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USF Sarasota-Manatee student, teacher recount study abroad trip

Michelle Teeter and Joe Askren. [1]

Michelle Teeter and Joe Askren.

SARASOTA, Fla. (July 23, 2015) – It’s hard not to get swept away when arriving in Florence, the picturesque Renaissance city and home of the Duomo, scores of museums, piazzas and cobbled streets – except when your luggage hasn’t arrived and the best the airline can offer is forse domani, forse domani (maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow).

That was the experience of USF Sarasota-Manatee accounting student Michelle Teeter upon arriving for a 10-week stay in Italy, including six weeks at Florence University of the Arts as part of the University of South Florida System’s education abroad program.

As Teeter tells it, all wasn’t la dolce vita during those first few days. She was forced shop for soap, a toothbrush, even clothing and couldn’t stray too far from her rented flat in case her luggage arrived. On one occasion, suffering a head cold, she found herself pantomiming her symptoms to a pharmacist who spoke little English.

“It’s not like you can just go into a Walgreens for Claritin,” she said.

These and other frustrating turns could have had the senior hibernating in her apartment, longing for the comforts of home. Instead, she took a breath and resolved to slow down. Gradually, she gained insight into the Florentine culture and warmed to it. By the end, she was feeling “like I was Italian,” she said.

From that point of view, the trip was grande successo. Her suitcases arrived three days later and plenty of “life is sweet” moments took the edges off the less-than-stellar ones.

When not studying Italian family businesses at the university, Teeter ventured into the city, sometimes with fellow students, but often alone, to explore its tiny alleyways, open-air markets and trattorias. Weekends brought trips to museums, including the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, home of the famous Italian shoe brand, as well as excursions outside the city.

She toured a fourth-generation, Parma-based cheese maker on one such trip. For another she rode a bicycle through the Tuscan countryside to explore a cluster of agriturismo businesses, or family farms that double as restaurants and cozy inns.

She also toured Rome, Venice and other hot spots. Her favorite stop? The isle of Capri where for one sunny afternoon she lounged on the beach and swam in the Mediterranean.

“The water was so clear,” she said.

Though traveling alone – of the 105 USF students who went to Italy, she was the only one from the Sarasota-Manatee campus – Teeter did encounter at least one familiar face, USFSM College of Hospitality & Tourism Leadership instructor Joe Askren.

Askren, who roomed with other teachers in an apartment provided by the university, taught three afternoons per week, discussing differences and similarities in cuisine globally. The course looked at the connections between food and culture, including religion.

“What better place to teach than the birthplace of the Renaissance?” he said.

As a community-engagement piece, Askren took his students to a community-based vegetable garden called Orti Dipinti, where they learned about agriculture, social responsibility and old-world growing techniques. One example they saw was an form of irrigation where unglazed clay pots are filled with water and buried. Water leaching through the pots feeds nearby root systems.

“This can last for four or five days,” Askren said.

They also heard about a kind of ancient refrigerator: A clay pot is inserted inside a larger pot. Sand and water are placed between the two and as the water evaporates, the temperature inside the smaller pot cools.

“A guy kept his lunch in there and it was about 90 degrees out,” he said.

Askren’s class included a “transformational” aim. He asked his 16 students to keep a journal to reflect on their experiences and the Italian culture. Many students initially focused on their frustration with the language and customs. But as time passed and they grew more comfortable, they turned their attention to the places and people they encountered. Some emboldened students took side trips to Prague and Paris.

“The first week, it was a culture shock, but by the second and third, they were gaining confidence,” he said.

Meanwhile, Askren, a former instructor at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Ariz., had goals of his own to attend to once classes ended. At the top of his list: to explore Florence’s food scene, which didn’t disappoint. Each excursion seemed to reveal a new surprise.

In general, he said he appreciated how dishes could be both simple and elegant and how chefs coaxed the most out of their locally sourced ingredients.

“I have more pictures of food on my Facebook page than anything else,” he said, laughing. “My wife kept telling me to take pictures of other stuff.”

His favorite side trip: Cinque Terre, a string of five picturesque Italian villages nestled on a craggy hillside above the Mediterranean. Accessible by train, the villages banned car travel 10 years ago to preserve their rustic charm. They were named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997.

“Just amazing,” he said.

It wasn’t hard to be swayed by the setting. His students eventually embraced the culture and customs as well, though it took time. Askren said he noticed a shift in attitude when, referring to their apartments in Florence, they started using phrases like “we need to get home.”

Teeter, who took the trip thanks in part to a Clyde G. Nixon International Business Endowment scholarship, wasn’t immune to Italy’s charm, saying she could envision living there, though she has no plans to do so.

“It gave me the confidence to think bigger,” she said. “I learned that I can adapt and exist in a new culture.”