CAPA Study Abroad Alumna Interview: Christine Brackenhoff

May 11, 2015 9:30:00 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

Photo: Christine “driving” the Nutella truck at Gelato Fest in Piazza Michelangelo
Christine studied abroad in Florence with CAPA International Education during Fall semester 2014. Below, she talks about the ways she was able to carve out connections with locals, breaking stereotypes she had previously held about Italians and some advice she'd like to pass on to future students about travel outside of your host country.

CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
CHRISTINE BRACKENHOFF: I studied abroad in Florence, Italy, during Fall semester 2014. My home institution is Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where my major is Telecommunications. My most recent hobbies and interests include radio and television production, and I am a DJ for an on-campus radio station. I am also involved with Bleeding Heartland Rollergirls, Bloomington’s roller derby league.

CW: Describe your travel background for us. What was the reaction from your friends and family when you decided to study abroad?

CB: Other than on Caribbean cruises, I had never traveled outside of the United States before. I have always been interested in different cultures and lands. A few friends of mine studied abroad in high school and loved it, and I knew it was an experience I would want to undergo in college. All of my friends and family were very supportive of my decision to study abroad and were excited for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I was granted.

CW: Were you able to carve out opportunities to meet locals abroad? How was socializing with local Italians different from socializing with Americans?

CB: Beyond the people I met through CAPA, I used social media to find locals and local events. I proactively forced myself to start conversations in public settings. The main difference I noticed between how Italians and Americans socialize is that some Italians seemed more reserved in interacting with complete strangers. For example, in America, when walking down a sidewalk, it is common to make eye contact with other people you encounter. When making eye contact, it is also common, if not expected, to smile and say “hello/hi”. I remember walking down sidewalks upon my first few days in Florence and noticed that hardly anyone made eye contact, let alone shared other greetings or gestures. When one of my professors at CAPA asked our class what aspects about Italian culture we were puzzled by, several other classmates mentioned this standoffishness. My professor replied with something along the lines of: “Even though people may seem unneighborly on the exterior, you would soon find that most people are very kind-hearted after speaking with them.” This philosophy proved to be extremely accurate.

Otherwise, socializing among Italians and Americans seemed to be much more similar than different. Young adults liked to share a drink or two with friends, attend concerts, dance at parties, and exchange thoughts and ideas about everything from politics, music, lifestyles, religion, school, work, etc. Pre-teen boys flocked together around the entrance to GameStop, waiting for it to open. Parents and grandparents leisurely chatted on benches while watching children run around on playgrounds. Couples held hands, and maybe even smooched. Café employees knew what their “regular” customers wanted to order without it needing to be mentioned, and they made each other laugh. Etcetera.
Photo: Without the events section of Facebook, I would never have discovered Jazz Club Firenze, or sang along to “I Wanna Be Sedated” with a room full of Italians

CW: Tell us a story of a memorable interaction you had with a local and why it left an impression on you. 
There were countless memorable interactions, but I think one that could be told as a story was attending a University of Florence party with a local friend. When I heard the terms “university” and “party” used together in Italy, I was unsure of what to expect. University parties by my recollection tended to involve a relatively old apartment or house, filled with red Solo cups, music with intense bass, and a dense crowd of lively young Americans. There seemed to be so many differences between the standard American university experience and Italian university experience, so what would a “university party” in Italy entail?

For the most part, it’s the same concept. Even though the young people were all Italian, and the plastic cups were half the size, everybody was dancing along, snapping pictures with their smartphones, and having a great time while the music shook the building. Oh yeah, the university owned the building and hosted the party, too. This occurred around Halloween, and while this holiday is not widely celebrated like it is in the United States, I passed by the occasional werewolf and zombie. I was most immersed with Italians my age in this experience, and I realized that our approaches to having fun and socializing are synonymous.

CW: As a study abroad student, you were representing Americans abroad. Were you conscious of your behavior in relation to the stereotypes of Americans that exist? 
CB: At our introductory meeting with CAPA on the first weekend in Florence, stereotypes about Americans were shared with us. “Many people feel that Americans drink too much and are too loud. They also notice that American women wear clothes that reveal a lot of skin.” I wasn’t necessarily surprised, since these are stereotypes perpetuated back at home too. It made me cringe to think that American students before me established a sloppy reputation with many locals. However, I also knew that many students did not live up to these stereotypes, and I knew I wouldn’t either. Drinking in moderation, dressing appropriately, and not drawing excessive attention to myself in public settings were no-brainers.

CW: Has living abroad changed any stereotypes that existed in your own mind about your host culture? If so, how so and what were they?
CB: Before arriving in Florence, my concepts of Italy and Italians were very broad. As far as I was aware, the entire country looked like the green, rolling Tuscan hills. I figured Italian men would be bluntly flirtatious and Italian women would either be sexy bombshells, like Sofia Loren, or matronly figures. The expectation of pizza, pasta, and gelato in high quantities was a given.

However, I now understand Italy to be a nation with 20 unique regions. Italian men won’t pinch you on the street or sound like Mario and Luigi from Nintendo games. And while I didn’t ask, I don’t think most Italian women casually walk in and out of issues of Vogue. For the most part, Italian men and women like the same things American men and women like, and much variation exists within our cultures as well.

Yes, pizza, pasta, and gelato were readily available, but just as there are more than burgers and fries in the United States, there is more to the Italian diet. For example, I never thought of ribollita, mozzarella di bufala, Abbe pears, or prosciutto di Parma when thinking about “Italian food” before, and those were among my staples in Florence.

As entertaining as “Goodfellas”, “Eat Pray Love”, or the walls of your local Buca di Beppo restaurant might be, I would take them with a grain of salt for their representations of Italians.

CW: Where were the places you carved out as "Your Florence" - the places you found outside of the tourist sites, the places that were most meaningful for you? What was special about them?
CB: “My Florence” included several places. I enjoyed feeling like a regular customer for two particular vendors at the Sant’Ambrogio Market, where I shopped for food multiple times a week. Sitting in the underground Jazz Club Firenze became an addiction. I would sit and decipher Italian rap, or watch other young people dance to a cover of “I Wanna Be Sedated”, just as I would at an Indiana University house party. I spent most of my time outside of my apartment, as I would advise every student abroad to do, but even my kitchen on Borgo Allegri stands out as a piece of  “My Florence”. Here, I would watch the tame excitement of Piazza dei Ciompi, listen to the saxophone player on the corner, or spend time with people I aspire to be friends with for life.

Photo: Between my frequent visits to the Sant’Ambrogio Market, this fruit seller and I became very well acquainted. I can still hear her greet me with a “buona giornata!” as I walked away with a pound of the pears featured at the bottom and center of this photo

CW: Did you travel outside of Florence at all? What are some of the challenges you faced? Any advice to make traveling easier for other students.
I traveled outside of Florence several times. Within Italy, I visited Pisa, Viareggio, Milano, Como, Venice, Roma, Siena, San Gimignano, and Palermo. Outside of Italy, I visited Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain and England. Every city/country was unique and worthy of praise.

The biggest challenge I encountered was getting ripped off by a taxi driver who completely took advantage of the fact that I did not know how long of a drive to expect, that I had other transit options, or that I was being charged a ridiculous amount. To avoid feeling this kind of exploitation, I advise other students to research their logistics when planning independent travel. When booking a hostel through “”, set your standards relatively high, for example: 80% satisfactory ratings or higher, close to the city center, within a specific price range, etc. After booking a hostel, contact the owner and ask what the best way to get to them from the airport/train station is. When you get there, ask a staff member if they have a free map of the city, and to point out the most worthwhile points of interest.
My friends and I wanted to check out Tenax, a club we understood to be “where the locals go”. The Internet claimed it was open that evening. It was not. Here we are at the vacant Aeroporto di Firenze, waiting for a taxi to take us back to the city center. Not all plans go smoothly, especially while abroad, so maintaining a calm attitude is essential.

CW: To what extent did you know Italian before you left the US? What challenges has language presented? Have you been able to overcome them?
CB: I took one semester of Italian before leaving the US so I was familiar with the basic phrases. Even though most people in the cities spoke at least a little English, there were moments where Italians and I did not know how to communicate effectively with each other. Therefore, when I am asked whether or not I would reside in Italy, my main hesitation would be the language barrier. Not being able to communicate with those around you is a very isolating feeling. The best way to overcome such challenges is to keep practicing, seek help when you’re stuck, and welcome as many suggestions as people are willing to offer.

Fortunately, I feel that my Italian skills improved significantly during my time in Florence, and I will continue studying the language at Indiana University for two more semesters.

CW: Did your experience abroad in any way shape your career goals and aspirations?
CB: My professional interests have not changed in the sense that I still want to pursue a career in the telecommunications field. However, my experience abroad inspired me to keep seeing the world, whether it’s traveling often or residing in new places. Therefore, finding a position that would fulfill either (or both) of these aspirations would be ideal. To me, the world is just too big, with too much to offer, to want to stay in the same spot all of the time.

Thanks Christine!

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Topics: CAPA Alumni, Interviews, Florence, Italy