Feeling lost and being lost are very different experiences. As the resident ‘mom’ of every friend group I have ever had, I am always deferred to as the navigator and/or Google Maps operator. “You have your life together,” people tell me with a laugh, as I lead them to the grocery store and back again, cook for myself, read a book, or organize my room. But these habits that are perceived as ‘adult’ have more to do with trying to convince myself that I am in control, than actually “having it together.” In reality, feeling lost – whether physically or mentally – is maybe something that I fear so much that I go out of my way to avoid it, by meticulously planning and organizing my life and my travels. Sometimes, however, too much planning can get in the way of taking memorable risks.
Building a routine in an unfamiliar place is essential to diffusing the feeling of being lost. As of today, I have spent one week in Florence and I’ve already established my grocery stores of choice, my favourite gelato around the corner, the local bus stop, the market stalls that I like, and a few potential study spots. While seeking out these essential resources is an exploratory exercise, I still wonder whether creating a routine does more to curb the opportunity for discovery than to enhance it? Does my desire to know a city stop at the first sign of discomfort?
I have to acknowledge that a significant aspect of my trepidation about getting lost has to come from my experience as a woman and the fear of being caught in a vulnerable situation. Especially in a place where concepts like sexual harassment and consent are pretty much non-existent, navigating the cultural gender politics and navigating the geography of the city have a symbiotic relationship. In other words, getting lost can be a very literal problem for people outside of the cis-white male power complex, not just an existential one.
Thankfully, Florence is a small city and I am learning my neighbourhood quickly. The easiest way to navigate is to look for the colossal cupola of the Duomo peeking up from above the flats; I have to pinch myself when I remember that this iconic building is at the heart of our community.
The more that I walk these streets, the less that the small army of gelato and Panini shops blend into one another and the shape of Florence becomes more clear. There is arguably something more poetic – and frankly, scarce – about happening upon something new by your own initiative than relying on Google Maps (which doesn’t work all that well here and has already lead me astray more than once). A good European rule of thumb, so I’ve learned during my year abroad, is that the more nondescript a café or restaurant looks, the better that it probably is – this has served me very well in my quest for gelato thus far!
Finding your way in a city is something like making it your own. It represents a relationship – tenuous and awkward in its early phases, but soon increasingly comfortable and familiar. As you embrace vulnerability and make an effort to get to know the intricacies of your new territory, the city will open up to you and share its secrets. One by one, they will become your own – the shortcuts, the lookouts, the bakery without any signage – all memories that you created while armed with nothing but the spirit of adventure.