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How to Build Relationships with Locals in Florence, Italy

Aug 29, 2016 1:30:00 PM / by Stephanie Sadler

CAPA Study Abroad Alumna Interview: Carolyn Procknal

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Meet Carolyn, a media and professional communications major at the University of Pittsburgh who studied abroad in Florence with CAPA during spring semester 2016. Many of Carolyn's fondest memories in Italy were created with a local family she built a relationship with as part of the GANZO! program which she talks about in detail below. Read on to find out more Carolyn's classes and the impact they had on her overall experience, an amazing story about taking the risk to leave her comfort zone and interact in Italian and a meal that brough tears to her eyes. 

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CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
CAROLYN PROCKNAL: I’m a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in media and professional communications with focuses in public relations, public service, and nonprofit management. Once I graduate this December, I hope to work for a nonprofit organization in fundraising and special events. I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and I studied abroad with CAPA Florence in the spring of 2016.

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CW: Why did you choose the CAPA program and why Florence specifically?
CP: After seeing my older sister study abroad in the Czech Republic and Greece, I knew I wanted to spend time overseas as an undergrad. Partially due to my obsession with the book and movie Eat, Pray, Love, and my typical American fantasies about Italian culture, I decided to go to Italy. After researching different programs that my university partnered with in Italy, I decided to apply to the CAPA Florence program because of the positive reviews, course options, and program length. My experience with CAPA was unbelievable and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity.

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CW: Talk about academics abroad: Which classes did you take in Florence? How were you able to connect your experience of the city itself and your academics?
CP: I took "Cross-Cultural Psychology", "Italian Anthropology", "Museology", and "Italian Language 2" with CAPA Florence. Since I always hoped to study abroad, all four of my classes transferred back to Pitt for general education requirements that I intentionally hadn’t fulfilled.

The best aspect of my courses was how applicable they were to my everyday experiences. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my friends and I talked about our classes on an almost daily basis because they were just that interesting. We constantly used what we heard in lectures or saw during class excursions to make sense of the things that were going on around us. Most of my professors were also from Italy, which provided an extremely genuine perspective on the things that we discussed. I highly recommend that CAPA students take courses that relate to their location, because it truly helped me feel more connected to mine!

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CW: What was the food like in Florence? Did you find any favorite dishes or restaurants? Did you try anything new or unusual that you’ve never had before?
CP: The food in Florence was simply unbelievable. I basically ate the freshest pizza, pasta, paninis, and gelato that you can possibly imagine for four months – and I was more than okay with that. Italian food culture is remarkably different than American food culture, and it was so interesting to have been able to study and experience both.

One of my favorite memories surrounding Italian food is from my last night in Florence. I had been trying to visit a restaurant that was a crowd favorite with my friends and many locals for months after hearing about their truffle and cheese gnocchi. Since gnocchi is my favorite pasta and I hoped to try truffles in Italy for the first time, I knew this was where I wanted to share my last meal with friends. Since they all had enjoyed this amazing restaurant before, my friends happily agreed. Finally, the dish that I had heard about for months was placed in front of me. I took one bite and instantly burst into tears. Only in Italy is it socially acceptable to cry over pasta.

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CW: Tell us about a moment in Florence when you faced a particular challenge and how you were able to turn that into a learning experience. What can future students take away from your experience if they find themselves in a similar situation?
CP: My most overwhelming moments in Florence were largely due to language barriers and culture shock. Luckily, these moments were infrequent, but they often occurred unexpectedly and without reason. One of the best examples I can think of is a time when I went to a panini store near my apartment. I had always wanted to go to this small restaurant, but I had only ever heard locals speaking Italian inside, and was somewhat hesitant. After a day of slight homesickness, I gave in to my hunger and ventured downstairs.

The owner smiled and said, “buona sera,” and everything was going totally fine – until I tried to order and realized that there was no menu. I panicked while looking down at the large array of breads, meats, and cheeses. Ironically enough, my Italian Language 2 class hadn’t gotten to the food unit yet. I instantly felt self-conscious, and for whatever reason, was on the verge of tears and was more than ready to go home empty-handed.

Partially because I was hungry, and partially because the locals were so unbelievably kind and patient, I didn’t leave. I tried my best to explain myself in Italian to say that I was sorry, that I was only in “Italiano due,” or Italian two. Surprisingly, the owner took the time to let me try different ingredients, explain them to me, and make one of my most memorable, and delicious, meals abroad. We started talking in broken Italian and English over an espresso on the house, and by the end of the night, he was introducing me to his customers as his “amica,” or friend.

The biggest piece of advice I can give to CAPA students after this experience with hesitations due to language barriers and culture shock, is to go out of your comfort zone and try your best to interact with your new culture – the rewards often outweigh the risks.

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CW: Did you manage to volunteer while abroad or find other ways to connect with locals? What are your tips for other CAPA students who hope to do the same?
CP: Through a program led by the CAPA Florence staff called GANZO!, I was paired with a local family to practice my Italian language skills and learn more about Italian culture. My GANZO! family and I spent every Monday together and shared so many amazing experiences that I simply otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Every day, I picked the children up from school and had dinner with their family while we talked about things in both Italian and English. We even went to the movies, a birthday party, and a school performance. Through excursions to the countryside and to the neighboring town of Luca, I was also lucky enough to meet their extended family. Experiencing these activities was so special to me because I wasn’t just having dinner, or going to a party, or visiting another town – I was learning about and becoming a part of a totally differently culture than my own.

Participating in GANZO! was the most rewarding aspect of my entire study abroad experience. Through GANZO!, I was able to have a much clearer understanding of Italian culture. My GANZO! family truly made me feel at home and I can’t thank them, and the CAPA staff, enough. My advice for CAPA students is to utilize the CAPA staff as much as possible to connect with locals because it will only improve your experience.

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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?
CP: I always loved visiting my “GANZO!” family just outside of Florence in the commune of Scandicci. Since this area of Tuscany is a bus ride away from the sometimes touristy city center, this part of town became very special to me during my time abroad. I’ll never forget walking from the bus stop to their apartment, then from their apartment to their schools, and, of course, from their schools to their favorite “gelateria,” or ice-cream shop. It was so nice to occasionally escape from of the hustle and bustle to feel at home in such a family-centered town.

I was able to experience this relaxation in the city though, too. Once midterms and finals rolled around, I occasionally visited a library that was just a ten minute walk away from my apartment and was always full with locals. Once the weather got warmer, I frequently visited a small park just five minutes away from my apartment. I often studied or called family there while locals played soccer or chatted with friends. Getting to know these areas definitely made me feel more relaxed, confident, and connected to Florence.

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CW: What do you see yourself doing when you graduate? Did your experience abroad in any way shape your career goals and aspirations? If so, how so?
CP: Since I eventually hope to work for a nonprofit organization in fundraising and special events, my study abroad experience didn’t drastically alter my career aspirations. After talking with my GANZO! family about my previous internship at Make-A-Wish, though, I learned that there is actually an international Make-A-Wish chapter located in Italy. Having conversations in fragmented Italian and English about similar organizations really opened my eyes to the possibility of international nonprofit work. Regardless of what happens after graduation in December, I know that I’ll never forget my time in Florence and everyone that made it so special.

Thanks Caroyn!

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Topics: Interviews, Florence, Italy