Florence in the Dark: What it’s Like to Study Abroad While Blind

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Christina Ebersohl is a Music Performance major (viola) at Portland State University.  She just completed Performing Arts Abroad’s Summer Study Abroad semester in Italy.

I’m not exactly a discrete study abroad student in Italy. I mean, I don’t exactly have the olive skin of the Italian women (the Irish is strong in this one), I constantly have a giant red viola case strapped to my back, and, if that isn’t bad enough, I don’t eat meat.

Oh, and I’m blind.

But honestly, the Italians are far more upset about the not-eating-meat thing.

“Sono cieca.”
I spoke a decent amount of Italian before arriving in Florence, which I credit a huge amount of my success to. But when you come to a new country, especially when you come with a disability, it is indescribably helpful to have a few pocket phrases already in your repertoire. My winning gem is: “mi dispiace, ma sono cieca”, or “I’m sorry, but I’m blind”. It’s not that they ignored my glaringly obvious white cane, or missed the fact that I had to press my face against the glass case to see if that was a croissant or mortadella (always a crowd pleaser in a touristy café, let me tell you). But Italian customer service is far different from American service: If you don’t ask for help, often times, you won’t be offered any. They aren’t being rude. They just believe in giving customers space and time to decide what they want or need.

“How do you get around?”
I joke that I get around Florence better than my sighted classmates, and truthfully, I do to some degree (she said with a HUGE helping of humbleness). Honestly, Florence is a confusing city to get used to no matter what. Streets like to zig zag, veer off into alleyways, and randomly develop new street names without warning. But unlike my classmates, I don’t squint at buildings trying to make out the impossible street signs, or glare at the map on my phone with disgust. I look up directions before leaving the house, and use meters and landmarks to guide me. If my directions tell me to walk 200 meters down a road, then turn right, I judge a pretty accurate distance, and when I reach my corner, I find something to distinguish it—a smell, a noise, a color, etc.

IMG_20160709_123105608 copyOn my first walk to the sQuola building (where we have Italian class), I had to take a left on Via dei Giori. At that corner, every morning, was a cart. And every morning, a man would be filling that cart with books to sell while singing American pop songs in the most wildly out of tune Italian imaginable. But he was always my landmark. And because of him, I was twenty minutes early to my first Italian class, while others were late because they couldn’t find the street (But don’t worry—I, too, have gotten plenty lost in this city!).

“But are they nice to you?”
The people of Florence have been extremely thoughtful and generous towards me. My teachers have gone out of their way to make sure I feel included and comfortable in my classes, and the faculty of the university have made the field learning excursions as accessible as possible—going so far as leading me, arm in arm, through the Parma cheese factory and describing what they are seeing. The residents have been just as kind-hearted: the owner of the Parma factory gifted me a block of his specialty cheese because he admired my spirit, and the bartenders at my regular café always greet me with kind conversation, even during a mid-morning rush. I haven’t experienced any sort of gruffness or impatience from the Italians.

But I don’t think that it is all good luck.

The people of Florence, specifically, are constantly bombarded by tourists of all nationalities, often times rude and demanding, and usually unwilling to attempt any real communication short of unintelligible grunts and finger pointing.

So when business owners encounter an (obvious) foreigner (like my delightfully pale self) who expresses an interest, desire and partial ability to communicate in polite Italian, it goes a long way. I can’t count the number of times I have listened to a long rant from Italians (in Italian, mind you) about how people (Americans specifically) need to be more open minded about learning a language when they come to another country. To them, it is a sign of respect—for the culture, the history, and really, the people whose lives you are affecting daily.

All in all, I have received more negative reactions from some American students I have met while abroad than I have from any Italian my whole time here.  But like everything else, you just have to take it in stride. Being successful in a study abroad program isn’t just about what the university or program can offer you, but the attitude and motivation you bring with you every day in your new country, and the ability to shake off the things that just don’t matter. Much like anywhere else, it truly helps to be kind and cheerful to others you meet—it always perpetuates good things in the long run.

Or, if all else fails, just smile…

received_493419024161620…because you know that fresh biscotti and a frothy cappuccino await you at your local café.

 

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