Forza blu! A summer of art and gelato
May 31, 2017
Alexa Caruso

“More than anything I want to be home now. I’m really hoping I grow to love this city or that the month goes by quickly!”

The chance to spend all of July in Florence to study art sounds like a dream, right?

Unless you’re me.

That first sentence you read was what I wrote in my journal the first day I was in Florence. The furthest I had ever flown alone was from my home state of New Jersey to Michigan, I had never been to Europe before, and I don’t speak any Italian - so you could say I was a little nervous.

I tried to combat this by reading up on the local culture – did you know it’s frowned upon to order a cappuccino after 11 a.m.? – and learning some Italian phrases.

By the time I left in late June I was feeling a bit better about this new adventure. As a student at the Stamps School of Art & Design here at Michigan, one of the graduation requirements is to study abroad during your time as a student.

Of course this wouldn’t be as bad or as scary as I was convincing myself it would be.

Or maybe not.

While I had done my homework learning about the culture and some of the language I also failed to recognize a few things:

1. I hadn’t looked up the climate in Florence, and was thus unpleasantly greeted by 100-degree heat as I dragged my 40-pound suitcase across the cobblestone streets to my apartment, and

2. I may have learned how to ask questions in Italian, but I did not learn how to understand the answers I received.

This, as well as getting lost trying to get to my apartment made for a pretty miserable first day.

I remember crying in the stairwell, wishing I were home. I felt so guilty for thinking that way. I knew I was lucky to be there, but everything was just so different.

I felt terrible – how was I supposed to get through a whole month in a place I already didn’t like?

Warming up to the sights and tastes

Well, pretty easily actually.

It’s understandable that I would be homesick; I had never been anywhere like Florence before, or so far away from home.

I didn’t need to go back home, I just needed time to get used to my new surroundings.

I attended long classes at Studio Arts College International where I drew and painted in the studios and around some of the most well-known landmarks in Florence, like the Boboli Gardens, the Duomo, and La Specola. We practiced everything from drawing anatomy to sketching landscapes of the city at the gardens.

My drawing class even went to the Accademia and drew Michelangelo’s David.

It was tiring work but I saw myself improve throughout the month. Plus, it was incredible getting to see and study the works of the masters in person.

When I was out of class, I was exploring the sights and tastes of Italy with my classmates.

We visited many sections of the city like the leather market and the Central Market, and enjoyed tons of freshly made gelato and pasta. The Nutella and Salted Butter Caramel gelato is the best if you ask me.

I still remember my favorite place to get lunch was a small sandwich shop right around the corner from my apartment. The tiny store would be mobbed at lunchtime with people waiting to get their sandwich of fresh mozzarella, basil, tomato, and prosciutto.

I was confused when I ordered my first sandwich – it was warm even though I had seen them make it with only cold ingredients. Then I saw one of the workers walk by carrying a tray of steaming, freshly baked focaccia bread.

My question was answered and several more sandwiches were bought.

In addition to having a friend from Michigan also go to SACI, I met people from other parts of the United States and other countries around the world.

It was great to make some new friends while we all experienced this new city.

At the end of my journal I wrote: 

“I can’t believe tomorrow is the last day! I sat on the wall by the Arno River while I ate my gelato and just thought about how much I disliked it here when I first arrived. What did I even dislike?”

How did I end up in Italy?

A little more than a year ago I was getting ready for my trip to Florence, Italy.

Thinking back to when I was admitted to Michigan, I remember envisioning myself studying abroad in France. I had taken French all throughout high school, so I was familiar with the culture and knew enough of the language to get myself around.

How did I end up in Italy?

One of the great things about the University of Michigan is that it offers a vast array of opportunities, certainly not falling short when it comes to study abroad. Michigan offers a variety of programs in more than a hundred countries. They include faculty-led trips and partner-school trips where students can take classes at another institution and have their credits transfer back to Michigan.

When I was doing my research for programs that were focused on art and design, I found a program that would allow me to go to SACI.

The art school offered a variety of classes that made more sense for me to take than the program in France.

I submitted my application to SACI, bought my ticket, and got ready to spend one incredible month in Florence.

Studying abroad offers much more than college credit

So if one day you find yourself about to embark on your own study abroad trip and you’re as nervous as I was, that’s ok. You shouldn’t feel bad if you find yourself a little homesick.

Sometimes it just takes a little time (and a lot of gelato) to get used to a new place.

While you’re there you’ll get to try a lot of new things, gain a lot of knowledge, and a lot of new friends.

And you’ll also probably see plenty of Wolverines no matter where you are, like I did while walking up and down the streets, at the Boboli Gardens, and even when I was waiting for a train at the station.

One day when I was drawing in the Boboli Gardens I noted in my journal:

“I saw a woman with the same block M hat I was wearing, and another guy said ‘go blue!’ in passing. When I got home later someone else said ‘go blue!’ too – there are Wolverines everywhere!”

Because wherever you go, well, forza blu! 

Alexa Caruso

is a campus tour guide and senior pursuing a BFA at the Stamps School of Art & Design. She can be reached at