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Look Up: Getting the Most Out of Studying Abroad

November 08, 2023
by Maya Nissenbaum

How to Not Miss Out on What is Right in Front of You 

Picture this: in one snapshot of a moment, as you walk the streets of Florence, Italy… 

  • A bird flies over you to the next rooftop, whistling down at the people on the road. 

  • On this same road, the people walking the streets hold hands and lock arms, trying to decide which café to get their afternoon pastry at. 

  • In this café, an old lady sips her coffee too soon, burning her tongue; her friends of many years begin to laugh at her, and slowly, she gives in and smiles with them. 

  • All the while, you're walking on the same cobblestone that ancient empires walked on and passing paintings, architecture, and monuments that tell a tale of thousands of years of rich, enlightening history. 

Yet, all your senses are indulged in a three-by-six-inch screen, with a computer-automated voice telling you which street to turn down while you occasionally scroll through social media apps to see what everyone else is up to.  

You never look up. You never notice. 

After spending weeks studying abroad in Italy now, there’s one truth I quickly became sure of. It’s that, like this previous example, in any short, single moment in time, what one loses by not paying attention is far more significant than "getting lost" in the geographical sense—it’s simplistic beauty and life in its most raw and authentic form. While there is a lot to gain from planning, organizing, and navigating your adventures, in doing so too much, we have lost the magic that arrives in the form of the unknown and the unplanned. Yes, of course, it’s essential to see all the major landmarks, famous restaurants, and bustling hotspots, but if you really want to indulge and bathe yourself in the culture of somewhere new, all it takes is noticing what's already right in front of you.  

A week into arriving in Firenze, I craved seeing more of the intricacies of it. Hence, I set out with no plan, direction, or navigation, but simply an open and curious mind. I found myself wandering around and getting lost. I went into shop after shop, spending at least 30 minutes in each, chatting with the local store owners. They told me about their family history, where in Italy they grew up, and exactly how this store came into their possession. They explained to me how all their different products are made, where they source their materials, and the importance that this specific craft has held in their families for generations before them, such as jewelry, leather, and antiques. 

a person looking at a stone building

A small moment of me exploring around Italy where I felt grateful to be here.

I stopped to stare at art, the stone on the walls, and the ground beneath me, and the ancient buildings that are older than I can comprehend. I began to imagine all the possible complex and intricate life stories of all those who made the artistry of the city what it is, and all those who lived and appreciated it before me.  

I sat outside a local café table with a cannoli and coffee in hand, watching people as they walked by. I noticed how fast or slow people walked, if it seemed like they had a destination to reach, if they walked or talked with other people or by themself, and how they dressed and looked. Regardless, my attention was hooked—noticing body language, social norms, and subtleties I’m not accustomed to seeing usually. 

I truly had the most spectacular and fulfilling day from start to finish. Yet, not a single part of it was planned, pre-determined, or particularly extravagant. It was the simplest and most ordinary of moments, which would seem irrelevant to the untrained and unappreciative eye.  

sunset from a balcony with duomo in background

The view outside my apartment bedroom window. I feel so lucky for it every day and for all the beautiful sunsets here. 

Notice the Ordinary 

That is, until you allow yourself to indulge in it and let the ordinary become worth noticing. 

Like how beautiful the sunset looked in the back, and the way the light glimmered back onto the street when I walked to dinner.

a sunset behind Italian buildings on the street


This is hard, I know. We're trained as humans of the modern world to need constant entertainment and mental stimulation that when things seem a little too ordinary and mundane, we shy away, especially when it comes to being somewhere new, and even more so with a place as beautiful and culturally rich as Florence. It’s so easy to feel like you need to be doing or seeing more, like there's always something you’re missing out on. But what would happen if we didn’t give in, if we didn’t shy away from the mundane and embraced the ordinary? You may realize you don't need to fill your itinerary to the brim, whether living or traveling abroad, to have an extraordinary experience.  

view from apartment


I challenge myself to this every day now that I’m here, as I'd hate to leave such a magnificent place without soaking in every moment. Furthermore, the ability to do so lies in a skill we're born with but are just trained out of. It's that happiness and fulfillment in being somewhere new and beautiful doesn't have to mean checking off the longest list humanly possible.  

It can, and does mean: slowing down, noticing more, and knowing how to look up.  

Maya Nissenbaum is the Content Creator - Blogger in Florence, Italy, and is currently studying at University of Colorado Boulder.
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