Iris Haik - Stanford in Florence
Major: International Relations
Minor: Poverty, Inequality, and Policy
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: This photo was taken in Burano, an island in Venice known for lace-making and brightly colored buildings! I visited Venice as weekend trip with friends I made in my Florence study abroad cohort during February, the month of Carnevale. Here, I am thinking about the fritelle (a Venetian dessert made only during Carnevale) I ate that day with some of Burano's famously vibrant homes in the background.
Questions and Answers with Iris
Why did you choose to study abroad in Florence?
There are, naturally, a great many things that attracted me to the study abroad program in Florence! For starters, there is the beauty of the city itself: I wanted to take inspiration from (and learn the history of!) a beautiful and ancient city while living right in the center of it. I also LOVE to eat and I had heard (correctly!) that the food in Italy was phenomenal! The classes offered in Florence (and in fact the whole study abroad experience) also directly appealed to my academic interests: while in Italy I could not only take classes on Italian history and politics but also have the opportunity to speak to Italians, including my host family, and learn more about local opinions on politics, populism and the EU. I also wanted the chance to learn more about and explore Italy’s many beautiful art museums and churches!
What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Florence?
Before arriving in Florence I did not expect how empty many of the museums, monuments, and other attractions would be! In my head I associated Florence with heavy tourism and crowds so thick that I might not be able to see whatever it was I came to see. Imagine my (pleasant!) surprise when in my first few visits to the Uffizi it was nearly empty! I was able to fully appreciate so many famous statues, paintings, and buildings during my time in Florence, mostly free of dense crowds of tourists. On top of being able to return to museums and gardens and cathedrals essentially whenever I wished, this meant I was able to fully relax, enjoy, and appreciate the beauty around me without being overly jostled or stifled by a thick crowd.
What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Florence?
As an International Relations major, for a good portion of my Stanford education I focused on learning about democracy: how it is interpreted in various countries around the world, how it is maintained in these countries, and how it perseveres (or erodes) in the face of rising pressures from forces such as populism and globalization. While in Florence, I got to connect with local Italians and understand their perspectives on the rise of populism in their own country. I also had the opportunity to study Europe's relationship to colonialism and democracy in post-colonial states. Italy has been particularly affected by the Migrant Crisis, and indeed many of the migrants in Italy are either from or pass through Libya, a former Italian colony. I was intrigued by how this connection affects the Italian perception of these migrants. Given my strong political focus when studying Europe, my time in Florence also gave me a unique opportunity to consider politics from a more empathetic, cultural perspective. I came to understand how art and history can shape (and be shaped by) a country's political culture and environment. Additionally, the Italian classes I took in Florence not only allowed me to better communicate with the people around me but also gave me the foundations to add another language to my repertoire.
What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?
Prior to studying abroad in Italy, I didn't realize just how fast I can pick up new languages! I had never studied Italian before arriving in Florence (outside of a couple weeks of prep on Duolingo), but in only a couple of months I was able to have whole conversations with my host family in Italian! I was also able to order food, ask strangers for directions, and even (sort of) follow a movie entirely in Italian. I should naturally credit the program's amazing Italian language instructors (grazie, Professoressa Francesca!) but I was shocked by just how helpful total immersion can be in learning a new language from scratch.
What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?
The most challenging experience I had in Florence was being followed by strange men at night. This is, unfortunately, simply part of living in a new city; I had to learn which streets were safe to walk down after dark, when to ask a male classmate to walk me home, and when I should simply give up on walking entirely and call a cab. Most importantly, I learned to trust my instincts!
What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?
Italian food culture is very different from the States: breakfasts are very small, lunches are of a medium size, and dinners are large and late at night. While I have never been into big breakfasts, I definitely had to adjust to having essentially just a piece of fruit and a cup of tea for breakfast. (The latter is not at all Italian, I just hate coffee!) I also haven’t had such late dinners since coming to Stanford, so I had to get used to having dinner right before bed.
What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Florence?
It may seem like such a small thing but my walk to and from the Stanford center every day was truly my favorite part of studying abroad in Florence. Every morning I passed famous landmarks like the Basilica of Santa Croce, and a short detour brought me straight to the Uffizi, the Ponte Vecchio, and even the Duomo! It was incredible to not hurriedly rush to see these things the way a person might on vacation but to take my time and leisurely stroll, appreciating the history, the artistry, the majesty of the world around me. I had the opportunity to decide, quite literally on a whim, to explore a famous museum or a church on my walk home, with the full knowledge that if I wanted to there was no reason I couldn’t return the following day, or the following week, or even the following month. For me, emblematic of this is a photo I took of the full moon above the Basilica of Santa Croce; I captured it accidentally on my walk home after class and to this day I revisit it constantly. What a wonder that I was able to see such beautiful thing! Every single day I had the opportunity to be surrounded by beauty and history, and this is something that I will always remember about my life in Florence.
What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Florence?
I will never forget the Bing Trip where our entire cohort went to Milan together. We had both structured programing, including a tour of the city and visiting da Vinci's The Last Supper, and time to explore on our own. I had a fantastic time hanging out with friends and absorbing the beauty of Milan's theaters, gardens, and churches. I especially appreciated the fact that I got to do so with our entire cohort! This was a great time to become closer to people who I didn't know as well and to be able to travel with friends who (for various scheduling reasons) I had never been able to explore Italy with before.
What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?
Artistic, Engaging, Magical, Delicious, Welcoming
What was your favorite food you had in Florence?
While in Florence I was introduced to panna cotta, a dessert that is essentially sweet cream combined with gelatin and topped with fresh fruit and a coulis. It is simple, elegant, and delicious, but most importantly every time I think of it I remember my host family taking the time out of their busy lives to prepare some for me on my birthday. It was a little hard being away from my friends and family in the U.S. during my birthday, but my host family went out of their way to make it a special experience! No matter how many times I have had panna cotta since, every time I remember sitting at the dining room table with my host family in Florence and laughing about birthday traditions with them.
What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?
Even if it sounds a little silly, I think my phone is the most important item I carried with me during my time abroad because I took hundreds of photos! Nearly every day I took new photos of friends, of my surroundings, of food, and sometimes all three at once! When I look back on my time abroad, I love scrolling through all the photos I took and the memories they hold. I was never particularly good at remembering to take photos before I studied abroad in Florence, but the friends I made there and the beauty surrounding me compelled me to capture every moment I could! To this day, I am very grateful for the camera and photo album perennially in my pocket that allowed me to create a photo journal of my time abroad.
What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Florence?
Although I’ve always liked musicals, it wasn’t until I studied abroad in Italy that I got exposed to opera! Unfortunately due to the COVID-19 pandemic my cohort never got to go to a full opera performance as a group. However, the eldest daughter in my host family was an aspiring opera performer, so every week I got to hear her practice and I was invited to a few of her recitals as well! Even though my Italian was never quite good enough to fully understand what she was singing, the resonance of her voice has stayed with me ever since - I miss it every day.