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.


Five Friends You Make Studying Abroad

IRE - 1We at Performing Arts Abroad are incredibly proud of the Study Abroad programs we offer in Ireland, England, Italy, and New Zealand, as well as the participants who go on them. Students are applying now for Spring semester, and in honor of them and the $1,500 scholarships we’re offering (more info on that here), I wanted to take a look at the type of people you’re sure to run into while abroad.

For the purposes of this post, we’re sticking with people who are also international students like you. This way you can look in the mirror and ask, “Oh wow, which one am I?”

#1 The Homebody

Whether you’re in London or Barcelona, Limerick, Ireland or Dunedin, New Zealand, chances are you’re probably going to want to get out there and explore! There are new places to see, new streets to roam and new foods to eat, and most of your fellow international students will be right there with you.

Let’s hit the town!

Then there’s the Homebody. The Homebody rarely ventures out, and when they do, it’s not for long. You might ask why they came all this way to experience the thrills of a dorm room in a far off land, but who knows?

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Yes but it’s an ITALIAN twin size bed.

Maybe they’re pacing themselves. Maybe they’re like this at home. Maybe it’s their first time traveling on their own and it’s all a little overwhelming. Whatever the case, don’t write off the Homebody. They make hanging out at home more fun, and once they’re more comfortable being in this exciting new place, who knows, they may even evolve into…

#2 The FOMO

FOMO stands for Fear of Missing Out, and you couldn’t keep this person home if you tried.

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The FOMO only has X number of minutes in this amazing country, and by golly they are not going to waste a single one of them! Going hiking this weekend? The FOMO is there. Seeing a play tonight? The FOMO is there. Visiting the market, having a party, or taking a tour of the most haunted basements in London? You can always count on the FOMO.

Check...check, check, checkcheckcheckcheck.

Check…check, check, checkcheckcheckcheckcheckcheck

Remember though, it’s not a good idea to try to keep up with the FOMO the whole time. You can drive yourself into the ground having so much fun, and if you burn out early you can unwittingly turn into a Homebody. Whoa, we came full circle there, didn’t we?

#3 The Insta-Local

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Nobody wants to look like a tourist (especially when we are one) but the fact is, no matter how hard we try, we’re going to stick out in a new place.

Sometimes it's best just to lean into it.

Sometimes it’s best just to lean into it.

Whether it’s because of a language barrier or our unfamiliarity with the local transit system, it takes time to get your bearings and feel comfortable in a foreign city.

That is, unless you are the Insta-Local. The Insta-Local immediately blends in seamlessly, either through instinct or a concerted effort. Within hours they can navigate the local transit system blindfolded. Within days they’ve got the local sports team’s jersey, know all the cheers, and can tell you everything about league standings. Within two weeks they’ve developed an accent that will stay with them the rest of their lives.

Wha--? How? I didn't even know there was a beach here!

Wha–? How–? I didn’t even know there was a beach here!

The best part about being friends with the Insta-Local is that they’ll know the coolest hotspots in town that only the locals know about. We don’t know how they know, but they do. It’s like a 6th sense.

Like the pub where you have to bring your own instrument.

Like the pub where you have to bring your own instrument.

The polar-opposite of the Insta-Local is the “Everything is Better Back Home” friend. We were going to give this person their own number, but they’re super annoying. Don’t be the EIBBH friend.

"I like the pizza back home better" "I swear I will stab you with this pizza cutter."

“I like the pizza back home better than here in Italy.”
“I swear I will stab you with this pizza cutter.”

#4 The Party Animal

4th7 copyWe all go abroad for different reasons. For some it’s the adventure, for some it’s curiosity, and for some it’s a chance to get away from home. For the Party Animal, it’s the lower legal drinking age.

There’s no doubt about it, there are exciting clubs all over the world and the Party Animal will find them.  You won’t see them much, and the “study” part of study abroad may or may not happen.  (These are rarely the PAA participants.  We’ve found that performing artists have a drive and intensity about them that precludes debauchery.  Mostly.  Obviously we’re very proud.)

#5 The Best Friend

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This is an exciting time in your life, and you’re doing something that will stay with you forever. I love hearing my mom’s stories from her semester in Spain in the 60’s. (For some reason their housing was in a convent. The old Spanish nuns and the precocious American college girls weren’t a great mix. But I digress.)

You’re on an adventure, and chances are you’ll find that one buddy to be adventurous with.   You’ll wonder where they’ve been all your life, and be grateful they have just the right amount of goofiness in them to match yours.

They’ll give you the courage to do things you might be to scared to try otherwise, and won’t make you feel guilty on those weekends you’re just tired and want to stay home. Keep an eye out for the Best Friend.Eymundson 7 copy

On Cows, Castles, Cliffs and Celtic Music


Hannah Harris Participated in the BLAS Summer Music Intensive in Ireland in the Summer of 2015Harris 9There’s something to be said about finding yourself in a foreign country with your internal clock telling you it’s 5am… but it’s actually late morning, and there are rolling green hills, wide open fields and a herd of cows right outside your apartment window. This was probably when it hit me that I was actually in Ireland about to spend two weeks studying traditional Irish music and experiencing Irish culture. The cows not only made the University of Limerick even more authentic, they also provided a bonding subject for the people I shared an apartment with–particularly the Americans who are used to the suburban life where the only cows you see are on road trips through Virginia.

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One of the best parts about this program was the diversity of people who gathered together to learn about Celtic music whether it was a passing interest or a deep love for the style. There were about thirty students throughout the program and at least eleven different countries were represented! That was fascinating to me–I knew Celtic music had a widespread influence but it’s one thing to hear about it and another to see it for yourself. Some people came to expand their repertoire, others to take a break from the stress of everyday life and still others to get a taste of a new style of music and dance: hence the name “Blas Music Intensive.” Blas means “taste” in Irish Gaelic. In addition to taking master classes and attending lectures, we also took a Gaelic language class. It was fun to incorporate what we were learning into everyday conversation: we even counted ourselves in Gaelic when we were exploring downtown Limerick to make sure no one was left behind! At the end of the program, there was a student showcase where most of us got to perform some of what we had learned or put together individually, and it was incredible to see how far we all came from where we’d started the week before.

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The two weeks spent in the program were completely filled with activities either planned through the program or spur of the moment ideas that we students had. My normally introverted self completely turned to the other side of the spectrum while I was in Ireland: I was eager to see and do as much as I could in the short time that I had to be in the culture. There were nightly music sessions in the campus pub which were different every night but always had a good social scene! Some of us explored downtown Limerick on our day off and visited sites such as St. Mary’s Cathedral and King John’s Castle–complete with opportunities to shoot fake cannonballs at the walls and dress up in period clothing. On our excursion day, we got to go further and see natural wonders like the Cliffs of Moher (personal favorite!) and the Ailwee Caves. Even little things such as a set of musician and dancer statues in downtown Lisdoonvarna contributed to the cultural experience and made the program so wonderful!

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To wrap this up, here are some pointers for anyone considering the program that my new friends and I discovered. If you want your Irish coffee to be sweet, make sure to order it with Baileys otherwise you’ll get a bit of a surprise when you get the bitter but very warming taste of whiskey in your coffee instead. Make sure you have the right bus stop for getting a ride from downtown back to the university on your day off unless you like chasing the right bus up a couple blocks to its actual stop in the rain with all of your shopping bags! TV commercials are always funnier when you’re not in your own country–and the shows can be entertaining too. If you feel the urge to do a cartwheel on the Living Bridge or roll down the hill outside the President’s house on campus, you should follow your instincts. Bonus points for video evidence. But most importantly, embrace the chance to get to know people you wouldn’t normally hang out with and live in the moment and the music!

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7 Life Lessons from a Summer Composer’s Workshop

Today’s guest blogger, Jessica Marlor, is a composer and student and at Smith College in Northampton, MA (right across the street from our offices!)  This summer she traveled Europe studying opera composition and was kind enough to write a guest blog post for us.

A few weeks ago, I packed my bags and set off for Dublin, Ireland for the 2015 Irish Summer Composition School. I arrived at the airport, ready to start my new adventure, ready to delve into my work and learn from the amazing teachers and colleagues. As I waited in line to check my bags, I was alerted that there was a problem with the online ticketing server, causing anyone who downloaded an e-ticket (hint: just me) to be put on a waitlist for the next flight. Furious, I huffed and puffed my way to the ticket office and demanded a seat on the next flight. Outraged, I waved and waggled my finger, trying to sweeten this particularly sour situation.

After an hour of arguing, I secured a seat on the next flight, and they even upgraded me to priority boarding. The only catch: The next flight was not for 8 hours.

The first hour was filled with texting, reading, and wandering around the tiny Luton airport. The second hour, was spent sipping coffee in a starbucks. And the third hour was spent chugging water to placate my caffeine jitters caused by hour 2.

By the fourth hour, I started to ask myself: Is this a sign?

I couldn’t get it out of my mind that this might be one of those moments where  mysterious benevolent forces are screaming at me from the heavens: GET OUT NOW, RUN FAST, RUN AWAY.

But I went, I made it to Dublin, and I went to the Summer Composers School, and now, I cherish those jam-packed, cerebrally intense 10 days. It taught me so much about how to write music well. There is a difference between having the physical capabilities to write music, and writing music in a way that is idiomatic and logical. The latter is a paradox that I will be trying to understand for my entire life, but what I learned at ISCS was a nice, logical, and friendly introduction.

I learned so much from ISCS, that I needed a full week and a half to digest all of the lessons. I retreated to organize my thoughts in the only logical way I know how: Writing more music. While writing the opening chorus for my opera I realized that I had learned much more than I bargained for. The lessons that advisors, relatives, and my parents had been trying to instill in my thick, and extremely stubborn skull for my entire life—- the kind of lessons that are only learnt through hard-knock, real-life.

(and excuse the amount of Beyonce/Nicki gifs, I’m still not over The Pinkprint and will not be for a long time.)image03

1. Ask Questions, let your will to learn be insatiable

As the resident least-qualified composer at the workshop, I accepted my place by keeping my mouth shut, and avoiding the hotseat. BIG MISTAKE. The first couple days, I held my tongue whenever a question came up, fearing that if I answered incorrectly i would void my credibility and be thrown out the front door by my ankles. Let me make something really clear: most of the seemingly ‘highly talented’ people have no idea what they are doing. It is a big mistake to ignore your burning questions. Go for it. Ask a question, take a stab at a problem, put yourself out there. You will learn much more than you ever expected.

Take it from me. On the first day of the workshop, we met with the musicians who would be premiering our pieces. Before us stood a soprano (ok, yeah I know how voices work…fine), a piano (yeah ok, bang on a key, get a pitch, easy-peasy), a violinist (bow across strings=gorgeous sound) and a french horn (maze-like mess of tubes and valves and HELP I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING). As I gawked at the seemingly impossible instrument, the other composers asked questions about the newest advanced techniques, essentially one-upping one another to show off.

While this was all very well and interesting, I realized that I didn’t really know how to write for the horn. Yes, I studied my orchestration textbook, I knew it was a transposing instrument, I knew its range, but I had no idea how it worked. How could I ever hope to write something for a horn if I didn’t even know how to produce a single note.

As a person who makes a fool of herself on the regular, I eventually got up the courage to ask how a horn worked. The horn player quickly demonstrated how mouth position changes the pitch in a french horn along the harmonic sequence, and how pressing the valves changes the harmonic sequence that is being utilized. Immediately, it was clear what kind of passages are idiomatic and which would be near-impossible to play. Asking one question gave me the tools I needed to compose an effective piece.

The best part? One of the directors of the program pulled me aside afterward to let me know how grateful he was for my question. Even he did not understand exactly how a horn worked.

So yeah. Asking questions really is a PLUS even if it makes you look stupid for 10 seconds.image06

2. Don’t ever doubt yourself

Do you know what the imposter syndrome is? It’s this annoying psychological syndrome that you must memorize to get above a 4 on the AP psych test. It’s a number that’s generated from a series of questions that puts self-doubt into a neatly-organized set of categories. Its a personality trait that a shocking number of highly successful people also have. Turns out, having the imposter syndrome is extremely normal, and the normalcy of this syndrome is directly linked to your privilege in a specific situation.

Flash forward to me: an incredibly blonde, incredibly weird, baby-composer without even a bachelors degree under her belt, plopped in a classroom full of bright eyed, successful, fast talking, deeply theoretical white men with PhD’s and masters degrees. You better believe I’m going to feel like an imposter.

I felt like there was some sort of mix-up. Like, perhaps they had seen my name and thought, “Hmmm, maybe we should let this little girl in, she should round out our diversity quota.” Or maybe they had just given me a spot out of pity. Regardless, I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like if I spoke up, or voiced my opinion, I would be deemed as ‘intellectually incompetent’ for this line of work and quickly shown the front door.

But as the days went on, I realized that although I didn’t have the training, and accreditation that the other students had, I certainly had earned my place. I’m certainly not good at counterpoint, nor am I some sort of prolific music theorist. Frankly, I’m still pretty green at writing music, but the bottom line still stands that I have a lot of passion, a lot of drive, and a fresh, DIY approach to making meaningful music. While the boys may have been great at what they did, I certainly overshadowed their talent with my ability to tell a universal story. There, I found it, something I’m great at. It only took me 3 years of composing to figure it out.

You certainly may not know what you are good at now, but you will. Give it time, pay attention to your work-ethic, your passions, and your ideas. Being observant of your tendencies will allow you to better understand your strengths and weaknesses. Doubt it difficult to ignore, but the sooner you understand and own your value, the sooner you will be able to kick that nasty self-doubt habit


3. You will not get along with everyone; but that does not mean that you treat them with disrespect

Truth bomb: You will not like everyone you meet, and not everyone you meet will like you in return. Ok, Ok, So this is not the most earth-shattering truth bomb, but sometimes you have to put on your big-girl pants and accept this fact. Truth is— you will probably feel indifferent or disgust towards MOST of the people you meet in this world, but that gives you no rationale to treat them poorly.

Case and point: A few weeks ago I met a man who we’ll call Frank. He was a composer, just like me, and seemed pretty talented albeit a shallow name-dropper. I swallowed my disgust to learn a little more about him. Who cares right? Although he annoyed me a bit, I definitely could learn a thing or two from Frank. He was an established composer,conducting his OWN choir and producing his own music. I was pretty impressed. As the program went on, I realized how different our views on the music world, and life itself differed greatly. So I, being the grump-tastic feminist that I am, called my mother and complained about him. For a week.

I kept finding reasons to hate him, and his music. But he kept surprising me with his talent. He eventually sent me a hand written card, to tell me how much he enjoyed meeting me and learning about my music. Making me feel like a gigantic ass-hat, and I realized: Its perfectly fine and normal to dislike someone— but don’t let it ruin your life. If someone is in your way, you cannot continue to loathe his or her presence, rather, you must extend an arm. Get over yourself, because honestly, High School Musical definitely had it right


4. Be your own mentor first

Someone I deeply respect once told me, “You will never find the mentor you are looking for”. Yikes, talk about tough love, but at the end of the day, once I accepted that I needed to be my own trailblazer, the mentors I needed came out of the woodwork. I couldn’t possibly consider myself my own mentor— certainly I’m not qualified enough. So I took to reading Elizabeth Swados’ book about becoming a composer, Listening Out Loud. It was a baby step that I took in order to become my own mentor. At the end of the day, You know your life better than anyone else, so find ways to forge your own path. Study the lives of those you admire, and learn from them; do not simply try to be them. There will come a time when you are in need of advice, or a hug, or both, but you cannot guarantee that there will be someone there to pick you up, dust you off, and send you on your way. You must learn to do this yourself, it is a skill that takes time and patience.

When your perfect mentor comes along, your backbone will be strong enough to accept the challenges of your own life’s journey. Remember: when the student is ready, the teacher appears.

5. Don’t compare yourself to others

Probably the most-given, and most-difficult advice ever given. ever. But still this life-lesson is an important one to learn; a skill that we must continue to fine-tune throughout our lives. This never gets easy, but the reward is well worth the suffering. I’ll keep this short and simple since I’ve chewed your ears off with my other points. C’mon kids, this is a biggie. Do Not. Compare. Yourself. To. Others.

Your voice is important and unique, and if you disagree with me now talk to me in 10 years. End of point.image05

6. Your path is your own, there is nobody else that has a path like yours. learn to embrace your unique path

And THIS is why you must learn to not compare yourself to others. Why compare yourself when your circumstances, skills, and outlook differ HUGELY from one person to the next? Sure you may feel as talented as Rihanna, but you are not Rihanna. period.

Embrace your weird, squiggly, awkward path. It’s yours, so flaunt it. By accepting the reality of your individual path you can learn and flourish.

My music is my music. It is unequivocally, and unflinchingly me. If I were to try to sonically impersonate the composers I looked up to, i wouldn’t be doing myself any favors. I would just be known as the ‘girl who sounded a lot like so-’n-so’ or ‘trying too hard to be what’s-his-name’ which is just a losing battle.

Trust that you’ll put the pieces together soon, and that you’ll find that your path (although perhaps daunting and lonely) is exquisitely rich and full of new opportunities.image01

7. Your voice is worthy of being heard

Period. You are valuable. Your work is valuable. Who you are is valuable. Remember that especially when your voice feels silenced. So say it with me: I am valuable. Periodimage00


Manila to London

Frances Marinay is a dancer from the Philippines studying on PAA’s semester program in England for a full year.  She is just finishing up her spring semester and will enroll again in the fall.  Here is what she has to say about her experience so far…

The Philippines, or Manila in particular, is considered a melting pot. However, seeing and being a part of London has opened me up to a wider variety of people and culture. London is both rich in culture and vidancebrant in urban life—the best of both worlds. As a history geek, it has been amazing to visit all of these museums and historic spots that I was only learning about from high school books and teachers. The city also boasts of a vast array of international and local cuisine. Aside from the hundreds of restaurants and bars scattered around the city, there are always food markets going on every day. I always see to it that I get to try new food every now and then especially those that are not usually found back home. Things that were once opulent are now deemed ordinary and available  within my reach.

But most of all, London has offered me opportunities in the world of dance. Back home, most of us have a limited education when it comes to dance. There are different perceptions when it comes to different dance genres and more often than not, contemporary dance is associated to splits and tutus, both of which are rather ballet-related.  I actually never thought that I would be able to get into the program because I don’t really have a dance background per se, I was active in the dance events in school and became a hip hop dancer in the university but as much as formal training is concerned, I didn’t have much.

I took Cunningham and Improv classes during my PAA semester last term and I must say that it was such a great experience. My mind was opened up to what those wfoodere really about in their essence and I was able to appreciate dance like never before. The two modules challenged my creativity and technical skills, yet left me inspired and more willing to work my way to become a better dancer. The PAA dance programme in Roehampton focuses on one’s journey rather than the output itself—a very personal and organic approach that is something that’s different from the dance scene in the Philippines. UK, in general, has a very active and engaging dance industry that opens doors to dancers in all levels. In my five months of stay, I have already taken part in classes and auditions for Lukas MacFarlane, Dax O’Callaghan and James Robinson.

There is still so much more to learn and discover and I’m glad that I’m staying for the rest of the year. This entire experience is an opportunity for me to become a better dancer. I am very thankful that I am able to pursue my passions in dance, food and travel with Performing Arts Abroad.


Written by Frances Marinay

PAA Dance semester student in England for a full year program