What Melissa has to say on her Prato experience
Studying Italian Language in Prato was a challenge, and an absolute delight. From a purely educational perspective, the “intensive” style is ideal for language learning. Classes run four or five days per week, which makes retaining the information far easier, and ensures that you’ll have good friends by the end of the first week. The teachers are very accessible, and so friendly and supportive that the workload is significant without being stressful. I’d highly recommend studying in groups after class – it makes the homework easier and, odd as it might sound, fun!
This was my first trip overseas, and I have to admit, I was more than a little nervous about navigating Melbourne airport, let alone a foreign town! I needn’t have worried – Prato is big enough to offer all the necessities, but not so big that you’ll have trouble getting around. A fifteen minute walk will almost always get you where you need to go, and the locals are more than happy to help if you get lost. The accommodation wasn’t five star, but it was clean, comfortable, and staffed by an assortment of friendly Italians, all of whom make a mean Italian style hot chocolate.
A word of advice: believe the clichés, and embrace them as only a tourist can. You will eat more, and better than you ever have. From a Nutella crepe from a street vendor, to pasta from an historic restaurant, Italian food is a revelation, and almost always surprisingly cheap for the quality. If you have an hour free at lunchtime, I highly recommend Kings in Prato. Don’t worry about the calories – you’ll work those off exploring Italy’s exquisite art galleries, markets and historic sites. Florence is a twenty minute train ride away, and it has all these in abundance. The Ponte Vecchio at night is particularly lovely.
If I could have my time again, I’d do just two things differently. Firstly, I’d take every opportunity to speak in Italian. It’s easy to just speak English – if you stick to the tourist zones you can probably navigate well enough without a word of Italian. But speaking to native Italians makes the language real and alive. Whether it’s going to one of the Conversation Nights held by the Prato Centre, teaching a class of Italian kids for an afternoon, or asking a street vendor how much that little statue costs, speak every chance you get. Don’t worry about making a mistake – you’re learning, and trust me, they appreciate the effort. Secondly, I’d travel more. You’re in a whole new country, with the weekends off. Take the time to explore. Don’t be afraid to look like a total tourist. You are a tourist – enjoy it! Take that “pushing the leaning tower of Pisa” photo – hell, just take photos constantly. Visit museums and tiny old towns. Climb every bell tower in sight. Explore the streets of Florence, of Rome, of Venice, of tiny medieval towns.
Intensive study in Prato is tiring, but exhilarating. If you’re nervous or unsure, I’d advise you, one scaredy-cat to another, to take the plunge anyway. It’s worth it!
And what Monique has to add…
It’s said that life begins at the end of ones comfort zone. With this in mind, I put aside my fear of flying and a myriad of other misgivings and decided to study abroad – stepping further out of my comfort zone than I ever believed I could. I enrolled in the Intensive Italian Language program in Prato and can confidently say this was the best decision I have made over the course of my university career.
Armed with only a year of Italian language skills, I became increasingly anxious that the ‘study’ component of my trip would prove too difficult and overwhelming. However, the ongoing support and encouragement given not only by the amazing teaching staff, but also by the Prato locals (who were always willing to have a slow-paced chat), was incredible. The program provided us with so many opportunities to engage with the community and one of my favourite memories is of joining an Italian family for some Wii Just Dance and a traditional dinner. Of coarse, there were several awkward language exchanges (FYI if you order a “latte” in an Italian cafe, you will receive a glass of milk without coffee), but I can honestly say my confidence in Italian language, and in myself in general, is so much better for it. The class itself was tight-knit so we were able to form lasting friendships and share all the wonderful experiences together – whether it was an excursion to breathtaking San Gimignango, a weekend trip to Venice for Carnevale, Milan to shop, or Paris to enjoy the nightlife.
It is incredibly difficult to sum up such a life-changing journey, but I highly recommend that everyone study abroad and experience it for themselves. There were so many times I had to pinch myself just to believe I was studying in an 18th century palace in Tuscany (though I must admit waking up to the town covered in snow made it impossible to mistake for Monash Clayton). I returned home not only with some great new friends and a few extra kilos thanks to all the gelato and irresistible food but more importantly with a strong desire to improve my language skills, return to my newfound home and with a greater perspective of my future.