“I’d thought about taking a sabbatical for a few years when personal circumstances meant that I really needed a break. All the stars aligned this year and I knew I was ready. I was lucky to have an understanding boss – the alternative was to leave work.
“I asked for the sabbatical before really knowing what I wanted to do, as I didn’t want to make a plan and then be let down.
A friend suggested I study history of art as I love art but didn’t know ‘enough’. I also love Italy and knew Florence, so the genesis was to study there. I signed up to Italian and early Renaissance art.
I also chose Florence because it’s a compact city, you can walk everywhere. I felt a mixture of trepidation and excitement: I was hoping to meet new people and have new experiences; however, I was nervous about going outside my comfort zone.
The experience was overwhelmingly positive: I learned so much, both intellectually and personally. In my language class, nearly all the other students were 20 years younger than me, many were on their official gap year, so we were at very different stages of life, but as open-minded individuals eager to learn we all worked together really well. If you get stuck in, it’s a lot of fun and people accept you. I found them to be very energetic, with a very different outlook and they are more than willing to share emotionally.
History of art was wonderful – we were taught by a series of incredible experts and lecturers who were passionate about their subject. Our lectures were in a grand palazzo on the ‘Oltrarno’ or south bank, in the main library/lecture theatre which had a very studious atmosphere. We also had organised visits to the main sites and museums, but as we were specialising in just a century of Italian history, we got to know the nooks and crannies of the city not just the tourist spots.
The courses were full on, like a job, with classes all day Monday to Friday - and Saturday mornings! But there were plenty of opportunities to relax and meet up with other students from the Institute in the evenings for drinks or dinner. Although I was the most senior member of my language class, there were many people my age, about 50 per cent were there on a career break or had retired early.
I’ve realised that it’s never too late to do something new. It gives you confidence. When you learn a language, after your first lesson you can you can say something in Italian, and at our time of life, you don’t care what you sound like or if you get it wrong… Also, the Florentines are very encouraging and welcome you speaking in Italian if you have a go. I could actually communicate with them!
The experience made me question a lot about myself. I always knew that I was self-sufficient but it taught me that I’m even more so than I thought and I’m more resilient.
When things go wrong and you’re abroad, you just get on with it. You have more of a ‘can do’ approach to life.
I would definitely do it again, but not in my current job. Hopefully when I’m semi-retired. Meanwhile, I’m planning to take Italian classes in London. I’ve invested time and energy in this and I enjoy it.
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