I write to you from Zurich, the first of five cities I’ve glued to the end of my study abroad trip. I’m spending a few days here decompressing at the home of my dad’s very welcoming friend from college, sleeping in his eleven-year-old daughter’s bedroom which is barely large enough to hold her bed and her enormous, empty gerbil cage (“My gerbil died Thursday,” she sniffs. “Thank God,” I think).
Last night as I situated myself at the dinner table, feeling overwhelmed by how friendly and gracious these people have been to me – adults who haven’t seen me since I was seven, and their two children who have no idea who I am – I realized suddenly that this is the first time in a long time that I’ve been surrounded by a complete family unit operating on its own turf.
My last day in Florence was Thursday. I had my last exam in the morning, and hung around campus the rest of the day hoping to absorb as much of the villa as I could before the long walk home. It’s unbelievably pretty, with hills that ebb into the Crest toothpaste blue sky, a hundred shades of green, neatly trimmed hedges and high, sharp trees like upside down icicles. Honey yellow villas give promise of comfort across the seemingly endless valley. We march like tired soldiers up and down the hills, forgetting what fortune we have. I stayed there and tried to store the image of it all somewhere behind my eyes, knowing no picture could really do it justice.
That night my suitemates and I had a home-cooked family dinner, a smorgasbord of all the food we have left at the end of the semester. We shared our favorite memories, like when we floated down a natural lazy river in the little beach town of Rosignano, which was so early on in the semester that I still was confusing everyone’s names, or when we decided, with the lack of open container laws, that the perfect place to relax and drink was sitting in a circle in the middle of our street. Before coming to Florence, I did not know any of the friends who surrounded me so warmly that night. The love in the room was syrupy sweet. Then Ruby’s hair caught on fire from her homemade menorah and we decided dinner was over.
After, I went to my other friends’ apartment right down the street. These friends were the only people in the program I’d known a little bit from New York, and I had started my semester by wandering like a lost puppy into their room. It was only fitting that I ended it there, too. We all almost fell asleep waiting for the hour of the secret bakery, a magical Florentine phenomenon that offers drug deal-esque baked goods transactions only after 2am. Somehow we stayed up, and after stuffing ourselves with Nutella-filled somethings we had our unceremonious see-you-soon goodbyes and I went back to my apartment and cried.
I’ve always been That Crying Friend. My final moments in any given situation are always punctuated by tears, whether it’s the last day of camp, high school, or even a really good night. I fear change and worry that the things I love so much in any one arrangement cannot possibly transfer over to anything new. I knew from the beginning that no matter how much I may have wrestled with my feelings about my time abroad, by the time I had to go, I’d get that whorl of sentiment again: the unmistakable end of something substantive, comfortable, and – albeit temporarily – real.
Florence, I love you, but I’m not, like, in love with you. You took a lot and gave a little. You made me feel entirely uprooted and made me reorganize in myself things I never knew were habits. A lot of the time, you made me feel very small, with your age-old streets and your lazily strolling locals. Most of the time, I was exhausted by trying to make something big of you. I never had that “click” moment I was promised, and you never swooped in all heroic, rescuing me with thunderous voice and teaching me the true meaning of Christmas. But you did give me the wonderful gift of people, and the added privilege of a place with which I will always associate them.
There’s a really great word in Portuguese called saudade, which has no direct translation in English, but which represents that intense, nostalgic, happy-sad feeling when you’re missing something or someone you love. Sometimes it’s called “the love that remains after someone is gone.” I left Florence drowning in that saudade envelopment, because even though I know I can bring all my people and memories home with me, I know that it will never be the same.
Tonight in Zurich I watch this lovely, odd little family in its symbiotic routine and feel lucky that I have a similar family to go home to in just a few days. But along with that I realize that love can manifest in many ways and modified versions of families can grow from a million different circumstances. For the first time in my life I feel like maybe what I’ve created over the past few months can last, and that the next chapter will enhance, not ruin, the magic of it all.
So for that, Florence, you’ve been pretty great. And I hope that as more time passes I discover more and more ways you’ve given me more than I’d ever realized.
Most students come to NYU Florence armed with a List. Curated by those who have come here before us, any given List almost invariably features the same restaurants, bars, clubs, and gelaterias as all the others. Prior to my arrival in Florence, I had collected four Lists, the gracious gifts of friends who wanted to help me have the best semester I could. I accepted them, saved them to my laptop, and promptly ignored them for my entire trip.
My main advice to those coming here next is this: don’t just do what everyone else is doing. There is so much to discover by getting lost and wandering into the nearest open shop, and while places like Gusta Pizza will certainly always be delicious, I’ve found with little surprise that the better places – both in quality and in experience – have always been those I met through chance. I won’t tell you to skip the famous spots, but I don’t think it’s all that groundbreaking to suggest trying some local joints, too. Some favorite places I found on my own are The Bench Caffe, my friend group’s go-to coffee and lunch café, La Ménagère, a beautiful bar and restaurant with stellar cocktails and live jazz downstairs, and Uncaffe, a sweet little café tucked nicely just off the beaten path. Take my recommendations, but remember to find your own little gems, too.
This also goes for travel. Florence is swarming with study abroad travel companies like Bus2Alps and SmartTrip, and while their programs are convenient, I think it is so much more valuable to get off the student bandwagon and get to know the world individually and with as little tourism as possible. The best trips have been those where I’ve felt like a traveler, not a tourist. That sometimes means living out of a too-small backpack and eating nothing but free hostel bread because everything else is too expensive, but with these experiences comes something so much more whole than what you’d get from packing elbow-to-elbow on a stuffy bus with fifty other American students with iPhones for hands.
I don’t know exactly what I expected to gain from study abroad, in terms of both day-to-day experience and lasting transformation. What I’ve found is it won’t all be will be handed to you. You don’t arrive in Florence and get suddenly flooded with a feeling of worldliness and wisdom. You have to make things happen: go seek adventures, invite your friends or travel alone, try new foods, try to speak the language. Challenge yourself to venture outside of what you’re used to. Take it in before you take pictures. Talk to as many people as you can – if nothing else, study abroad is a chance to make friends all over the world.
That said, don’t get hung up on the idea that while you’re abroad, every moment will be a life-changing experience. More often than not, I spend my nights in my apartment with my friends, playing cards or making dinner or watching Netflix and ignoring one another. Your time here will be exciting in many ways, but you can’t forget that you’re also living and studying, and a lot of that involves the same menial activity that college always presents. While whenever you’re up for it I advocate for an adventure, you can allow yourself to be a regular person, too.
I think what’s most important about study abroad is that it can service one person in a completely different way than it services anyone else. My semester has been mostly characterized by the people in it: a new group of wonderful friends I get to take home to New York, and that is exactly what I needed. But if one person wants to practice independence, it’s also the perfect place to do it, and if someone else wants to get closer with existing friends, it’s the perfect platform for that, too. Your semester abroad should be an individual experience tailored to your own needs, rightfully different from those of anyone else.
Last weekend I fled to Paris.
My friends and I had booked our flights months ago, but after the recent terror attacks, we decided not to go. Each of us had our own reasons, mostly rooted in feeling unsafe, but ultimately I felt more strongly that not going to Paris the week after it was attacked was cheating. How could I consider myself a citizen of the world if I opted out when reality hit? What hedonistic things would I do this weekend in place of seeing life as it really is? If I am to grow while abroad, I realized, I cannot just see the vacation version of things. I’m a spectator, of course, but I’m cheating, I realize, and I panic, just one hour till my flight: I haphazardly throw some clothes in a backpack, run to the nearby parking garage and ask them to call me a cab, I’m at the airport, I’m on the plane, I’m in Paris, alone.
The next morning I’m curled up shoes off on a tiny bed in Shakespeare and Co. in Paris. My head rests all too perfectly on a fat book called Great Issues in American Life. Beneath me is a yellow and red tribal pattern blanket badly made up. Last night, someone slept here, one of the bookstore’s famous Tumbleweeds. I want to stay here, too, but tonight, there is no room for me.
On the plane to Paris I had this idea that Shakespeare and Co. was going to fix me. I’d sit just where I was and I’d be drunk off artistry and poetry and I’d feel some sort of deeper intellectual something, a new energy, pooling in my veins like calligraphy. This experience, in this bookstore, was supposed to be my movie scene awakening.
Instead I’d wandered in here soaked from the rain and was told no, I cannot stay. The beds are full. No space. I retreat up to the store’s bed-filled reading rooms, exhausted, trying to figure out what to do now.
A few hours later I’m still there, sitting crossed legged in my secret corner of the universe. I’ve turned now; Great Issues in American Life serves as my backrest. I face the reading nook of dark reds and worn wood, the frayed tops of bound books shelved one on top of another and another and another. There is another bed in here, unoccupied, covered with a dark green velvet blanket, which brushes against the red brick floor, honeycomb pattern with some bricks burned black with age. There is a patter of rain from above the rustic wooden beams of the ceiling. Beside me there is a piano called A. Schindler Paris. For its players there is a small blue chair, so worn that its leather seat peels back to reveal cotton stuffing the pattern of a bowling alley carpet. Beside it, a wicker armchair, its burgundy cushion contorted from the pressure of thousands of sitters.
A young man comes in, his tawny boots stained dark from the rain. His black curls gather in a ponytail. He sits in the wicker chair, reads Bukowski, and after some time stands and settles at the piano, tentatively tapping the yellowed ivory keys. Suddenly his hands flutter and he expertly plays something classical, lively, and he is no more than three feet from me, creating a sound that fills the reading room, and it’s just him and me, so I close my eyes and smile, letting myself be flooded.
He stops abruptly and laughs. He taps a key and it makes no sound, so he opens the piano, toys with the things inside.
He turns to me and says with a French accent, laughing, “This cannot be repaired.”
I say, “It still sounds beautiful.”
He tries some more to play. It sounds perfect to me, but he laughs again and throws up his hands in defeat.
“I can’t play.”
“I never learned.”
He turns back to the piano and runs his fingers over the keys, tapping a black one, saying something about being unable to hear what key he’s playing in. I wonder at that moment how many others have played this ancient piano.
Abruptly he gets up, takes his book from his chair, says, “Enjoy your reading,” and leaves.
I couldn’t dream this.
Hours later, still I am curled up in the same spot. There is a sign at the front of the shop that says “All the characters in this bookstore are fictions so please leave your everyday self outside the door when you enter.” I, taking its advice, am playing with personalities now, making friends with the people who come in. One guy shows me his favorite poem and I give him mine. Another asks if I’ll read some things he wrote and offer advice. Who are these people, and who do they think I am? For today, at least, I am just part of this room, my real life unimportant. My night goes very late, each hour highlighted by a new person coming into my life just to leave it.
Most of the people I met had been in Paris the week before and each had his or her own story of the terror. My second day in Paris I went to the Bataclan to visit the growing memorial and was stunned by the streets buried deep beneath flowers, candles, photos, and letters. I still had so little to do with Paris, and I know very little of tragedy, so I chose to focus not on death but on life. In that moment I was part of something much, much bigger than me. I stood at the Bataclan, my Florence classmates wandered by the Duomo, my New York friends rode the subway, my parents were in New Jersey watching The Voice, the nameless people I met in the bookstore were out in the world writing wonderful poetry, everything was a very intricate and cyclical vacuum. I don’t know if being abroad has “transformed” me — I don’t know how I could track that in myself — but in Paris I was able to realize that it is only my choice whether I take and take.
This is early September.
A friend and I are coming back from a weekend in Nice, France. The train ride is about seven hours long, including a rainy hour in Genova while we wait for a connection. This is fine with me – I like long train rides, especially those that afford such a pretty view, and I have a good book and good company. We ride sleepily, expecting to be back in Florence by 9pm. We plan exactly what we’ll do when we get back: I have some pasta, which we’ll pick up from my place and bring to his, where he has sauce, and we figure if we finish dinner by ten, we’ll have time to watch a movie. The planning is only relevant in that we’d never before so properly planned anything, ever, so it is only fitting that we would, of course, never get to follow through.
It’s important to explain that Florence has two train stations: Santa Maria Novella (or SMN, as already we, just three weeks into the program, boldly referred to it) is the bigger, and is in the city and is most convenient for us. The other is Firenze Campo di Marte, and is just outside the city and requires a transfer to SMN to get home. Most trains I’ve taken stop at both. Our tickets for this journey say our destination is Campo di Marte, which is mildly inconvenient. We’ll have to get off there and make a transfer to a train that will take approximately five minutes to get us to SMN.
We’re a little over an hour from Campo di Marte when we pass La Spezia, the stop that services the Cinque Terra area. Two of our friends, Jake and Olivia, board, so we flag them over to sit with us. They say they’d missed their earlier train, so it’s even more of a coincidence we ran into them now! and they have a movie loaded on Jake’s laptop — would we like to watch the rest of Pineapple Express with them? We do, and we watch, and it ends just as we slow to approach Firenze Campo di Marte, 9pm, just on schedule.
Great timing, we say, beginning to pack up our things. Jake and Olivia are confused; why are we getting off here? This train is going to SMN, it says so on their tickets, so we should just stay on, no need to transfer, right? We’re tired and offer no protest, and so the four of us consciously ignore Campo di Marte, knowing we’ll be at our preferred station in five minutes.
Or maybe we were wrong and it takes ten minutes, we wonder, as we roll past Campo and through the Tuscan countryside. Or maybe twenty, we think later, the train showing no signs of slowing down. Or maybe we made a mistake, we begin to understand after half an hour.
Maybe, we realize, as we get smart enough to check the train’s route, this train becomes an express to Rome. Excellent. We’ll be there in an hour. There goes our pasta and movie.
Inconvenient at the worst, we decide. I’ve run out of money in Nice and therefore haven’t eaten much that day, so I’m hungry, a fact which won’t be helped by a four-hour detour to Rome and back. Anyway, there’s nothing really to worry about, and we’re laughing when the ticket collector comes around.
We don’t have tickets to Rome, we explain. We missed our stop.
Okay, she says, very much assuming the expression of an exhausted mother. The tickets are not a problem. But do we realize there are no trains back to Florence this late?
Of course we hadn’t considered that, and we are certain she is wrong. When we finally get to Rome, it’s 11pm, and we run off the train and to the nearest ticket station, where it is confirmed, of course, that she isn’t. Next train, 6am. We purchase tickets. I apologize to my parents’ emergency funds.
Now we are four college students, two girls and two guys, stumbling into the nearest Roman hotel in the middle of the night, asking for a room for four. What does this look like? The concierge, a confused old man, declines our one-room request, but we can have two rooms for two if we like. We accept. Jake and Olivia apologize profusely (of course the destination on their tickets was wrong — they’d missed their first train) and retreat to their room. I spend the rest of my money – two twenty-cent pieces – on an apple from a street vendor. I feel like a proper traveler using little gold coins to buy food from a fruit stand. We take it up to our room, which is immediately cool and romantic. In Nice, we’d stayed in a grimy hostel where one of our roommates awoke every forty minutes to vomit, but here, there’s a tall window with long green curtains and in the bathroom there’s a big white bathtub. We have a little terrace overlooking a sidestreet where we can see the stand where we bought our fruit. And it’s Rome. I’ve been reading too much Hemingway, so all this is marvelously glamorous to me.
We laugh at our situation and pretend not to notice the filmy handprints on the mirror over the bed, a memento left by some previous guests. Well, I think, falling asleep, this is ultimately a great memory – who else of my friends have booked a hotel room in Rome in the middle of the night? It’s exciting and spontaneous, the sort of thing I’d hoped this semester would show me. I’m exhausted and a little bit hungry and am still very new to Europe. This is a lucky and wonderful adventure, I decide. At the very least I’ve now made it to Rome.
The next morning we’re up early and make it to Florence by 8:30. I have class at 9: Renaissance Art at the Bargello Museum. I make it on time, find a seat to take notes, and promptly fall asleep.
On the night of November 13 I was in Barcelona. My mom had flown in from New Jersey and I’d flown from Florence to meet her. We spent the weekend working our way through pots of paella, catching up and sharing grand musings as we do. That particular night was a Friday. We went to a bar called Ocaña, a hip joint populated by drag queens, where my mom and I, plain Jersey girls in our new subdued Zara blazers, quietly and covetingly observed from a corner. I convinced her to say yes to late hours and a second and third round and was getting out of her stories I’d never heard — stories of mom when she was my age, and stories which made everything about my own upbringing make so much sense.
We left Ocaña feeling fulfilled. We commented something on the very Adult essence of the whole evening. I’d done as I’d wanted to do since college began, which is get to know my parents as adults (and adults meaning both of us). We were grinning and feeling especially alive, buzzing with alcohol and a sense of unity, when we returned to our hotel and learned that Paris had been attacked by terrorists.
What were we to do? We have nothing to do with Paris. We had been once, when I was thirteen, and had spent most of the time filling our pockets with sugar cubes from cafes and ogling streets that were so different from what we knew in tiny coastal New Jersey, where everyone knows everyone and where sand fills our sheets, where bastardized English is spoken, and most often describes the conditions of the surf. What was Paris but a world so different from ours, where the language is so poetic, the food so minimally cool, the people so beautiful and the art so old and loved? We checked in with the few people we knew in Paris and, once we knew they were alive and well, went to sleep, dreaming mostly of tomorrow’s Spanish adventures, troubled distantly by the pains of Paris.
I was six years old when 9/11 happened. At the time, my dad commuted daily to New York, and was in the city during the attack. My mom, a magazine photo stylist, was on a shoot in northern Jersey when the towers were struck. The home she was photographing had a view of the New York skyline. She saw everything. My dad did not make contact until late that night, when he reported that he was safe. I knew nothing, as I was six, and had no business knowing that my world was so full of hatred.
I was nineteen, apparently, when war-ravaged Syria met its bloodiest month this past May. I did not know about this, and therefore did not grieve it, because the mainstream news did not talk about Syria. Worse, I know Beirut and Baghdad mostly as words, lacking connotation and sentiment, and I think infrequently of them, as infrequently as I do of Syria, and for that I am ashamed.
Earlier this week my friend from my freshman year of high school died in what the news described as a “fiery crash.” He and two friends were driving to a concert and circumstances far beyond their control drove a car into the rear of theirs, killing two of the friends and leaving the third in critical condition. To me, the late Rob Critelli is the personification of 2009. He is lunchtime sandwiches and homecoming floats, and a prematurely raunchy sense of humor that prepared me for later life. We grew apart (with no animosity, but as high schoolers do), so he is not my 2010, nor is he any of my later years, but he is most certainly those of others, coloring their lives with his merciless sarcasm. When he died, I thought of a dozen of his best friends who may be most affected. This, I think, is rare, and highlights how monumental a loss his death is.
I think of Rob Critelli and his friend Chris, who I did not know but who certainly fills many minds and hearts, and I think of terrorism, and I wonder why would you want to kill when already there is so much to grieve.
Since Friday night, I have thought a lot of Paris, and what it means to join together in solidarity, so strange a concept when the world is so big and so filled with difference. Tonight I returned to Florence and met with my new closest friends, who are all people I met only this semester. Two of them were in Paris this weekend and I greeted them with relief, and realized that in all my cynicism I’d grown to love my people here. Tonight we drank wine and celebrated life in a non-deliberate, very honest way, and on the way home, we sat on the steps of the Duomo, where a small crowd had gathered to hold candles and join silently in honor of Paris. With friends with whom I normally do little but laugh, I sat in solidarity, and suddenly I felt the presence of whole world. I thought of tears in Syria and injury in Baghdad, I thought of blood, I felt how little I was doing for humanity, literally, with my shrinking white candle for fifteen minutes in Florence, but I felt so much unity and love, and I thought very clearly:
This is how we fight.
This is how we overcome.
And maybe it takes more. In fact, it certainly takes more, as we speak of combatting not only terrorism, but selective grievance (and I direct you now to some very elementary information on Syria, Beirut, and Baghdad). Maybe the answer is war and opposition, though I wish it weren’t, and I wish peace were easier, and I wish my wishing could do something other than arrange words into lamentations. I wonder if each of the names of those killed in Paris were attached to people as magnetic as Rob was. I wish the car accident in New Jersey were a worldwide headline so that we could celebrate Rob as he deserves to be celebrated, because if he had to die he ought to have glory. But I wish less for glory and more for a non-story: that the Bataclan were still just a concert hall, and that the world had still never heard the names of those who died in Paris, and that thoughts of those people were thoughts of living friends instead of dead. Tonight I think naively of love and I think naively of mortality and feel small in the world, wishing my wishing were substantive, and knowing quite little of pain.
E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room With a View follows Lucy Honeychurch on her travel from orderly upper-class England to a much less refined, much wilder Florence. The book gives something of a trancelike status to the city of Florence, painting it as a vivid place that is equal parts coarse and vibrant, a total contrast to Lucy’s refined English way of life.
Upon Lucy’s arrival in Florence, a fellow, more sage traveler called Miss Lavish tells her, in reference to the travel guide Lucy eagerly consults, “’I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker. He does but touch on the surface of things. As to true Italy – he does not even dream of it. The true Italy is only to be found by patient observation’” (22).
So, of course, Lucy observes. The Florence that ignites Lucy’s subsequent exploits, leading her away from her stuffy British upbringing and into an impassioned, unrefined way of life, is inhabited by natives who are enthusiastic and hospitable, if comparatively uncivilized. As Miss Lavish tells her, “One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness… one comes for life. Buon giorno! Buon giorno!” (23). Lucy’s Italy, then, is lively and exists for her revitalization – whether through making her witness to a public murder or introducing her to a forbidden love.
Modern-day travelers who may have been inspired to visit Florence because of A Room With a View (have people done this? Who and where are you?) may be jarred to find less liveliness and more of that signature Italian laze. People move slowly and without obvious intention, and aren’t eager to stop to welcome you to their country. Florence has maintained its lack of rigidity, but I hesitate to qualify it as an eccentricity as willingly as does Lucy, if solely because everything is unhurried.
In further contrast to the book, I’ve been to Piazza della Signoria dozens of times and I’ve witnessed no murders (not exactly a bummer). And more often than not, the piazzas are crowded with unromantic selfie stick peddlers and hopelessly lost tourists: nothing of the exotic, wondrous sort Lucy finds on her visit. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to find a place that nowadays qualifies as “wondrous,” while to Lucy, everything seems to fit.
Ostensibly, a lot has changed since 1908. But there is a certain charm that Florence carries that may need a Victorian vocalization to really give credit where it’s due. For example, Lucy looks at the tower at Piazza Signoria, which I see and ignore every day, and her perception is as follows: “She fixed her eyes wistfully on the tower of the palace, which rose out of the lower darkness like a pillar of roughened gold. It seemed no longer a tower, no longer supported by earth, but some unattainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky” (57).
To which I have to say, jeez, it’s just a pretty tower, but maybe that’s precisely because modern rhetoric, and therefore modern travelers, lack sufficient words to capture the Florentine essence. And maybe that essence was heightened by petticoats and parasols. Either way, it’s the strikingly rogue – and thereby, through a certain antithesis, romantic – components of Florence and Italian culture that make up A Room With a View, and which arrest Lucy despite her proper beginnings.
I remember years ago a friend telling me she was taking a class in globalization and had decided to focus on the way that Starbucks has redefined the global expectation of what, exactly, a coffee shop is. She made some interesting points about the acoustic music, lounge-y furniture, and hipster types who are typically associated with the concept of a coffee shop, saying that if not for the massive success of Starbucks, the term “coffee shop” could recall as varying aesthetics as could the term “restaurant.” That is, there is no mandate for all coffee shops to be indie-esque; they could have any sort of atmosphere, any style of seating, any variation of products to be served, as long as coffee is the headliner.
I listened to her research and struggled to conceive a coffee shop that didn’t branch from Starbucks standards. I’d certainly been in a wide variety of them – my mom started me on coffee when I was twelve years old, and I’ve had at least one (usually four) cups a day since then – but whether they were rock-and-roll themed or modern and minimalist, they still didn’t stray far from the global coffee shop model. It wasn’t until I came to Florence that I realized that some coffee shops do not, in fact, conform.
Here in Italy, coffee shops rarely wear just one hat. It’s hard to find one that doesn’t moonlight as a bar, music venue, or restaurant. When you’re drinking your morning coffee (standing up, of course, at the bar), you stare at the shop’s selections of liquors, which sit behind the bar waiting for afternoon to come. Even if there’s wifi, there are rarely people on laptops, as here, coffee shops are not workplaces, but pit stops for an espresso and brioche on the way to work or class. I’ve seen no couches, no free unplugged EPs, no pumpkin flavored anything. Here, getting a coffee literally means getting a coffee, not worshipping all that is ersatz Williamsburg.
While I appreciate the change, I’ve found myself missing the lounge and workspace I’ve found many New York coffee shops are able to provide. For this reason, I went on a mission to try as many Florence cafés as I could until I found one that could be a decent substitute (I remind myself of that guy in Spongbob who crawls into the Krusty Krab moaning food, water, atmosphere. I resonate more, though, with coffee, comfy chair, outlet).
That is how I met Uncaffe. Its denotative name hangs in carved wooden letters over its almost hidden door. It’s small and cozy, and on the walls are hundreds of drawings and words scrawled on in chalk by customers. Behind the bar are framed artworks by local artists. There is minimal standing bar space; instead, most customers opt for a table, of which there are a five inside and two on the sidewalk out front. I picked out My Table, of dark wood and situated in a corner, where I set up my laptop, do some work, and watch people come and go. Uncaffe is far enough off the beaten path that its visitors are largely locals, and mostly are regular customers. Every morning I’ve been there, the same priest has come in for his cappuccino, smiling warmly at the dressed-down barista, a girl in her twenties wearing a hoodie and with her hair in a low ponytail. I feel nervous approaching her as a customer looking to become a Regular, so instead I make awkward eye contact and wait for her to acknowledge that I’m here most mornings.
Next to the espresso machine is a little sandwich station, where the manager prepares tomato, mozzarella, and prosciutto sandwiches made freshly for each order. In the glass case under the register there is usually some choice of pastry snack, though it’s never the same – some days it’s croissants, and I’ve never seen more than three available, and another day it was two fresh pies, of which you could order a slice. I, of course, do, and enjoy every bite, pretending pie for breakfast is something I usually do.
So I spend my mornings munching on whatever they’d chosen to serve that day, listening to Italian jazz music, missing the coffee shops in New York of which at least five know my face, name, and order, but appreciating what else there is in the world of caffeination, especially in my little Uncaffe ecosystem.
The other day I was Skyping with my dad and he paused mid-sentence to say, “Erica, you’re looking very Italian today.”
Puzzled, I looked down at my clothes. I was, and currently am, wearing what a friend once referred to as my “uniform”: high waisted dark wash jeans, a crop top, Converse, and my hair falling out of a bun. Quintessentially 20-something? Definitely. But Italian?
I’ve wondered since then what the stylistic differences are between Europe and the States, and what it could mean to look more Italian one day than I might the next. The truth is, I haven’t found too much difference between downtown-type New York style and what people wear here. After all, New York and Florence are popular cities with a large population of young people, so it’s logical that there wouldn’t be much difference in fashion. The girls here wear a lot of torn denim and layered tops, and I’ve seen many baggy shirts with English words on them. I have noticed a few unintentionally comical awkward translations, like “Never Stop Texting” and the tragically misspelled “EAT SLLEP F*CK REPEAT.”
I’ll give one thing to the ladies here, as I wrap yet another hairtie into my knot of a bun: their hair is always masterfully styled. Maybe it’s the lucky Italian hair genes, but it’s hard to find an Italian girl who doesn’t have neatly blow-dried, glossy hair — the kind of stuff I gave up on around the same time I stopped reading Tiger Beat (on my first day in Florence, some girls in my building asked if I wanted to join them in shopping for “hair products.” In an effort to make friends, I did, and watched them pick out Moroccan oil in spherical little bottles and pretended my purchase of cheap grocery-store brand conditioner was an accident).
The men are also quite put-together, and dress largely like the men in Chelsea: sweaters, tight pants, shoes that cost as much as my education. And, of course, there’s that famous Italian leather.
As a whole, fashion isn’t so different between Florence and New York. So familiar is the style here that I’ve continued my clothes shopping just as I would have in New York. Within a few blocks of my Florence apartment is a Brandy Melville (which, incidentally, was started in Italy, even if it screams California) and a store called Subdued, which is Brandy’s cool cousin who has the exact same closet but lists prices in Euros before US Dollars. Both of these stores sell apparel stitched with the words “New York.” And the similarity is not limited to young urban style; almost every major brand I’ve seen in New York is represented here in Florence, and as far as I can tell, Italians tend to wear their clothes the same way we do in America.
I’d like to think I was having a good hair day, then, when my dad caught me “looking Italian.” Or, more likely, that’s just a dad thing to say.
I am a real-life survivor the nightmare of the modern traveler: three weeks ago, I lost my iPhone in Munich, Germany.
For a few hours after its disappearance, my future looked bleak. What would I do with all the clever Oktoberfest-themed captions I’d stored in Notes? How would I keep entertained on the bus ride home if not for my camera roll full of memories? Would I ever know what Snapchat’s geotags look like in Austria? My thumbs, suddenly without activity, tapped anxiously at the bus window on the way back to Florence. I remembered, almost smiling through the dark, dark tragedy, that that morning a friend had changed my phone background to a grainy, zoomed-in photo of a creepy haunted house staff member. Whoever had snagged my phone on the train was surely in that moment trying to get through my passcode with his low-budget red contact lenses glaring at them.
I arranged immediately for my mom to send me a new phone from home and prepared myself for the ensuing weeks of uninvited self-discovery. It was the cleanse we all pretend we want but never do (“I just want to throw my phone out the window and live without the stress of social media!!!!” says every millennial ever). For about 12 hours, I suffered. And then, I awakened to a modern Nirvana: I was in a world where I wouldn’t be reprimanded for not answering texts, where my morning Instagram feed was replaced by a look out the window (enter: an unfiltered Duomo), where, like in the long-ago age of 2008, phrases had meaning without a prefaced hashtag.
We are all plagued by the social media craze, and with more and more major companies catching on to its marketing potential, it’s unlikely we’ll get over it anytime soon. Travel especially has been hit hard with its effects: between s*lfies and their partnering posts, the act of visiting has become synonymous with the acts of photographing, filtering, captioning, hashtagging, and posting, all to garner Likes and friends’ jealousy, rather than to actually experience the destination. But this is an old argument.
A newer one is the positive one, which favors, or at least wonders at, the Internet age and the way it has revolutionized the way that people travel. This post in The Guardian outlines some of the cool things that smartphones and social media are doing to redefine travel and make it, ironically, more social. Of the apps mentioned, I’ve so far only used airbnb, and through it, I met a girl who became my first friend in Italy and who introduced me to her city, Bologna, with the local knowledge I could never have gotten from a cubicled travel agent. To be honest, I don’t really know what a travel agent is. My experience with them is limited to the knowledge that there is a travel office marked with a palm tree next to a Dunkin’ Donuts in my hometown.
Every time I FaceTime with my parents they marvel at how much easier it is for me to get around Europe and to communicate with them than it was in their day. I can pause their feed to book a train ticket to Rome for tomorrow morning without ever looking up from my computer. These are things I take for granted.
It seems to me that apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter can take you out of a place while airbnb, Hostelworld, and BlaBlaCar put you in it. That said, it’s important to remember that smartphones and the Internet have changed, but not necessarily ruined, the way we go about our daily lives.
I got my new phone this past weekend. I Instagrammed. I Snapchatted. I redownloaded vscocam. My hiatus from social media was refreshing, but who am I to think I’m better than it?
As the perfect complement to my ongoing animosity toward American tourists, I read Mark Twain’s semi-autobiographical novel A Tramp Abroad. This book expresses through satire the tribulations involved with tourism, as experienced by Twain himself, a fitting American tourist on a typical European adventure.
As do most American tourists, Twain enters each new region with a predisposed, generally smartass view of the place. His arrival in Italy is no exception. Twain’s Italian adventure begins on the train to Turin. Two Americans sitting nearby struggle to ask a Swiss woman to take her feet off their seat and are ultimately tricked into thinking she needed the extra seat for a foot disability; several hours of an uncomfortable ride later, the woman walks quite capably off the train, and with that, the Americans have been hazed into Italy.
Twain’s first concern regarding Italy is its reputation for harboring cheats. Before reaching the country, Twain “had been culling all the information [he] could about Italy, from tourists. The tourists were all agreed upon one thing – one must expect to be cheated at every turn by the Italians.”
This mentality has certainly persisted among tourists in Italy. The amount of words of caution given to me before my arrival in Florence is only rivaled by the amount given to me when I first moved to New York. I’ve found that tourists tend to expect the worst of cities and people. Of course, the blubbering American armed with a foldable map and following a tour guide piloting a group with a raised folded umbrella is a likely target for pickpockets and cheats. Regardless, expecting everyone to be plotting a scam is a silly way of approaching the world. Reasonable caution is excellent and necessary, but fear and prejudice aren’t.
Twain fulfills the classic mindset of expecting the worst of the native Italians. Of course, he soon finds that the Italian street performers, toy peddlers, and bus drivers with whom he interacts are humane and honest. He chalks these instances up to be an exception to the rule: “Hence it is plain that in Italy, parties connected with the drama and the omnibus and the toy interests do not cheat.”
Twain’s second Italian muse is its art, particularly that of the Old Masters. He comically remarks on the pre-Renaissance artists, accusing them, simply, of being bad artists: “bad drawing, bad proportion, bad perspective, indifference to truthful detail, color which gets its merit from time, and not from the artist – these things constitute the Old Master; conclusion, the Old Master was a bad painter.”
I know now from my art class here in Florence that the Old Masters worked before there were such artistic regulations as fine detail, perspective, and maintenance of color. However, Twain does have a point. In a prestigious Florentine museum I noticed a painting of a man that had two left hands, an error on the painter’s part. I scoffed, thinking even I could paint better than that (I certainly could not), and leave confused as to why such stupid art could be so relished. To be honest, I am a terrible art critic, as pre-, mid-, high-, low-, hot-, cold-, lukewarm-,or post-Renaissance – is simply “old” a proper term? – art is just not all that pleasing to me. I need someone smarter than me to say that this one is a masterpiece, because there’s no way I’ll come to that conclusion on my own. I can appreciate it almost explicitly because I’m told that others appreciate it, even if “it” has two left hands.
Twain handles this dilemma with more eloquence than do I; after a conversation with a Venetian artist, he likens the work of the Old Masters to the face of women with “indefinable charm”; to “a cold stranger,” a certain woman may not be considered beautiful, a conclusion qualified by features that deviate from the aesthetic ideal. But one who knows her may rebut, “your conclusion is wrong, nevertheless; she is an Old Master – she is beautiful, but only to such as know her; it is a beauty which cannot be formulated, but it is there, just the same.”
A Tramp Abroad captures quite well the cynicism and disillusionment that a tourist may feel upon visiting Europe, complete with the snobbish elitism that runs rampant in Americans abroad. His thoughts are not without a certain poeticism, nonetheless – through cracks in the satire a reader can see that Twain wants to expose a European romanticism that can be hidden by tourists’ observational tendencies.
Last year, I had to wake up every Monday morning for a 9am dance class. First semester it was jazz, which was bad, and second it was tap, which was worse. I am a terrible, terrible dancer and lack the ability to function early in the morning. The experience was nothing short of a disaster. I barely passed.
Here in Florence, I warily scheduled a new class for Monday morning: Renaissance Art. Still scarred from having spent a year beginning my week with a class that never failed to make me feel degraded, ungraceful, and elephantine, I feared that any class with the special opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the week would result in similar misery. Such power can so readily result in such destruction.
Of course, a week into my class, I learned I have nothing to fear. During the time that I’d last year be sleepily, sloppily clopping through the “choreography” for a “dance” that I had “learned,” I now get the chance to explore some of Italy’s best museums, seeing firsthand the works of the world’s most famous masters. I sit back and let them take the stage, absorbing all I can from artworks that are literally breathtaking and sparing the world the cacophony that is my flap-ball-change.
My enhanced role as a spectator has been one of the biggest changes in coming from New York to Florence. As an acting student, I am usually asked to perform every day, whether in dance, singing, dialects, or regular acting classes. I haven’t had a lecture since Writing the Essay. Last year, my last class on Fridays involved two hours of learning how to properly roll around on the ground. Now, I get the classic collegiate pleasure of No Class on Friday, and my classes are academic seminars.
I take four classes that meet every week. I have homework that isn’t memorizing lines. I don’t have rehearsal; I have group projects. I’m beginning to study for midterms, the ones that involve real pencil on real paper, not 3 minutes of a perfect Scottish accent and a 10-minute scene from Hamlet.
More than anything, this semester’s change in routine has been largely influenced by my change from my usual acting studio beat to that of an academic student. Of course, being abroad means that that experience is a bit warped.
I get through Mondays with the promise of no class Tuesday, a lucky scheduling gem that I once used to go on a day trip to the beach but which I’ve always otherwise used to catch up on the sleep I missed the past weekend, do some homework, and visit Mercato Centrale, Florence’s open market, for some groceries. At some of the booths you can find prices that make Trader Joe’s seem like Whole Foods, and the food is incredible. Last week, I got myself two meals’ worth of a life-changing cheese-and-pear ravioli for €3.
Tuesday nights I do laundry and arrange my wet clothes on a drying rack by my window; my apartment, like most I’ve seen in Florence, doesn’t have a dryer. Nothing will be wearable till Thursday.
Wednesday is my busy day. In the morning, I go to one of my three favorite cafés for a cappuccino and croissant, study over breakfast, then walk to campus. I swear against the bus because
a) it simply never runs on time and
b) I tell myself that the 30-minute uphill walk to the NYU villa justifies the grotesque amount of carbs I’ve been eating.
After class, I head home and try, with abysmal cooking skills inherited from my microwave-savvy mother, to cook something edible (I quickly give up and go get pizza). At 9pm is soccer, the league for which ended this week with my team claiming the championship title, with little thanks to me. To show for it, I have sore calves, bloodied knees, and a regained knowledge that any physical activity — dance, soccer, or otherwise — was created for someone other than me.
Thursday’s schedule involves two classes separated by a cappuccino break at the on-campus café. I then walk home, avoiding the Vespas barreling through the busy streets, wrestle with the endlessly confusing locks on my apartment door, and collapse on my bed, feeling like a proper university student. I allow myself a few hours of vegetation before packing for the weekend: a nine-hour bus to Germany or a quick flight to Paris is all part of the plan.
On Monday, it begins again. But now, I need not resentfully pluck my tap shoes from my closet like ticks from socks: Monday reminds me that here, normalcy is a week begun surrounded by the world’s greatest works of art. I dive back in.
The worst part of Florence is the awful din created by the ambulance sirens.
They’re not like the sirens in New York, which are objectively horrible, overly frequent, and loud enough to interrupt conversations whether you’re on the sidewalk or tucked in the innermost corner of your apartment.
Somehow, the Florence sirens are even worse. The noise they emit is an incessant, sharp moan evocative of a bratty child, overlain by periodic yowls of a higher-pitched wail. The second sound wavers in an ungodly pitch for a second or two, then gives a quick solo to the underlying moan before returning for another song. The siren sounds for way too long because Florence’s streets are small and crowded, so it takes a lazy Italian hour for a car to get anywhere.
With a relentless emergency vehicle tailing me (how dare someone need medical attention and so offend my ears!), I go for an otherwise pleasant walk through the city. As usual, I rename my state of certain lostness: instead, I decide I’m idly wandering. It’s beginning to rain, so the ordinarily crowded streets surrounding the Duomo are starting to empty. I love rain and so I am happy.
I remind myself to lose my New York pace. While in the city I feel able to assert myself as Not A Tourist by walking as quickly as I can, here, it’s typical for locals to walk unbearably slowly, with no intention of getting out of your way.
But now I have the street to myself. The ambulance finally hastens and I am left alone with the sound of raindrops hitting the cobbled streets. This is Via Dante Alighieri, a street which leads to the small piazza where Dante himself lived. This fact reminds me of how old the city is, and of how many people must have walked these streets over thousands of years. Walking on a street in an old city in Europe is an experience very different from anything I’ve gotten in the United States; if you stop to think, you can begin to feel the massive history at your feet, and you can begin to imagine the eyes that have seen the same classic buildings that have been so many different things. Today, they host gelato shops and name-brand clothing stores. The buildings are much shorter here than in New York, but they’ve held so much more.
The taste of this morning’s espresso is still in my cheeks and I decide to look for a croissant to complement it. There’s a secret bakery not far from here that is opens at 2:30am. Friends have told me that I can find it not by its address – no one seems to know it – but by following the smell of freshly baked pastries that spills into the street. Maybe late tonight I’ll try to find it. There’s something humbling about trusting my own senses, and not my iPhone map, to help me find my way.
For now Florence’s usual riverfront smells are masked by those of fresh rain. I catch myself feeling grossly sentimental. You put me in a nice rainstorm in a nice place and suddenly I think in poems. I promise myself I’ll return to my ordinary cynicism as soon as I’m home.
I probably should have tried to learn some Italian before coming to Italy.
Before coming to Florence, I spent two days on my own in Bologna, jetlagged and speaking not one word of Italian. I wanted to meet people, but I didn’t even know how to say, “Hi, I’m Erica, how are you?” without reverting to a cavemannish, gesticulative HELLOOO. (both hands pointing to chest) ME ERICA. (an inquisitive thumbs-up) YOU? with subsequent awkward smile, which, of course, still involves none of the local language.
My complete ignorance of Italian quickly proved problematic. A guy my age approached me in Bologna’s main Piazza with a very friendly “come stai?”, for which I had no answer except, “no Italian?” I didn’t have the knowledge to even add an “o” to at least call the language Italiano. This is when I, were I on his end, would have given up, but he was pretty persistent about getting the Italian out of me. The ensuing 20-minute conversation went something like this:
Eventually, I gave up and went to speak Spanish to an older Portuguese couple.
Here in Florence, it’s pretty easy to get away with never speaking a word of Italian. I’ve yet to meet a single person in the service industry who doesn’t speak English. I occasionally try to use Italian to complete basic transactions, but even when I’ve successfully ordered a dual-flavored medium-sized gelato in a cone, the server still tells me the price in English. It’s frustrating when my efforts are so smoothly shut down, especially since I’ve put in some effort and can now proudly hold up a very (very, very) basic introductory conversation at a Kindergarten level.
I’m trying to avoid feeling as ignorant as I did in Bologna, or as ignorant as I felt this past weekend on a two-day trip to Nice, France. Like my Italian was when I arrived in Bologna, my knowledge of French is limited to not much more than “bonjour,” “au revior,” and “omelette au fromage” (thanks, Dexter’s Lab). For this reason, in Nice, it always took at least 3 seconds for me to generate a reply. The barista hands me my latte, and my response is a quiet, contemplative rifling through of thank you, grazie, gracias, before I finally land on merci.
It was also hard, when using simple greetings, not to revert back to Italian. I’d walk into a restaurant silently chanting to myself, don’t say buongiorno. don’t say buongiorno. don’t say buongiorno.
“Bonjour! -no. Shit.”
Allora. Many are the losses and few are the wins, but I don’t see myself giving up on language anytime soon. I have a particular affinity for language and the way that the right words can elicit such grand reactions. Cardinally, I love the English language, but only because I haven’t given myself the opportunity to have an affair with any other. I find it painful to so readily bastardize or ignore a language just because it’s unfamiliar to me. There are countless combinations of letters that mean something unique in every tongue. Right now, I’m really friendly with “ciao,” but with practice I foresee myself getting more comfortable with and affectionate toward the special, romantic rolling of Italian vocabulary, with its elongated vowels and indulgent pacing. Who’s to say I wouldn’t love Italian were I to give it a proper chance?
Any friend who’s ever had to travel more than two blocks with me knows the disaster that is my inner compass. If I say with utter certainty that our destination is ahead on the left, I can assure you that it will actually be behind us on the right. In fact, the more confidently I assert that I know where I’m going, the more likely I am to be completely wrong. My eternal lostness is a proven truth, which makes it all the more surprising that here in Florence, I actually know where I’m going.
For whatever reason, Florence’s patternless criss-crossing of streets has resonated with my mind’s map (maybe they’re similarly nonsensical?). I can’t quite comprehend why it’s easier for me to navigate the twisted route from Piazza degli Strozzi to Via Bolognese than it is for me to walk from my Nolita apartment to Tisch. At home, I can’t be trusted without Siri guiding each step, but here, I have no access to cell service and I’m still considerably more oriented. I keep finding my destination right where I said it’d be, which, if you’re me, is a great feat.
Maybe it’s because I’ve had practice in a bigger city. To class: Washington Square Park, University, 14th street, Strasberg studio. Or, here: via Ricasoli, traffic circle, via Bolognese, Villa La Pietra. Everything here is a substitute for something in New York: Piazza della Republica my Union Square, Bench Caffe my Mudspot, Ponte Vecchio my Chelsea Piers, the Arno my Hudson River. I’ve gotten lost enough in New York for seven cities. It’s only fair that I know my way around this one.
That’s not to say I haven’t had lost moments. I have been and I love being lost. There’s something lovely in lostness, especially the way it lends itself to creating something remarkable out of a familiar sight. The search for familiarity in an unfamiliar place creates a certain specialness in the familiar thing once you find it (the Duomo! I know that one!), bonding us in a unique way to the things we recognize.
I took a solo trip to Cinque Terre yesterday, hoping to get reasonably lost so I might build for myself my own path home. I bought a hiking pass and a cone of calamari and, armed with just those things, I explored the Italian Riviera. I had no idea where I was – couldn’t tell you the name of the town, much less point it out on a map – which fueled a freedom that made the whole trip worthwhile. Before me was the sea, but not my familiar Atlantic, and behind me was a beach town, but not my familiar Jersey Shore. Standing on the edge of the bluffs, I could have been anyone and I could have been anywhere. In that moment, not even Siri could not pin me down.
I missed my train coming back to Florence. Something about missing a train romanticizes home. Getting back to your home station is that much more of a relief, not just because your bed and your refrigerator are nearby, but because expecting familiarity and not getting it creates an anxiety that can’t be satiated by anything other than home. The Florence train station looked especially wonderful last night. Could it be that I feel at home here?
I find myself on a busy, touristy street in Florence. The sign tells me the street is called Via Por S. Maria, but I don’t know enough Italian yet to know what the “S” stands for (San? Santa? Spaghetti?). Couples with matching Strand bags march to the soundtrack of American English and a musical trio playing That One Italian Song, which stops only to request tips from Americans dining at restaurants that have photos of their food printed on the menu. Every person who works in customer service switches to English as soon as they hear our butchered “Buongiorno.” To my dismay, America is everywhere.
I realize I, too, am an American tourist, but I feel certain that my people have ruined this place. It’s like Times Square but everywhere, accented not with mile-high virtual billboards but with serious pre-Renaissance architecture, making our bastardization of it all the more lamentable.
I am certainly no exception to this list of boorish Americans. I come from the faraway land of the Jersey Shore (Italians!), and now call New York home (incidentally, I live in Little Italy – Italians!), and now I am here in Florence (Americans!). I came for a breath of new culture, and was promised by family that I’d find it here. However, I was more convincingly promised by friends who have completed this program that studying abroad would be the closest I’d ever get to Real College. And so far, it’s the latter who have been right.
I came to Italy with a Leo astrological symbol Sharpie-tattooed on my wrist as a reminder of some of my ambiguous goals while I’m here:
- Say yes more, and mean it.
- Stop waiting for things to happen to you; take control.
- Stop apologizing for yourself.
- Make as many people as possible remember you.
What I hoped this list would do was separate me from my very careful life in New York and show me the world with its supposed many wonders and exoticisms. Instead I’ve gone clubbing every single night and have the phone numbers of not one, but two promoters, and I’ve met precisely zero actual Italians. (My journal says this: “Quest for Italian men, Day 1: I make eyes at a rugged-looking stud across the café, romantically getting a tampon stuck in my purse zipper.”) The other night I found myself at a bar called Uncle Jimmy’s, where I was asked what sorority I was in and where my friends nearly fought some Elon guys for the rights to the beer pong table.
This is not all to say I haven’t had fun here. I’ve had a blast. Because of the change in drinking age, my friends and I have been made legal all at once. That, plus jetlag, minus open container laws, and with all the excitement that comes from moving to a new place, has fostered among my friends an immediate rampant alcoholism, ceasing only when classes started yesterday. Within 12 hours of arriving in Florence I’d afforded myself at least three new reasons to lose Never Have I Ever.
So yes, despite my best efforts, I am thoroughly American. And yes, I regret the misgivings of my people. And yes, I do find myself disappointed to see so many of them here in Florence. And no, I do not want to buy a selfie stick.
And yes, I am going out tonight, because I want to make the most of my short time abroad. But tonight I plan on giving a toast toward the Duomo, or stopping on Ponte Vecchio to remember why I’m here. It’s for Italy, and for the chance to get to know a new culture, and for the food and art and music and gardens and villas and cathedrals. Italy, I haven’t gotten to meet you yet, because there’s a big fat American holding me back, but I promise that soon, I will get to you.