Episode 102 │ Romantic in Hindsight (FRANCE/ITALY)
Updated: 15 hours ago
"I fell in love with the culture and some people, literally and figuratively. I was just, like, gaga for the whole experience. And it felt very important and very different for somebody who's from the Midwest in the United States." (Abbi, Episode 102)
This month's episode is a testament to the fact that being a longtime listener to someone else's podcast can pay off in unexpected ways. Or at least that's how I see it. The Black Guy Who Tips is a comedy and current events podcast run by a husband and wife by the name of Rod and Karen, and it's one of the podcasts I've been listening to the longest (I'm talking for years). Last autumn they released an episode featuring a comedian named Abbi Crutchfield, and in the interview portion of that episode she mentioned studying foreign service in college, getting fluent in French and Italian, and studying abroad in both France and Italy. I wanted to hear more about all of those things, so this summer I reached out to Abbi, and now here we are with episode 102 of Young, Gifted and Abroad!
Originally from Indiana, Abbi's encounters with foreign language and culture began early. Abbi's mom wanted her and her sister to be cultured, and so signed the girls up for a French class one summer when Abbi was 8 years old. Because she didn't yet realize that learning other languages was something people could regularly do, at the time Abbi felt like she "was learning a secret language no one spoke." When she had the chance to study French (and Spanish) in earnest in middle school, she took to it right away and continued with French through high school and her undergraduate studies at Georgetown University. (During high school, she also studied in the northwestern coastal city of Saint-Brieuc, France for some weeks with the Indiana University Honors Program in Foreign Languages.)
Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., is also where Abbi picked up Italian. After gaining admission through the business school and then changing her major to foreign service—preferring to study a bunch of languages rather than slog through a bunch of math classes— and after not knowing enough of the basics to get into introductory Arabic, she gave introductory Italian a try. Abbi made enough progress that year and the following year, and liked the Italian professor enough, that she enthusiastically chose France and Italy when it was time to decide the countries in which she would take further courses relevant to her foreign service degree requirements. She spent her entire junior year abroad, with a fall semester in Italy, Christmas and New Year's in Italy and Spain (joined by her mom and sister), and a spring semester in France.
Between high school and college, Abbi experienced a variety of study abroad arrangements. Her Saint-Brieuc homestay made her feel like part of the family; as a biracial Black girl with brown skin and curly hair, her similarly brown-skinned host siblings (Brazilian adoptees) felt like real siblings to her, and her white host parents ranted about racist politicians in a way that was reminiscent of her own white mom back in Indiana. Abbi's study in Italy was centered at Georgetown's "posh" Villa Le Balze in Florence (more specifically in a town called Fiesole), but Abbi opted for another homestay instead of living at the villa. In this homestay, Abbi was charmed by her grandparently host parents' emphatic way of yell-talking, but she also felt like more like a tenant than family there; in particular, she remembers being chided for taking showers that were too long. Nonetheless, she learned to respect her Italian host parents' rules, and still remembers her time with them fondly. Plus she had adventures of her own, like weekend trips to Pisa and Orvieto, and modeling in a local salon's hair show.
Studying in Paris in college was the most starkly different from Abbi's previous study abroad arrangements, because this one required her to be more independent than ever. She had to find her own housing and feed herself, and aside from someone to alert her about needing to make passing grades, there weren't many "grown-ups" available to support her or monitor her well-being and whereabouts during the program.
For the most part, Abbi reveled in this newfound independence. She sublet an apartment on the outskirts of Paris from a friend of a friend, she shared that apartment with her boyfriend (whom she'd met during her Saint-Brieuc trip), and she split her time attending classes at multiple universities in the city. One of those universities was the historic and prestigious Sorbonne, where she was unfortunately propositioned and then retaliated against by one of her sociology professors. (He tried to give her an F on her final paper after she refused his advances.) Abbi was able to negotiate a C, but in this pre-Me Too Movement era of the early 2000s, she felt she had little recourse to report what happened to university officials and have any substantive action taken. This and previous occurrences in her undergraduate years definitively soured Abbi on academia. She returned to the States and completed her foreign service degree, but knew by then that she was uninterested in any of the typical career routes people with her degree might take, and also uninterested in any further study.
"With comedy, you're providing a service"
Abbi was, however, very interested in entertainment, and had experimented by participating in plays, visual arts, stand-up comedy, and improvisational comedy while at Georgetown. After unsuccessfully attempting to figure out how to move to France and possibly get an international and trilingual entertainment career off the ground (à la Italian actress Monica Bellucci), Abbi found her way to New York City to pursue a career in comedy. 2023 makes 19 years since she first tried stand-up, and 15 years since she became a full-time entertainer. Today Abbi lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 5-year-old daughter, and has hosted shows including 'You Can Do Better' (truTV) and 'Up Early Tonight' (Scary Mommy/Huggies/Hulu). She spoke and read to her daughter in multiple languages until her daughter lost interest, and while Abbi won't force it, she would "absolutely" be supportive if her daughter ever has aspirations to travel or study internationally like Abbi did.
Despite the burdensome logistics and occasional discomfort of traveling, Abbi is eager to go abroad again (especially but not exclusively back to Europe), and dreams of one day doing comedy abroad too. As she explained to me, "At least with comedy, you're providing a service," and since stand-up is now global and no longer a strictly American art form, she looks forward to performing stand-up wherever it's appreciated, while still being a visitor who's mindful of other countries' cultural specificities. Abbi can be found via @curlycomedy on social media (especially Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Romantic in Hindsight (FRANCE/ITALY)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Curly Comedy (Abbi's 2006-2012 blog)
Happy Cow (global vegan and vegetarian restaurant directory)
"All Around the World" (Boyz II Men song)