Alex Abroad is a mini-series by guest blogger Alex Migdal, an Arts student attending the spring term at the Faculty of Arts School in Cortona, Italy. This is Alex’s third and final entry.
I miss Cortona. A lot. I’ve pretty much thought about it every day since I left. I miss the eternally warm weather, the class field trips, the walks to the gelato shop, getting lost in the maze of alleyways, the food. I especially miss the people. They became like a second family. We laughed a lot. We ate even more. And we danced at the local pub just a bit too much.
As we neared the end of our trip, some of us talked about what we wish we had known before studying abroad. The U of A does a great job of prepping you for the trip — you’ll get the full orientation on the program and local customs — but the tips we had in mind are the kind that can only be shared by students who have gone through the experience.
I thought I’d take a moment to share some of my top pointers. You can easily apply these to any other study abroad program.
Learn the language
A few words will take you a long way in Cortona. Most of the locals are accustomed to the tourists and can speak serviceable English. But even a ciao, preggo and grazie are appreciated. There are a ton of free resources that can teach you Italian (and other languages). Edmonton Public Library, for instance, offers Mango Languages, which gives cardholders access to courses for 48 languages. Learn the language — or at least some of it — and you’ll be the envy of the locals.
Cortona is literally perched on a hill, with alarmingly steep roads, so the last thing you want to be lugging around is a huge suitcase. That’s easier said than done, though, especially for those who tend to pack their closets. But it can be done! I survived with a single travel backpack for the entire month — and this is coming from a chronic overpacker.
Packing also depends on the season you’re visiting. In the spring term, most days are hot and sunny, and you can easily get by with lighter clothing. In the winter, you’ll have to pack more layers for the cooler days.
Regardless, try to cut down to a smaller suitcase or backpack and your aching joints will thank you for it.
Enjoy the present
If this is your first study abroad experience, the prospect of spending weeks in a foreign country can seem daunting. The key is to enjoy the days and be present in the moment. Cheesy, I know. But there’s the temptation of staying in constant touch with family and friends back home, and that can often pull you away from all the amazing things in front of you. This was a valuable lesson I learned in my travel writing class. There’s nothing better than soaking up all the details of your new home — the sights, sounds and smells. Some of my most memorable experiences, like lounging on a terrace for coffee with friends for hours, were when I plugged out and just enjoyed the company.
Take time for yourself
More than 50 students took part in the Cortona spring term, which meant being around a lot of people for most of the day. Group activities were a blast, but sometimes I just needed a breather. One of my favorite parts of the day was walking to the nearby park and reading a book for an hour. It was also a great excuse to people watch and clear my head. When I came back for dinner, I felt refreshed and more alert. We often joke about FOMO, or fear of missing out, but it’s equally important to take time for yourself.
I’m sharing these tips with the awareness that everyone travels differently and has varying expectations about their study abroad experience. This was my second time studying abroad, so I had a good idea of what to expect. But in the end, Cortona far exceeded those expectations. I walked away from it having learned a new way of life — of enjoying the smaller things in life and appreciating the people around you. As my last undergrad experience at the U of A, that feels like a pretty worthwhile lesson.
For more information about the Faculty of Arts School in Cortona, click here. We still have spaces available for Fall 2015 or Winter 2016! The Fall application deadline has been extended until July 15!
The Faculty of Arts is also introducing a new opportunity for alumni and friends, called the Mosaic Courses in Cortona. Join us for a week of adventure and intellectual discussion abroad.