Italy Student Blogger Study Abroad

Building Bridges and Understanding the Culture

Group of students are posing with a dog next to them in a field.

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Gigi George is HECUA’s student blogger for Italy Fall 2021. Gigi is a student at Denison University, majoring in environmental studies. Read on to learn about their reflections from the first month of the program.

When I stepped off the plane in Italy, I was an unruly mess. The lukewarm Starbucks latte I guzzled down in the Paris airport could no longer sustain my lack of sleep and my over-packed duffle bag felt heavier than before I left. The reality of my decision to study halfway across the world was settling in. As we drove away from the bustling city of Florence towards the calm Tuscan countryside, however, my anxiety faded. Surrounded by lush vineyards and open farmland, I knew I was right where I belonged. 

Fields and vineyards with a bright blue skyline.
Photo courtesy of Philippo Randelli.

As an Environmental Studies major with a deep appreciation for food production and cooking, the Italy program was exactly what I wanted for my abroad experience. I craved an academic curriculum that went beyond the classroom—one where I could learn about another culture and be able to see those in reality. This program has been exactly that. I take cooking classes with Laura, Italian language with Ginevra, economics with Riccardo, and agriculture and sustainability with Filippo. 

Everything we learn supplements each other as if bridges are being built in my mind. I learned how to say eggplant in Italian and then I’m cooking it in the kitchen. I planted fennel in the garden and then I’m understanding the food sovereignty of agroecology. I visited a local farm and then I’m asking farmers how the Common Agriculture Policy impacts their agricultural practices. More than half of what I’ve learned since being here was learned outside of the classroom among the farmers, their land, and its culture. 

Student is shown with a table of cooking spices and materials;
Image courtesy of Philippo Randelli.

Our third week we took our first field trip to the coastal region of Grosseto known as Maremma. As we drove through Tuscany’s rolling hills, I watched the landscape shift from vineyards and olive groves to rice fields and cow pastures. This geographical transition emphasizes the diversity of the land, and therefore agriculture, in the Tuscan region. For five days we visited organic farms and natural parks where we met passionate farmers and conservationists who exemplify the deep tradition and respect that accompanies agricultural practices. 

The most interesting visit for me was to a fishery on the Lagoon of Orbetello. Prior to our visit Riccardo showed us a graph that represents single use resource depletion to show why it is nearly impossible to control when multiple people or groups use a given resource. What is unique about this particular fishery, however, is that they are the only group permitted to fish within the lagoon. This means they are able to control, to some extent, the fish populations. My classmates and I were shocked that only one group could fish there because we are accustomed to the overfishing that occurs in the United States. Seeing how these people ensured a specific fish population thrived not only allowed me to see the graph we studied play out in the real world, but it also gave me newfound hope for what resource use could look like in the future. 

Perhaps the most exciting thing so far has been my internship at Terreno—a Swedish owned winery and restaurant perched on a hill above the city of Greve. Prior to the start of my internship, I thought wine was simply wine, an alcoholic beverage you buy at the supermarket and enjoy with a meal. Unfortunately, like many of the things I consume, I never thought about the complexities that go into its production. However, working in the cellar these past few weeks has given me a newfound appreciation for wine. 

My co-workers and I begin each day pumping over the primary fermentation tanks where the grapes, skins, and juice are stored. Since there are six to seven tanks being used at a time and each one needs to be pumped over for ten to fifteen minutes, this step takes an hour or two. While this process is going on, someone goes around to each tank to measure the density and temperature of the wine using a graduated cylinder and thermometer device. We record the results on a sheet of paper to see how this data fluctuates over time, so we know when the fermentation is complete. In addition, we spend the mornings cleaning equipment that may be used for incoming grapes like the destemming machine and the pressurized pipes. The afternoons are typically when we sift through fresh grapes—picking out rusks, dead leaves, and mold—which are either put in a new tank or added to an existing fermented tank. 

A large tank filled with wine and tubes attached to it for wine making.
Photo courtesy of Filippo Randelli.

What I love most about wine making is that while there is routine, every day feels new and exciting because you never know what challenges you may face. I’ve learned that there are many steps in the process, and it requires an immense amount of teamwork and determination. I think that experiencing the production of food or wine firsthand allows me to better understand its true value and admire the effort that goes into its creation. 

Now that we are halfway through the semester, I feel confident in my acclimation to our course work and the Italian lifestyle. Yet I continue to learn new norms and information that surprises me, making me realize just how unique each culture is. So, I’ve made a list of “10 things I’ve learned about Italian lifestyle and culture so far.” 

  1. Stores are typically closed between 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm almost every day (there are some exceptions). The grocery store in Greve is closed on Sundays so stock up. 
  2. Restaurants don’t bring you the check, you have to pay at the front. 
  3. Ordering a cappuccino at lunch is forbidden. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know. 
  4. If someone asks you which wine you like more, red or white, always say red. 
  5. Dinner is almost always eaten after 8:00 pm. 
  6. Meals tend to last 2 to 3 hours so be prepared for some late nights. 
  7. Speak in Italian as much as you can because Italians appreciate any effort you make.
  8. Drying machines don’t exist, so get used to air drying all your clothes. 
  9. At some point you will think to yourself “there’s no way both these cars can fit on this tiny road” but you will be wrong. 
  10. Olive oil is the foundation of every good meal. 


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