Photo Credit: Sheean Hanlan
The Black Expat: My Life In Florence As A Black Artist From The Bahamas
Sheean, an artist and social media creator, left the Bahamas for life in Florence, Italy. Making the move from the Caribbean to Europe proved to be as challenging as it was idyllic. With a vision, a love for Italian culture, and lots of talent, this Black artist set out for a whole new life abroad. Aware of the limited opportunities available for young Caribbean artists, Sheean decided that Florence was to be her new home. In this Travel Noire interview, she speaks us through her transition and inspiring Italian lifestyle.
Tell us about yourself
I’m Sheean Hanlan. I was born and raised on the tiny Caribbean island of New Providence, one of over 700 islands in the Bahamas. Consequently, I’ve grown to love the beach, bright colors, and heavily seasoned food. After being homeschooled from age 13, I was ready to see the world.
So I matriculated at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Pepperdine is within the Greater Los Angeles area, with easy access to Santa Monica, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills. Music concerts? Check. Beach? Check. Boba and Korean BBQ? Check. Rodeo Drive? Check. Generally, due to a lack of finances, many Bahamians study at smaller in-the-middle-of-nowhere schools in Florida, South Dakota, and Texas, but I was determined to go somewhere beautiful, even if that meant I had to work during the year and every summer, fight for scholarships, and sit out of college for a semester. I also saw that Pepperdine students became world travelers, adventurers, explorers, and global citizens due to the university’s study abroad programs.
What inspired your move to Italy?
Italy is the embodiment of my passions, wrapped into one beautiful singular country. I am a romantic and a lover of grandiose aesthetics. I’m drawn to the elegance and romance of the architecture, the traditional values of family, the emphasis on genuine relationships rather than on baseless popularity, and the way Italians seem to walk everywhere and place less reliance upon the phone as we of America do. I scarcely had a burning desire to be bilingual, until I began studying Italian. It truly is the most beautiful of languages.
Though Cinque Terre’s colorful abodes remind me of life back home in the Bahamas, I would not trade being in Florence for any other place in Italy. It is the birthplace of the Renaissance, and as a traditional artist, it is important for me to study both the techniques and culture of the Old Masters. I knew I would thrive as an artist, hereby living in the home of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo. Fresh inspiration awaits me at every corner.
I adore Florence because I can live a beautiful life relatively cheaply. I can travel on foot, eat fresh pasta, drink wine, and wear vintage Italian clothes for half of what I would spend in LA or the Bahamas.
Anyway, fate sort of decided my next move for me: a year after graduation, my application for a work visa to remain working as an associate editor at a luxury lifestyle magazine in LA was not picked up by the US H1-B lottery system. I had 60 days to leave America. This was it. This was my time to attend an atelier, a small art school that is patterned after the apprenticeship system of the renaissance. In ateliers, students make cast drawings, copy masterpieces, and do a number of still life and figure studies for 3-5 years in the spirit of the Old Masters. It sounded like a dream come true. So I left my things at my ex-boyfriend’s apartment in Culver City, got on a plane at LAX with one suitcase and a carry-on, and flew to London Heathrow and then, finally, to Florence.
Have you ever visited Italy before moving? If so, how was that and what shocked you about starting a whole new life in Europe?
During my sophomore year, I studied abroad in Florence, Italy where I fell in love with Renaissance art history and the Italian language. I learned to travel in a way that is deep, meaningful, and slow. Instead of visiting a new country each weekend, I explored the back streets and hidden quartiere of Florence, making friends with locals as I went along. I volunteered to teach English to Italian children, immersed myself in the Italian language for eight months, and spent weekends with a sweet adoptive family that taught me traditional Renaissance dance and flag-throwing. The more I learned about Italian culture and the history of the renaissance, the more I realized how connected this place was to my core values.
Bahamian students who go abroad typically study law, medicine, or accounting. I had been an accounting major on the pre-med track. But after writing essays that my teachers praised in both my Renaissance Art History and Italian literature classes, I dropped accounting and switched from pre-med to English. I spoke to my parents and my advisor, and I realized that I wanted to spend my life writing and making traditional art like the pieces I had seen and studied in the Uffizi museum.
The following summer, I returned to Florence to complete a journalism internship. I covered events at Palazzo Pitti, Forte di Belvedere, Palazzo Corsini, Teatro Verdi, and the Villa Bardini with speakers such as Florence Mayor Dario Nardella, TV personality Serena Bandini, and famous Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli. My writing was published in Italy’s national newspaper, La Repubblica.
Things about Italy that remind me of the Bahamas:
- It’s about who you know and making connections, not how good you are.
- People live with their parents until they’re pretty old.
- There’s a love-hate relationship with tourists.
- Bureaucracy is a nightmare.
- People are culturally religious.
- People dress up for different occasions.
- Low salaries.
- You stay friends with the same people you grew up with in childhood and people can be a bit cliquish.
Things that shocked me about living in Florence, Italy:
- It’s normal to go for a walk as the first date
- Dating as a Black woman is easier than in America. Unlike my experience at a PWI conservative university in Malibu, men actually acknowledge my existence and treat me like a lady as opposed to like some invisible, repulsive, less-than-human being (yeah, I was traumatized).
- Florentines are really nice. I’m complimented by old women, chefs remember my order and give me free stuff, and the police officers are helpful when I have issues like losing my driver’s license.
- I couldn’t ship my Camille Rose and Fenty beauty products from London due to the knotted postal system.
- Wearing mini skirts and crop tops is considered immodest.
What does a typical day in your life look like as an art student and expat in Florence?
I usually wake up at around 7 a.m. and make a quick breakfast of fruit and granola with almond milk, and La Via del Te tea. Then I attend Italian class. I write some articles and blog posts and do some social media work. Next I get a panino with truffle sauce from Pino’s or I Fratellini for lunch for five euros. I head to class from afternoon until evening, and then come back home to finish up any writing assignments. I eat Venezuelan food for dinner or truffle pasta, or cook salmon and rice, Bahamian style. I always drink prosecco. For dessert I have a pistacchio cornetto, pistacchio gelato, or pane del pescatore con cioccolato.
What do you miss most about life in the Bahamas?
This is about to get really specific so please bear with me. I miss hearing Bahamian dialect spoken around me, eating guinep and mangos in the summer, buying Jamaican chicken patties for lunch, and strolling Atlantis’ Marina Village with my friends for an evening out. I also miss the parties with dancehall music, the beautiful blue beaches, and my grandfather’s garden with ackee and breadfruit trees.
I don’t miss the high cost of living, however, and the lack of opportunities for young people.
What advice would you offer to those wanting to move abroad?
It’s definitely hard, both financially and logistically, but it isn’t impossible. The easiest way to move abroad is to get a student visa, whether through a university or a language school, which is often more affordable. You can also look into being an au pair. Befriending locals can be hard if you’re not working or studying on site. Join Facebook groups such as Foreigners in Florence and Girl Gone International to meet other expats in your city. That’s how I met some of my closest friends here. Try to save up at least $15k before making the move. Find affordable housing via Facebook marketplace and Housinganywhere.com. If you’re not able to work online or remotely, you can find jobs teaching English or babysitting.