) Also, being abroad is a great time to play Pokemon Go! I swear, it helps you get out of the classroom and see parts of the city you weren't expecting to see.
What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Florence?
In Florence, my art professor played a lot of Italian pop music during our sketches. The music is oddly reminiscent of early 2010s American pop music, so the class overall enjoyed it (it was slightly nostalgic of our middle school/high school days). My favorite artist ended up being Fulminacci, this super new Italian Alt artist. I walked around Florence one night and saw posters for his first tour, so I bought tickets to see his concert in Bologna, a city about an hour north (there was a concert in Florence, but it conflicted with my departure date). It ended up being a really fun night, I met some Italians who actually studied abroad in the U.S., and the band itself.