Let’s start with some feelings:
This experience has been more natural and easy so far than I could have ever imagined. It seems that all troubles, struggles, and plans simply fall away when compared to “la dolce vita”, the Italian way of life that prioritizes pleasure and enjoyment over all else. Especially in Perugia, a beautiful hilltop town where time moves incredibly slowly, there seems to be this mindset of “whatever you can do today, do tomorrow.” Without even trying, I’ve somehow ended up in this incredibly peaceful and simple state of existence. I feel, already, completely comfortable and at home. How could it have happened so fast? Let me reflect on my experience a bit, and try to come up with a narrative thread to follow.
Any description of my time here would be woefully incomplete without a spotlight on my new friends. Even though (or perhaps even because) I told myself I wouldn’t try so hard to socialize or make a group of friends here, the first thing that happened was a group naturally formed.We all have so much in common, but we are also different enough to excite each other with our unique experiences and ways of looking at the world.
Perugia is a small city of about 150,000 people. It’s the capital and largest urban area in Umbria, the beautiful mountainous region of central Italy, about an hour and a half from both Rome and Florence. The city has a small core surrounded by medieval walls on the top of a hill. The school is right in the center, in one of the two main piazzas of the city. My apartment is just outside the city walls on the east side of the hill, about a ten minute walk (straight downhill) from the school. The rest of the city sprawls out into the valley below the hill and along connecting ridge lines, and is much more characteristic of a modern European city than the center, which is quite old and small, as well as expensive.
The upper and lower parts of the city are connected by the Minimetro, what my friend Emily calls “the best public transportation ever invented”, a sort of monorail with seven stops stringing together the center of the lower part of the city, the main train station, and the center up on the hill. At the last stop on the Minimetro, I have found, is a rock climbing gym with a large and active community that I’ve been so lucky to find and enjoy. At the main train station, there are two large supermarkets with cheaper prices where I sometimes go bulk shopping, and from there, my friends and I have taken trains all over the local and surrounding regions, to Rome, Florence, and Assisi. And at the other end of the Minimetro, of course, is the old center, where I live, study, and spend most of my time.
Perugia is also a city of students. There are tens of thousands at the main, ancient University of Perugia, located in an area below the main hill but not quite in the lower section of the city. There are thousands more at the University for Foreigners, which mainly runs Italian language programs for foreign students. There are hundreds of additional students here doing Erasmus, the European equivalent of study abroad. And then there are the small niche programs and schools like the Academy of Fine Arts or my program, the Umbra Institute, which is the only English language school in the city and contains only around 75 students, nearly all American. Although I’ve made some friends, both Italian and foreign, in other places such as the climbing gym and while hanging out at bars (which in Italy are café’s by day and drinking pubs by night, every night except Sundays), among other places, the main group of friends I’ve made is all from the Umbra Institute. Who would have expected that? Certainly not me.
Within Umbra, there are about thirty students doing the Food and Sustainability Studies program, which includes lectures twice a week in classes such as History and Culture of Food in Italy, Sustainability, Anthropology of Food, and The Business of Wine. In addition to these Food program classes, I’m also taking an Italian Short story class, taught completely in Italian, with only me and one other student, and a Fair Trade seminar and practicum class, where two other students and I work for six hours per week at a struggling Fair Trade shop in the city center, and then get together and talk about it (and Fair Trade in general, as a business model and ethical economic system) for our other class period.
My classes thus far have been quite simple and easy (not that I’m complaining!), but the field trips and extracurricular activities have been the real meat of the program for me. For example, we’ve had workshops on Italian coffee and olive oil, wine tastings (including the theory behind it), gone truffle hunting, and visited two different wonderful agriturismo locations in the Umbrian countryside. Agriturismo means farm tourism, and looks essentially like small, usually sustainable farms that attract tourists to guesthouses on the property with promises of great home-grown and cooked food, beautiful views, and a nice relaxing getaway from the stress of the city.
These activities have allowed me to speak to and learn directly from interesting people who are actually working in, living in, and promoting a more sustainable, alternative lifestyle from the consumerism of our modern culture. Although Italy has a far stronger tradition of honoring and promoting, well, traditional and largely rural cultural practices, especially surrounding food, than America does, the threat of wasteful consumerism and greedy mass-production always lurks around the corner, and so these people try to promote a counter to that, to protect more intentional and sustainable lifestyles. This has been the coolest and most important time of my study abroad experience so far, since in America all of my experience studying sustainable agriculture and lifestyles has been in an academic or bureaucratic setting, with a lot of theories or bureaucratic nonsense, and very little of the “hey, this is a better way to do this, so let’s make it happen!” active mentality that I’m being exposed to here. What a wonderful thing to learn about!