Italy was a wild ride before the trip even started. My entire life, I looked forward to studying abroad in college. I had been trying to study abroad since my sophomore year, but my dream of summer in Scandinavia was crushed by the start of the pandemic. I remained hopeful that I would get the opportunity during my junior spring semester, but as the end of the pandemic seemed less and less near, programs were getting canceled. After switching programs in 3 different countries, my last hope for a program got canceled because UNC did not want the liability of sponsoring the trip. After looking at my other options, I knew that my only choice was to unenroll from Carolina and direct enroll at the only university that would let us in the country. I posted on my Instagram story about the opportunity, got a few other guys from my school on board, signed over my lease, and hopped on a plane to Florence.
Living in Italy during the pandemic was a wild ride because the borders were closed to anyone except for citizens and students. This meant that some of the world’s most touristy locations were completely empty for the first time. This gave us such a unique local experience that I knew would never exist again, but we also had to juggle the changing daily national mandates. Italy would go through periods of lockdown where you would not be allowed to leave your house unless you were getting groceries or exercising. I spent most of these days going on long runs, exploring the Tuscan countryside, and reading along the Arno River. For most of my time abroad, it was illegal to travel between different regions. This meant that when we were finally able to travel, we took advantage of every day outside of the classroom.
I was able to roam Florence like it was my own, take classes in some of the most beautiful buildings around the city, and explore other regions on the weekends. Our first adventure was to Rome, which had such a different feel than the older traditional city of Venice but had me completely nerding out about all the places I had learned about in my high school Latin classes. Next was Venice which was weirdly the sleepiest city (until we arrived). This short trip included plenty of Carbonara and a midnight jump in the canal which made for one of my fondest memories. The Amalfi Coast was a dream beach trip. Imagine five college kids in a new BMW blasting music with the windows down along the Italian coast. Plus, driving through Pompeii on the way there was pretty cool.
My favorite trip and most cherished memories were in Cinque Terre. This is a string of 5 seaside villages connected by cliffside trails and the most amazing food. That weekend turned into 50,000 steps, 4,500 feet, and 20 miles split up by swimming and gelato. It was such a breath of fresh air to get away from the urban environment and out into nature to appease my “granola” side.
Italy provided me with tremendous personal growth. I learned a lot about the beauty of spending time with yourself and how fun it can be to explore on your own, along with the attributes I look for in a travel partner. I really learned the lesson that there is no better person to do the things you want to do than with yourself because you will always want to do the same things! 🙂 Overall, these months abroad showed me the beauty of immersing yourself in a culture with a slower lifestyle and taking in the beauty of every moment. I can now understand why Italians seem to live longer (despite the fatty meals and truckloads of cigarettes). They focus on working to live, putting aside time for loved ones, and taking in the finer things in life, and I enjoyed getting a taste of all of it.