Author: Tonya Nelson

Study Abroad: Getting Comfortable with Your Host Family

One of the biggest challenges and most rewarding aspects of studying abroad is getting to know and become comfortable with your host family—and to have them feel the same way about you! It takes time and happens gradually, but if you both put in the effort, you’ll leave with a new home and an extended family waiting for your return. Having a host family was one of the most nerve wrecking aspects at first—what if they don’t like me? What if we don’t get along? What if it’s horrible and I feel like I can’t be at home? Though they were all valid questions, you just have to be open and honest with your host family and slowly start to get to know one another.

You might not be instant friends with them, especially if you’re from completely different generations on top of being from different cultures. It might be hard to communicate if there’s a big language barrier, but you have to try. The more effort you show in getting to know them, the more they’ll come to appreciate you and want to be open with you. It’s the same thing as meeting a stranger in America: slowly start to teach each other about yourselves and as time goes on, you’ll (hopefully) be more comfortable and become better friends. So don’t get into the nitty gritty details right away—especially with Italians, who are known for wanting to keep their privacy with people they don’t know well. Maybe the first night focus on talking about yourself: why are you studying here, what your family’s like, things you don’t like to eat, etc. But also try to get them to engage as well, by asking them questions too or giving them room to interject. Even if it’s frustrating and you don’t know what to say, just remember that in a week or less all of your efforts will pay off.

To further help your relationship with them, you need to be considerate and respectful. Don’t let garbage and clothes pile up around your room. Italians pride themselves on keeping things neat, and many other home stays elsewhere—even if the family doesn’t care about organization—would appreciate you being able to pick up after yourself and not make a mess out of their home. You are a guest in their house first and foremost, and no matter if you become a new family member by the end, you still need to respect their rules and boundaries. Though they don’t set a curfew, be conscious of the time you come home and the amount of noise you make when you return.  Also be aware of how much time you spend in the bathroom, how much/little you eat of what they make you and how you interact with any friends they have over or pets they have. It’s not that you’re being tested per say, as much as you should be respectful and aware of how you’re acting in someone else’s house.

After time, you and your host family will grow to be more accepting and understanding of the others’ behaviors and likes or dislikes. You’ll be able to talk freely and fall into their habits of how long to spend in the bathroom, a normal serving size at dinner or how neat you should keep your bedroom. The more you integrate yourself into the culture and try to learn from your host family, the happier all of you will be and the better experience you’ll have. So just jump right in and learn, experience and grow. This opportunity is all about you and your hosts learning from one another, so why not make the most of it?




Study Abroad: Eating too Much, Eating too Little

It’s like freshman year all over again…the dreaded thought of weight gain. In a foreign country with an entirely different diet than the States, it can be hard to maintain your weight and fitness—especially when you have to juggle class, exploring your new home, and venturing off on the weekends to new places! Not to mention having a host mom who likes to fill your plate with three courses at 8 pm. Others try to save money or avoid the weight sitch entirely by eating infrequently and as little as possible—no buono!

Food is an important part of every culture. Italy is all about the pasta, bread and vegetables, versus Americans chowing down on hotdogs and hamburgers. But if you look around Italy, you’ll see mostly skinny or average weight citizens ordering light lunches and big dinners. So how can you handle a pasta lunch, and a pasta dinner followed by potatoes, meat and salad, and ending with a fruit salad? You have to keep your food quantities in perspective. Follow the culture. If they eat a lighter lunch, follow suit. You might get hungry again before dinner if you’re used to eating earlier or having a larger lunch, but give yourself some time to adjust. Grab a snack or go exploring to keep your mind off food (though passing so many little gelato stores might make it worse). After an adjustment period, you’ll be able to eat on the same schedule as the Italians, or whatever culture you’re experiencing, do.

Saving money is always a concern when abroad, but don’t let that keep you from eating! You don’t have to go to a nice restaurant every time you want to eat. Check out grocery stores—they often have cheap, already made options for lunch or ingredients to make your own. Go out to eat with a large group and try sampling a variety of dishes; by splitting the bill, you’ll still get all the flavors of your country at a lower price then trying to work your way through the restaurant’s menu on a variety of visits. Also, simply checking out the smaller cafes and lesser known restaurants on side streets could lead to big money savings—and having a secret hangout!

Besides money and weight gain, others are just concerned about pleasing their host families. When you first arrive, just talk about what you can or can’t/won’t eat and go from there. Get a sense of their eating habits—how much they eat and when they eat—and try to mimic them as much as possible. They want you to have a good time studying abroad and want to make the adjustment easier, which can mean making you feel at home with a big hearty meal. Don’t feel like you have to eat it all. Learn how to say “I’m full” or something along those lines, and politely decline. They won’t be offended and it can actually help them learn how much food they should make so it’s sufficient for the whole family.

Most importantly, you need to enjoy your abroad experience. Don’t let counting calories or coins hold you back from eating and doing what you want to do. Once you immerse yourself in the culture, measuring out everything you eat won’t matter anymore. Besides, there’s always time to lose weight if you need to or form a stricter budget for the rest of your stay. In the meantime, buon appetito!



Spending Time in Italian Churches and Museums

As an art history major and taking an Italian Masterpieces class, lots of time is spent touring museums and visiting churches. Though spending time in church is probably the last thing you think you’d want to do, some of the coolest art can be found in these places: the tomb of Michelangelo in Santa Croce, the frescoes by Masolino and Masaccio in Santa Maria del Carmine, and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Even if art isn’t your thing, if you’re in Italy, at least take the time to go to the Uffizi (originally office buildings designed by Vasari for the Medici family) or spend some time in the Duomo (if you don’t mind enclosed spaces and hundreds of stairs, take a trip up through the dome for a great view of the entire city).

If you decide to spend a day on some art, there are some things you need to know to be prepared. Gypsies and pickpockets love to hang out around tourist areas, most living right around the Duomo. If you’re carrying a bag, keep close track of it, holding it close to your body and making sure it’s zipped up—though keep in mind, there are some who will go the extra mile and cut your bag if they can discretely. Many suggest using a money pouch—kind of like a fanny pack but under your clothes and very easily hidden—to protect your money, even if your bag does get compromised. Mostly, if you pay attention to your surroundings and tell the gypsies a firm “NO,” you’ll get by just fine.

If you’re going into a church, you need to be dressed appropriately—even in the summer. Shoulders and knees need to be covered. Occasionally they’ll let you get away with your knees showing as long as they’re almost or partially covered, but you need to decide if it’s worth the risk. A few churches, like San Miniato al Monte, will provide awkward poncho like cover ups if you’re dressed inappropriately, but you will just look like a ridiculous tourist. Bring a scarf or shawl to wrap around your shoulders. Opt for bermuda shorts or a long skirt to hide those knees. You can always bring some clothes to change into if you get too hot, but the interior of churches are generally nice and cool.

Finally, you’re going to want to take tons of pictures to show off to your friends…but you’re going to have to refrain. Most museums with few exceptions will allow you to take pictures—if you can, the flash MUST be off, or you’ll add to the damage many of these works have already suffered. The majority of churches would also prefer you looked around without filming or photographing its content, partially because some are still filled with practicing monks or just because the decorations are old and need good maintenance. Even if you can sneak a picture or two, try to hold off from doing so; it will only make the paintings fade and flake sooner, and soon only reproduced images will be left—we definitely don’t want that.

No matter where you go in the world, there is sure to be a wide variety of art and architecture marking its growth and culture. Take the time to appreciate it, even if you aren’t interested in museums. You may be surprised by the talent you stumble upon.



Study Abroad in Florence: The Scary Factor

When you’re anywhere in the world, home or in a foreign country, there’s going to be danger. Crime is literally everywhere. Whether it’s gangs, robbery, pickpockets or even more dangerous activities, there’s no avoiding it. When you’re by yourself in a new country, the danger factor may feel more escalated. In Florence, the main danger is pick pocketing—from gypsies and otherwise—and, mostly for the ladies, being followed around by creepy men. In just the 10 days I’ve been here, my roommate and I have been followed several times and had many encounters with gypsies. Any of these night and day excursions could have ended badly, if we weren’t careful.

Just because you’re somewhere new without family or your usual big group of friends to help protect you doesn’t mean you’re unsafe. There are lots of ways to travel safely in your new environment and not feel like you have to stay in your house at all times. The most obvious people here all the time, even at home, is to travel in groups. Being with at least one other person, male or female, instantly makes you a more difficult target. You have someone else to watch your back and pick up on the details you may not have noticed. You have a partner to help get you out of a bad situation or devise a plan to walk down a different route if necessary. The list goes on and on. If you must walk alone, pay attention to your surroundings. Watch your belongings and don’t just let your bag bounce around behind you where anyone can grab it. And do your best to stay on main streets unless wherever you’re going is in an alley, in which case…good luck.

Another way to stay safe is to simply plan ahead. Ask around to find out what people are up to and who you can travel with. Also specifically ask your friends if they’ll mind walking with you to get books or grab a bite to eat. Figure out the best route to take before you go—it’s ok to get lost, but at least having an idea of where you’re going is better than walking around in sketchy areas (especially if you don’t have a map on you). You should also consider what you need and/or want to take with  you. If you’re just going on a walk to explore the city, maybe leave your wallet behind. If you’re just running to the bookstore to pick up a book or school supplies, take a smaller amount of money and don’t bother bringing your camera. The less belongings, and expensive belongings, you have on your person will make you feel safer—and also make you less of a target.

Finally, be careful about who you talk to. I know this probably sounds lame, like your parents always telling you not to talk to strangers. But you never know who’s a creep and who just genuinely wants to be your friend. It’s always good to make connections in a new country—who doesn’t want an international buddy?–but you need to be perceptive. If they seem like a creep, they’re probably a creep.  Use your best judgment, and get your friend’s opinions too, and even when you’re meeting new people, don’t tell them your address (especially if you’re living with a host family)and be careful about handing out your phone number. Just in general, being more cautious than you would be at home is the best bet for maintaining your safety as well as your friends’.

Basically, to be safe you just have to take precautions and be aware. Plan ahead, know where you’re going and what you’re doing and ask people to go with you. If you follow these basic rules, you’ll get through it without losing any of your belongings and having the best time of your life.

Be careful and have fun!



Being Professional Online

While you’re interning this summer, you also want to keep in touch with all of your friends online. Your Facebook wall is full of curse words, your Twitter feed is all about partying and you have a ton of posted pictures that are seemingly less than professional. Your boss just friend requested you—not to mention potential employers are constantly looking you up online—so it’s time to clean up your online platforms.

One of the easiest things you can do is control your privacy settings. When friending your boss, it’s important to make sure your profile doesn’t have anything too scandalous. Keep your albums private—if necessary, don’t feel like your employer or colleagues can’t see anything you post, unless you just really want to keep your personal life and work life completely separate. If friends post inappropriate comments on your wall, you can either make your entire wall private or make individual posts private. Even easier, you can talk to your friends about what they post; hopefully, they can clean up their act, at least while you’re actively interning.

Besides privacy, you also need to be conscious of what you are posting. Watch how much personal information you put on your profiles. When tweeting, don’t post every single thing you’re doing every hour of the day. Not only could it lead to unexpected stalkers, but it’s annoying for everyone who follows you. This isn’t necessarily unprofessional, but it makes your profiles overall appear too simple and doesn’t necessarily show off your true self—at least as an employee or intern. Instead, try retweeting posts from your company (not every single one, or even every day) and other places that interest you. Post some interesting articles related to your school major or skills. The more variety you have throughout your online profiles, the easier it will be for employers—current and those seeking you out for interviews—to paint a picture of what you can bring to the company and also how they can cater to your interests.

Finally, and most importantly, to keep a professional Facebook or Twitter, don’t post negative comments about your work. Think or yourself as an ambassador for the company. If you’re posting that you hate your boss, you have an annoying colleague, or that you just hate what you’re doing, you shouldn’t expect to be working there much longer. If you feel the need to vent—about work, personal issues or anything like that—keep it off the Internet. It might be funny, it might lead to a lot of comments on your Facebook wall, but it’s not classy or professional. Besides, a good phone call or in person venting session is always fun.

Overall, just be aware of what you and others are posting on your profiles. It’s not hard to remain professional, it just takes active attention to your accounts. Good luck, interns!

– ToonyToon