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


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.


Dancing in 100 Places Pt. 2

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“Before I left for my Performing Arts Abroad experience in Italy, I was dared to film myself dancing in 100 different places over the course of my travels. A challenge? Most definitely!”

Sophie Marshall is a dancer from Armadale Australia and she is currently an Arts Administration (Dance) Intern in Florence, Italy. This is the second in a series of updates on her Dancing in 100 Places project.  See the rest of the series here. You can also follow her on Instagram @lipbalmiscool


As much as I don’t want to be one of those clichéd travelers who ‘had an amazing first week in insert destination here’, my first week in Italy was absolutely incredible. Florence is such a vibrant and fun city with so much to do, so much to see and so many places to go! Add some awesome new friends into the mix and boom – you have the perfect equation for an amazing first week!



I’ll admit upfront that the week didn’t get off to the greatest start – there was a slight issue with my apartment’s front door. Specifically the lock and my inability to use said lock. I wish I was exaggerating, but I spent a solid hour trying to unlock the door. I was very unsuccessful. Admitting defeat, I hauled my suitcase back through the streets of Florence to the university to ask for help (not an easy task with all the cobblestones). “Did you try turning the key the other way??” This must be the key version of “did you try turning it off and on again?” Yes. Amazingly, I did think of that. Sigh.

I did eventually make it into the apartment. And (thankfully) it was not just me that had had difficulties with the lock. I have still not actually managed to unlock the door by myself (even though the landlord changed the keys and no one else is having problems now), but I’m determined to master the skill by the end of the 6 weeks.

So not the greatest of starts, but I’m optimistic that the next 6 weeks will run smoothly. My new housemates are a great bunch – fun, friendly, and great at making light-hearted jokes about my accent (which they do at least 3 times a day). Over the weekend we took day trips to Livorno (a coastal town about an hour from Florence) and Siena. On Saturday we followed a local couple in Livorno who looked like they were dressed for the beach, and ended up at a small, quiet cove. It was beautiful. We swam, we sunbathed, we explored – it was such a great day.

Livorno Cove

Livorno Cove

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It was the perfect location for filming, so I wasted no time in setting up my camera and tripod. Of course, I then had to awkwardly explain to my housemates what I was doing, and thankfully, they only laughed at me a little bit. Actually they laughed at me a lot, and seemed to find great joy in filming me film myself. Thanks guys. I managed to knock out 4 more videos, bringing my total up to 8! I am on a roll!

On Sunday we headed to Siena. The day started well but then the weather decided it was bored with sunshine and it quickly clouded over. I had my camera set up in front of the Duomo at the time and I knew it was going to start bucketing down pretty soon. I filmed a quick video but wasn’t happy with how many tourists were blocking the cathedral. I decided I was going to wait until the storm hit and quickly film it again as soon as people ran for cover. There was a split second of calm between the initial shower and the downpour – I saw an opportunity and I took it. Did I get soaked? Yes. Was it worth it? YES! In the full video you can hear the ear-piercing screams of people running for cover as the downpour hits (we all laughed when we watched the video back on my computer at the apartment), but the view of the Duomo is practically perfect. Mission success.

Post 2cOverall, I’d say it was a pretty productive week!
12 videos down, 88 to go. Bring it on.

Dancing in 100 Places Pt. 1

blog - 1Sophie Marshall is a dancer from Armadale Australia.  She studies Accounting and Japanese at Curtin University in Perth, and she is currently an Arts Administration (Dance) Intern in Florence, Italy.  This is the first in a series about her Dancing in 100 Different Places project.  You can also follow her on Instagram @lipbalmiscool

Before I left for my Performing Arts Abroad experience in Italy, I was dared to dance in 100 different places over the course of my travels. A challenge? Most definitely! But as nervous as I was, I prepared myself for the inevitable awkwardness of having to bust out my moves in the middle of crowds of unsuspecting tourists. I choreographed a routine, bought myself a camera and a tripod so I could film myself, and practised playing around with video editing software – I was as ready as I’d ever be. With determination and excitement (and maybe with a dash of fear and nervousness) I boarded the plane that would take me on the adventure of a lifetime.

Image copyMy first stop was England, and before flying to Florence I spent a day exploring the beautiful city of London. After managing to get myself lost an embarrassing number of times, it was finally time for my first public performance. St. Paul’s Cathedral was not particularly busy, but convincing myself to actually get up and dance was a mission and a half. I set up the camera, played with the angles, moved the camera again and played with the angles some more – the procrastination techniques went on and on (and on).

A solid twenty minutes later I told myself to pull myself together and just do it. So I put on my music, dragged myself into position, busted out some moves and tried to ignore all the weird looks I was getting from the people walking past. Feeling incredibly awkward and embarrassed, I went back to my camera with the relief of having got the first one out of the way. Only to discover that I had forgotten to press record.

Me after realising I hadn't pressed record

Me after realising I hadn’t pressed record

I almost cried – the thought of having to go through the ordeal AGAIN was awful and I seriously considered just not bothering. But I persevered. It took me another 15 minutes to psyche myself up again, and only after realising that everyone who had seen me the first time had most likely moved on by now, did I get up, PRESS RECORD, and perform for the second time. I totally nailed it – it actually recorded this time!

Throughout the rest of the day I moved from place to place scouting for possible video locations (and of course getting incredibly lost on multiple occasions). I’d hoped that after getting the first one out of the way it would be easy for me to do the rest of them, but I was wrong. If anything, it got harder – as the day progressed the touristy areas became overrun with tourists and crowds, meaning that my ‘audiences’ were getting bigger and bigger each time! I guess I’m just going to have to suck it up and get used to embarrassing myself in public.

Deal with it.

Deal with it.

Exhausted, but feeling very accomplished with my 4 videos, I headed back to my accommodation to eat, rest and get ready for my flight to Florence.

Four down, ninety-six to go! Bring it on.

To the Opera, in Italy

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Stephanie Marson was an Arts Administration intern in Italy with a focus on Music in January of 2015.  She is a Vocal Performance major at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

My experience in Italy was very exciting as I not only learned about how a small opera company operates, but I also was immersed in a culture that was different from my own.

marson 7For Jan Term, I completed an internship in Florence, Italy through Performing Arts Abroad which is affiliated with the Florence University of the Arts (FUA). I stayed in student housing that was provided by FUA. My apartment, which I shared with five others, was on the side of the Arno opposite the Duomo.

My major is Vocal Performance so I wanted to have an internship that related to it. I worked with St. Mark’s Opera Company, a non-profit music society that performs in St. Mark’s English Church in Florence, as well as other locations.

Marson St-Marks-Church-01St. Mark’s Opera Company was founded by Franz and Ilse Moser 13 years ago. The singers come from different opera houses in Tuscany, most of them from Florence. The church is part of an old Medici Palace that was owned by Machiavelli and has been renovated in a neo-renaissance style with beautiful icons. It is also an important venue for Firenze Lirica, a well-established Florentine society for the promotion of operatic performance and study.

Marson St-Marks-Church-03I also took an Italian class as part of my internship for two and a half hours per day. My Italian class was located near the FUA Student Life Office near the Santa Croce Church. At night I worked with the opera company, both in preparations, serving refreshments during intermission, cleanup afterwards, and later, performing.

When the company discovered that I was a music major, they asked me to sing an aria for one performance. Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 1.28.12 PMI sang “Stizzoso, mio stizzoso” from “La Serva Padrona” by G.B. Perolesi. After that, they kept me as a permanent part of the program for the rest of the month!

Franco Rossi (baritone); Claudia Ciabattini (soprano); Franz Moser (piano)

Franco Rossi (baritone); Claudia Ciabattini (soprano); Franz Moser (piano)

It was an honor to sing with such talented professionals.  The opera program fro January was “Love Duets” from famous operas.  Lucky for me, someone recorded one of my performances on their cell phone.

The time went by quickly. On my last night in Florence and the last night singing with the St. Mark’s Opera Company, all I could say was Fantastico esperienza! Ciao Firenze.

For more, I created a blog about my experiences.


An Artistic Reminder

ciceroScarlet Cicero is a Dancer from Miami, Florida who’s traveled the world from a young age.  She is currently on PAA’s Dance Administration Internship in Florence, Italy.

“That which cannot be spoken can be sung; that which cannot be sung can be danced.” — French proverb

This is a quote that has stuck with me since my love affair with the stage began, however, it has taken on a new meaning as of late. Since I arrived in Italy, my personal language priorities seemed to focus on food to successfully navigate those decadent menus and the use of “quanti costa” after I’ve been drawn in by one too many beautiful vintage handbags and the intoxicating smell of leather shops. With passable communication and mediocre translation skills under my belt, I embarked on dance training here in Italy.

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Some photos are mandatory

Not knowing the language around you is like losing one of your senses. We really never realize how much we rely on our subconscious to know what is going on around us. Going into dance classes here, I was told “è la guerra – it is war”. This comment refers to the fact that no teacher was going to stop and explain anything in English. The task seemed daunting, but I was prepared.

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They don’t call it “Warrior Pose” for nothing.

I embraced my anxious jitters and dove into class — head first. It was just like being back in a studio in the States, I picked up the center work quickly, swore under my breath whenever I lost my footing, and did the best I could to interpret the jubilant corrections (not always a simple task in english either). I came in with preconceived anxiety about not be able to understand and fear of being completely lost, but it really was no different from stepping into an unfamiliar class in the USA. Movement is movement. It is beautiful and used differently all over the world. Dance, passion, expression, art; none of it needs translation, in the words of Martha Graham, “Dance is the hidden language of the Soul.”

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And honey, I’ve got soul.

I think as performers and artists, this is a struggle we often internally face, no matter the language. Living here has lead me to realize that art does not need to be fully accepted or understood, but rather aim to evoke emotion, conversation, and interpretation. They say living abroad will bring new realizations to all aspects of your life, and it is beyond true. I am able to use my language impairment as a positive study for body initiation,movement details, and visual leads. In addition, I can develop my own meaning for each composition – a skill that is often under developed in all of us.

cicero 4As my language and dance skills strengthen in unison, my recent artistic realizations will also thrive. I encourage anyone reading this to take the plunge, jump out of your comfort zone, escape your norms, and see what personal discoveries you find.ezgif.com-optimize

Finding a New “Me” in Florence


My name is Marina Stagnaro, from Argentina, and I am now a PAA Alumni. I completed 12-week Dance Administration program in Florence Italy, 2 months ago.

When I traveled, I knew I wanted to learn as much as possible about dance, and the dance industry, I knew I wanted to speak fluent Italian. I knew I wanted to find new friends.

I did all that.

I took wonderful dance classes with amazing teachers.11349978_10207133941252316_1730711680_n

I had a great internship placement, with kind and creative people, who taught me a lot.

I can say my Italian is pretty good now, and I’m proud of it!

I made friends with people from so many countries, I can’t even remember right now.

I met dancers, teachers, choreographers, students, artists, and more.

What I didn’t know, was that I would also find a new “me”.

Because the girl who arrived in Florence, wasn’t the same girl who left in a plane back to Argentina. And it’s not the same girl who’s writing this.

When you go abroad, you rediscover yourself; in a new place, with new people, with a new language.

It’s literally starting for zero.11257240_10206836283731064_2173388308092889416_n

You allow yourself to do mistakes, you try everything you can for the sake of the “experience”, you make friends almost everyday, you’re not scared of going places all by yourself.

You discover who you are alone, what are the things you really like and what are the things you accept because someone told you so. You do thing because you want to (and you do a lot of things). You eat what you want. You go wherever and whenever you want. It’s you, with you.

And when you come back home, you have to rediscover yourself again.

It is not easy to keep being this improved version of yourself, surrounded by people who only know the old one. It may seem easy and comfortable to just go back to who you were before.11273709_10207050608489049_800598498_n

Don’t do that, don’t forget all those experiences that made you see the world from a different perspective.

I’m talking about both your “performing arts” related experiences, and the “life experiences”.

Don’t leave behind everything you learned about dance, music, theatre or whatever your field is. Don’t leave behind everything you learned about yourself.

Everyday you become a better an improved version of yourself.

Make good use of it.

I’m trying to do so.

Are you?11356302_10207134065895432_244535754_n

Singing in Italy


This summer I visited Florence, Italy interning with a local arts camp through Performing Arts Abroad.  It had always been a dream of mine to go to Italy, and it finally came true.  With so many beautiful sights to see and incredible music to hear, I was so grateful for the chance to stay in a different country for a month.

As an aspiring opera singer and a strong proponent of music education, my internship placement was perfect for getting the most out of my trip.  I took pictures, wrote articles and watched as the students embraced Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk, or “total art work” with their everyday activities.  The idea of combining theater, music, and art may not be new, but bringing this concept to music education is new.  The students created a full work of art, combining and completing all avenues—they acted in a play, played violin, and created all props for the final show.

Along with helping the children, I performed with the students on three different occasions.  Having string accompaniment is such a treat for a singer, and the students had never before had the chance to play with a soloist.  They were all very excited to accompany a singer, and I really enjoyed singing with them.  The performances included: a concert at the local church for senior citizens and the community, a day performance at the famous Palazzo Strozzi, and a nighttime concert in a beautiful, old garden.

Few people involved spoke English fluently, so I had a challenge that I was willing and ready to take on.  I made friends with Florentines around my age.  It was amazing to feel a part of these students’ lives and families.  At the end of the program, they had a huge party where I was welcomed by everyone and felt right at home.Maestro, Leonardo, and me

Along with my Italian course at the Florence University of the Arts, internship, and host family, I spoke almost only Italian for the majority of my day. It was exhausting at times, but a great way to advance my conversational skills quickly. In my free time, I visited many cities and sites, including Rome, Venice, and the Italian Riviera.  Wandering around Florence every day, I stumbled upon many unique and interesting spots.

I am so grateful for my experience in Italy.  It was one that I will never forget for the rest of my life.  I learned a lot about myself and gained a greater sense of where I want to be in the future.  Traveling abroad has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.

Deanna Grunenberg
Performing Arts Abroad Music Administration Intern
Florence, Italy