Catherine “Cat” Braza is HECUA’s student blogger for the Fall Semester of our Sustainable Food, Agriculture and Justice program. Cat is a junior at Colorado College, in Colorado Springs. She’s majoring in Environmental Science, with a double minor in Music and Studio Art. Read on for dispatches from Cat’s phoneless adventure in France.
The first day of our fall break—which marked the halfway point in our semester abroad—a millennial’s worst nightmare happened: I left my phone on the bus. By the time I realized I didn’t have it, that bus was already recklessly speeding on its merry way to Siena, and I was in tears with an imminent flight to Paris to catch.
Fast forward to nine days later: I’m back from a lovely, phoneless break in France, and I have to navigate through a part of Florence I’ve never seen before to find the bus station Lost and Found. Somehow, I decipher a route hidden somewhere in the construction work, and I arrive, but the lady at the Lost and Found office speaks no English whatsoever. The chances she knows even just “goodbye” or “bread” or “yes” seem pretty low.
Shockingly, we still cover a lot of ground conversationally. In Italian, she asks me what my phone looked like, on what day and at what time I lost it, on which bus I lost it, who to contact if it is found, where I am from, everything—and I understand every single question she asks. And I am able to answer her, in my adequate, if quite choppy, Italian. I should feel dejected that they don’t have my phone on hand, but instead I’m nothing but strangely elated about how far I’ve come. This is nothing like my Week-1-in-Italy self, the vegetarian who accidentally asked for fish at the Tuesday market instead of peaches. (In my defense, come on, “pesce” isn’t that different from “pesche.”)
The cliché stands true. You find yourself learning richly and deeply and exponentially when you’re abroad, whether you are or aren’t trying to do so. When you look back at how much ground you’ve covered, it’s like you’ve summited half a mountain range. I hail from Colorado, so trust me on that simile.
You learn everything from how to subtly tell someone that the fly of the person’s pants is unzipped (“Il uccello è morto” in Italian, meaning “the bird is dead”) to how to get back home if you’re stranded in a big city (contact your two kind, car-owning Tuscan friends, both named Lorenzo). You may also learn about the history of the organic farming movement in Italy, your own personal style of traveling, and why most Tuscans refuse to put salt in their bread. At normal college, of course, you’re always learning—otherwise, why else would you be there?—yet somehow, studying abroad feels like taking the learning from a stroll to a sprint.
Maybe that’s because this kind of learning is immensely experiential and visceral. Almost a month ago now, I started my internship at SenzaSpreco—in English, “Without Waste”—which is a Florence-based startup that sells surplus food local farmers would otherwise have thrown away. The startup also engages with local elementary schools and spreads awareness about personal ways to mitigate food waste. Two other students in my study abroad program commute with me to the internship twice a week. So far, we’ve written plenty of blog posts for the SenzaSpreco website, helped put together a social media photo campaign about food waste reduction, represented the organization at a sustainability fair in Florence, and are about to interview Tuscan farmers about their practices next week.
Our internship bosses—Giulia, Marta and Jacopo—are young, charming, smiley, and dedicated. They’ve made us scrumptious pasta with a Tuscan kale pesto, bought us gelato and coffee, and talked us through the recent election results. Those results, speaking of which, have made me feel more certain and passionate than ever about pursuing a career in the realm of sustainability. Fortunately, working with my three Tuscan bosses has made me full aware of how innovative, flexible, and refreshing that sort of pioneering workplace can be.
Afternoons after classes or internships can involve a variety of incredible, pleasant learning experiences as well. Right after finishing midterms, I hit three Florence museums in one day: the Galleria dell’Accademia (where you can see Michelangelo’s world-famous David sculpture), the Museo Gucci, and the Salvatore Ferragamo museum in a matter of hours. Alternatively, you might head to the back garden on our property at sunset and yank free ripe pomegranates off the trees, then eat the ruby-like seeds in your castle tower apartment as you study for your Ag Sustainability midterm.
The U.S. might be politically swinging off its hinges a bit right now, and Italy recently stomached a few high-impact earthquakes (during my fall break and not in my region, but still). Through it all, I lack a phone and have no idea when I will be able to get a new one. These are uncertain times on both personal scales and enormous, high-consequence global scales; at present, the only apparent solution is to learn. Stay open. Keep your palms up to the sky. Be ready to absorb. Listen. Observe that which is beautiful. And devise your answers from there. To me, it’s a blessing to be in Italy right now for these “uncertain times.” I have the space to think, and the world is my snow globe and my library in which to soak and to learn. When I go back in just one month, I may feel nostalgic for Tuscany, but clarity may finally be mine.