I write to you now from my sister’s comfy couch in her apartment in Chelsea, with a mug of pour over coffee on a coaster on the coffee table, and sirens and car horns permeating through the closed window. What did I just do for the past three and a half months? In some aspects, it feels as though I never left New York City – I think you develop some sort of muscle memory that allows you to hop back in as you please. But I’m having a hard time finding the equilibrium between Tuscan living and Manhattan living – it feels like I’ve been on a travel adrenaline rush that propels me to want to have completely new experiences all the time, but I need to reign it all back in and remember that we have landed back in reality. Which is not to say that resuming life in New York means ending my craving for constant adventure; New York, of all places, can aptly satiate that need! It’s just that getting caught up in a daily routine will perhaps soon envelop all sense of superficial novelty. I’ll just have to consciously seek it, I suppose?
Going abroad to NYU Florence has been, without a doubt, the most fulfilling and rewarding and humbling experience in my life. As my last week in Florence snuck up on me, I realized that there had been so many things I haven’t done yet: see the Galleria dell’ Accademia and have a date with the David, climb to the top of the Duomo, watch the sunset in Fiesole, walk through the prolific Florentine museum scene. Just as all of these overwhelming, schedule restricting events kept popping into my mind, I made the executive decision to do exactly none of them. I wanted to spend my last week in Florence doing things I couldn’t experience vicariously through images on the internet, through other people’s Instagrams; I wanted to spent my last week living as a Florentine. And I’ll save those other things for my next trip back – I don’t need to throw coins in a fountain to know that I’ll be back in Italy.
It does feel strange though. I feel like I’m floating in some kind of weird, apathetic and numb space in which both polarizing ends (heartbroken about leaving Italy, and missing the convenience and familiarity of the United States) are too extreme for me to grasp. So I just stay in the middle and occasionally I will gravitate towards one end and eventually make my way back to the middle.
A little list of initial observations:
- I got into an elevator the yesterday, and as we were approaching the ground floor, the elevator dipped and we were stuck for roughly 45 seconds. The woman in the elevator with me and my sister immediately began spewing out a list of frustrations: “oh my GOD I can’t be stuck in an elevator. I’m going out!” (yes because all of us are just riding the elevator for fun, not needing to go out or anything), “are you SERIOUS? Should we call someone? No no no no,” etc. If I hadn’t just returned from Italy, the land of public transport delays and poorly timed inconveniences, I’m afraid that I would have reacted somewhat similarly. But four months of running after late buses and showing up to local restaurants, only to find that they are randomly closed has mellowed me out a bit to accept these inconveniences and move on.
- On markets and produce: Walking through Union Square Greenmarket was my first incident of culture shock. All the produce and goods are so much more expensive! Also, so heavily marketed. In Italy, everyone just knows that the produce at the markets is locally produced and the market culture is humble and accessible. In New York, it’s seen as a status symbol to shop at the markets, buying $15 small rolls of goat cheese. Everything is so heavily marketed and appeals to the idea of consumerism out of capability.
It’ll take some time to adjust back to the swing of things in Manhattan. I’ll try my best not to be an asshole about Italian food and afternoon cappuccinos and such. But until then, I’ll take my cappuccino in the morning and espresso macchiato after lunch.
So tips. It really just depends on what kind of person you are. Are you the type to genuinely seek an authentic Italian experience? This entails the acceptance, acknowledgment, and appreciation for a completely different culture, which in my opinion is far easier said than done. It’s easy to say that you appreciate a different culture because, well, how could you express yourself otherwise? But it’s an entirely different entity to live in and experience it for everything it is. Tips for the open-minded and adventurous:
Homestay. Just do it. I think there are several misconceptions that I wish NYU did a better job of communicating to prospective NYU Florence students. For example, the homestay families completely understand that we are students who enjoy our respective social lives. No, they don’t force us to have dinner at home with them every night and definitely aren’t offended when we choose to go out to dinner. Next, although all of the homestay conditions are different, my family doesn’t mind when my roommate and I enter the house late at night. Choosing to live in a homestay was definitely one of the best decisions I made regarding my semester abroad, because it allowed me to truly experience the local Italian culture in an immersive and highly effective way. It’s also incredibly nice not having to worry about dinner ever, and always having a hot multi-course dinner waiting at home every day. The perks of living in a homestay are endless, and I really really hope more students take advantage of this opportunity!
Next, I wanted to address the “problem” of planning travel. We’re in Europe. There are a lot of drastically different cities and countries and I’m sorry but it’s simply impossible to cover all of them in fifteen weekends. Don’t go anywhere you aren’t dying to go to just because a giant group of people are going together – this is your semester and you should see what you want, regardless of other people. Don’t be afraid to travel alone. I found that solo travel is the most efficient and eye-opening kind of travel because you have to focus on yourself without being burdened with other people’s needs (they often times have many needs). Also, as stressful as traveling can be, keep in mind that every single one of these opportunities is truly incredible! When else in your life will you be able to hop around Europe for a semester? Don’t stress about travel – everything will work out in the end.
I also wanted to bring up that it would really help to begin learning the language before arrival. There’s just something about Italians that make them so much friendlier when they realize that you don’t want to just speak English to them. I strongly believe that learning the language is the first step into another culture and having a few handy words under your belt will help you greatly when you arrive!
On people. NYU Florence, especially if you come from the OG NYU (not sure where that came from but I’m going with it), can be overwhelming. Not in the same sense that moving to a big city is, but rather quite the opposite. We’re so used to having the entire New York City to our disposal, and walking the streets like we know what we’re doing. In Florence, the campus is a hub of familiarity – the same people in the same tiny spaces. It’s overwhelming to see the same people every single day since we’re so used to being flooded with new interactions all the time. I’d advise you to enjoy it while it lasts, because if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will follow you back to the city and you’ll have to actively seek them out when everyone starts getting busy again.
Florence is a city filled with knowledge and frustration and beauty, but if you look in the right places, it’ll change the way you look at your life back home, wherever that may be.
There are two noticeable types of foreign exchange students: those who embrace the local culture and those who aim to bring the American culture to a foreign location. And yes, it’s very easy to feel like an outsider in Italy – all the Florentines will stare at you just like that one scene in Inception when Ellen Page is walking through the other world and all of its inhabitants know that she doesn’t belong. I’ve also never been more aware of my American antics than now during my semester abroad in Florence – even just the little things like wishing there were ice cubes in my glass of not-free water. Also smiling. According to my Italian professor, the Italians misconstrue smiling in public and will think that you’re taunting them if you do sneak a grin at them on the street. However, whenever I pass by a screaming drunk American while I’m walking home at night, I discreetly thank all of the gods that I don’t spend all my time with my American friends at the American bars of Florence, ordering my beverages in English.
I recently went on a field trip to several small Italian towns and our entire class sat down to have lunch together. One of the girls immediately sets down her belongings, asks for the wifi password and the English menu, and speaks rapid English to the patient waiters. I remember thinking, mm yes OR you could respect the culture by learning enough of the language to order your lunch? I’m not sure why I become so offended by someone’s ignorance and lack of acknowledgment of another culture, but it’s been extremely apparent during my study abroad experience. My transformation throughout the semester is probably most apparent in regards to the way I am more confident in my own abilities, whether it be having faith that I can navigate myself successfully throughout the windier-than-West-Village streets of Italy, or something as simple as answering a question in class. I think often times, it’s difficult to act differently in the same environment. For example, during school breaks when I’m back in my hometown, it immediately feels like I have sprung back into full-force angsty teenage mode. But this semester, being placed in an environment in which everything is a new experience almost seems like a fresh start. I can choose and pinpoint the characteristics and traits I want to be pursue and nobody else will know any better.
As we mentally prepare ourselves to leave this beautiful mess of a country in just two weeks, my friends and I can’t help but to imagine and predict what our lives will be like once we are plopped back into the black hole that is New York City. Step one is we’ll probably lose the Tisch kids first – they’ll get swept away in their studios and rehearsals and whatnot. Although we all know that once we get back to the familiarity of New York, we will all inevitably snap on our completely black outfits and stern walking faces, we know that there is no way we won’t view our lives in New York differently. Perhaps when the subway is delayed, we won’t complain about the two minute sacrifice because we’ll have been conditioned to sprint a mile to class due to an unannounced bus strike. Or maybe, when we go to a fancy Italian restaurant in the West Village, we’ll first order a round of waters and then proceed to pronounce “Pappardelle con ragù di cinghiale” flawlessly. New York won’t seem so intimidating since we’ve collected some new perspectives throughout our travels.
Looking back on my experiences living in Florence, there has not been a single dramatic incident that could be ranked as an “ordeal or misadventure.” In Italy, rather, it’s more of a frequent string of ordeals and misadventures that conglomerate into a general feeling of agony, distrust, and misadventure. For example, the bus and public transportation system we’ve all come to know and love and hate and cry on called ATAF. My general rule of thumb is to never take the bus when you’re in an anxiety-stricken hurry because standing on the curb, waiting, and counting how many seconds and minutes behind schedule the bus runs (if it does) is my number one source of panic. Here in Florence, the bus is run on a sort of “honor system,” meaning nobody regularly checks for your bus ticket every time you want to ride it. Florence has implemented a network of ATAF company workers who randomly spot-check bus tickets, usually targeting daring American students, and frequently fine those with invalid tickets with fifty euros. Due to my proximity to campus, I chose to not buy a monthly-unlimited bus pass, which means that every time I choose to ride the bus into the center of town, I have to either buy tickets in advance or risk getting fined. I’m still not sure why Florence doesn’t just hop onto the same system as that of most other metropolitan public transportation systems. In New York, if you want to ride the subway, you pay for what you want and go along with your day – there’s no anxiety regarding sneaky and aggressive MTA workers who fine you. But no, because there is no guarantee that you will be checked for a ticket, many people opt without and risk getting confronted by an ATAF employee.
So now you’ve spent your one euro and twenty cents on a bus ticket to the other side of town, hoping to catch dinner and drinks in the hip neighborhood of Santo Spirito. If you’re looking online for any business’s operating hours in Italy, I wish you the best of luck in advance. I suppose it would be different if we all grew up in Italy and were used to living in the constant fear that the restaurant or bar we were determined to go to might not be open upon our prompt arrival. These properties of convenience and accessibility are some things I take for granted and miss the most about living in the United States. And New York, especially, where each business’s information is typically easily found (and accurate!).
That being said, I think living in Florence for these couple of months has allowed me to loosen up a little. I don’t leave the house without a back up plan or alternative route mapped out, but in terms of overall perspective, I am now always expecting something to go wrong and I’m alright with it. Oh, the restaurant we want to go to is open every day besides Wednesdays and Sundays and Mondays? Okay no problem, we’ll go elsewhere. The bar’s aperitivo theme for the night is vegetarian? That’s fine too. Things don’t always go as planned, especially not in Italy, but it’s a good thing to realize that the little things that don’t go as planned shouldn’t be the reason your evening is ruined. It’s easy to compare Florence and New York and criticize Italy for its lack of… accessibility or convenience or speedy internet, but in reality, it should just be taken as an opportunity to develop your patience and quick-thinking. All the times I’ve sprinted to the bus station and made it in time but only to realize that the bus arrived and departed early, and the next bus has been delayed have only taught me to maintain an open mind and a relaxed attitude.
I remember the weeks leading up to me getting on the plane from San Francisco to Newark to Geneva to Florence. I remember feeling excited to begin my spring semester back in New York City with my newly leased apartment and practical courses, but not knowing how to fill the mental gap and perception of my fall semester abroad in Florence. In my mind, there was no way to picture and feel (in advance) what it would be like to live in Florence – what would I need to do in order to get acquainted with the Renaissance city, and how I could feel at home there. Even though I had visited Florence before, I couldn’t imagine how living in an Italian city with an Italian family would be, especially with my then rudimentary language skills.
I was afraid to make expectations because I did not want to put myself in a position to get let down. Not that this was an act of pessimism or anything… I just wanted to make sure that I received every new experience as just that – untainted and exciting. And even if there was an experience I wasn’t so crazy about, I made sure that I kept it filed under the “different perspective on life” category. Because that’s what’s my entire study abroad experience has been about, anyway: seeing my world from a different perspective. I know it sounds a little too disgustingly optimistic and cheesy, but there are definitely things we can learn from every person we meet, and being abroad has been the best opportunity to accomplish this.
I don’t think I understood why everyone who went abroad in the past came back to school with so many more deep friendships, but I think I’m starting to get a feel for it. When abroad, we constantly travel with people who we’ve only just recently met and for some, traveling with other people reveals their true characteristics. Because of this, it’s much easier to choose the people we want to pursue friendships with. I didn’t expect to feel so connected with people who I’ve only known for a couple of months, but all of this just makes me all the more excited to be back in New York in January.
Is it okay to miss New York so much while also being perfectly happy with my current lifestyle in Florence? Going abroad came at the perfect time in my collegiate career because it revitalized my passions for when we return to New York. My urban and fast-paced lifestyle has been interrupted by its antithesis, which ultimately reaffirmed my sense of belonging in New York. And I suppose you could call this the whole point of travel and new experiences, right? To end up looking at your existing “been there, done thats” from a different set of well-traveled eyes?
Before coming abroad, I hadn’t taken a single art history class. I thought art museums were a bore and that learning history was like beating a dead horse. I’m only admitting to these things in order to illustrate that living in a city that basically slaps you in the face with art history has changed the way in which I now allow myself to appreciate new things. I would’ve never thought that I’d enjoy learning about ten centuries worth of Etruscan history or that I could be able to tell you the difference between a biconical urn from Vulci and a canopic urn from Chiusi. But here I am, at week eleven, currently shoving bits and pieces of Etruscan history into my brain.
As much as I’d love to put my life in New York to an even longer hiatus, being away from the hustle and the work and the 3:00 pm lunches for these few months has only made me even more excited to return. New York has a funny way of making you question whether or not you really belong there (honestly, it’s mostly the “if I spent this much on rent in another location, I could have HOW MUCH MORE SPACE??”) but come January, I know I’ll be ready to resume the life I previously thought I wanted, and currently know I want to continue.
Tim Parks, in Italian Neighbours, recounts his unadulterated experiences while living in Verona, Italy. Unlike many texts that describe solely the romanticized ideals one has of Italian living such as elaborate meals, close-knit families, and great fashion, Parks provides a well-rounded account of what it is truly like to live as an Italian. On page eighteen, Parks writes, “And, of course, you can’t separate the things you love and hate: you can’t say, let’s move to so and so where they have the cappuccino, the wines, the lasagna, …, but not, please, the howling maltreated hunting dogs, the spoilt adolescents on their motorini, the hopeless postal service, the afa.” In this passage, Parks makes a distinction between the positive and negative aspects of the Italian culture that synthesize to create the entire culture. Similarly, one cannot say that they are infatuated with a person without understanding all of their attractive and not-so-attractive personality traits as a whole. This acceptance of a comprehensive acknowledgment of a culture, and the heavily developed culture that is the Italian one, is the first step to making a new country home. Of course it is simple to go ahead and only pay attention to the best attributes of a culture or place, but soon, the reality seeps in and the unwanted attributes can no longer be ignored. In Florence, for example, it would be naïve and ignorant to continue to believe that living in this city means endless mounds of gelato and pasta. But after a while, every late or early or completely neglected bus schedule, randomly closed business in the middle of the day, and overcharging salesman begin to affect your untainted perspective and you begin to see the city for what it truly is. Which is not necessarily a bad thing! Getting to know the ins and outs allows you to form a well-versed opinion on the city itself, rid of external influence.
Parks also discusses the esoteric but heavily regulated rules of living that reflect the extremely traditional and conservative views of Italian living. He writes, “And while Italians usually seem to like foreigners, the foreigners they like most are the ones who know the score, the ones who have caved in and agreed that the Italian way of doing things is the best. For this is a proud and profoundly conservative people, as careful observation of ordering at the bar will confirm. And a tightly knit one too” (19). Parks’ realistic observations of these culturally ingrained ideals are only visible to those who are open to learning about the culture as a whole. Many American tourists who pass by may order their cappuccini after lunch as they please while maintaining a blind eye towards its blasphemous and often times offensive connotation. I suppose the real classification of behavior comes down to the length of stay in a foreign country (whether or not you want to treat a new country as a home or rather just pass through as a reaper of solely positive attributes) and what kind of experience you, as a traveler, are seeking. Parks describes the Italians in a way that not only highlights their selective warmth, but also their slight xenophobia in a way that anyone who has lived in Italy for a decent amount of time can relate to. There is a drastic difference between communicating with an Italian shopkeeper in English and broken Italian – if they sense that you are trying to speak their language, even if you’re doing a poor job, you will receive better treatment (in my experience). Perhaps this is a reflection on their distinct views of “us versus everyone else” and ultimately, confidence that their culture and lifestyle is better than those of anyone else.
To be quite honest, the most reliably convenient and comforting place I’ve encountered during my time here has been my bed. It’s never delayed, it doesn’t randomly go on strike, it provides me with the comfort and finesse that any bed should. Overall, my bed represents relaxation after a long day of running around the city.
However, I could say the same for my bed in New York as well as in California, so my NEXT favorite place is a coffee shop called Ditta Artigianale, located near Piazza della Signoria on Via dei Neri. Translated literally as “Artisanal Company,” this coffee shop is the perfect public space – cozy, comforting, lenient – and it has certain elements that remind me of the coffee shops in New York. First of all, the coffee. Basically, the quality of this coffee is the “best case scenario” for coffee shops all around New York. After their team collects and harvests the perfect coffee beans all around the world (their Ethiopian beans are my favorite!), they roast and prepare them at their local roaster. Upon arrival at the coffee shop, they are done justice and are grinded and used to perfection. Often times, some American coffee shops boast using outsourced brand name coffee beans but forget to train their employees and baristas to treat the beans well, and you end up with a bitter and burnt cup of joe. It’s just like if you wanted to step into the world of photography, so you buy yourself a Canon EOS-1Dx for over five thousand dollars, but you have no idea how to operate it. Ditta Artigianale’s extensive coffee menu ranges from Australian flat whites, to American drip and cold brew, to the future of the coffee world: coffee cocktails. No matter what kind of coffee drinker you are, you can probably find something to satiate your caffeinated heart. Besides having a high quality product, Ditta Artigianale has a warm and welcoming ambiance. Comfy chairs, great natural lighting, wonderful décor, and friendly staff. They even have live music sometimes! It’s a good thing I don’t live closer to this place or else I’d probably just hand over my entire checking account.
Although I do love Italian espresso, I often times miss the coffee shop culture in the States where you find a small, independently owned coffee shop and mooch off their free wi-fi while you sip an obnoxious coffee beverage and work on projects. Ditta Artigianale fills that void for me because they offer coffee drinks from all around the world, made to the Italian standard, while also providing a great and familiar atmosphere. It’s also just nice to escape the stress of being amongst crowds of tourists with selfie sticks, and to experience a foreign but familiar environment.
There are many ways in which you can critique a public space, but I think the main aspects I look for are value added (products or experiences offered), physical location and style, and general emotional reactions. In New York, I have many great good places that all elicit some degree of an emotional reaction, whether they remind me of a positive event that occurred there or, like Ditta Artigianale, acts as a comfortable home away from home. It’s important to acknowledge these places in our lives because it allows us to be more connected with our communities, which is crucial in a big city like New York.
As usual, I’m always open to discovering more great good places that may potentially provide me with a refreshing perspective on the world around me, so it’s a good thing we still have two months to look for them!
I was nearly tackled to the ground by my host mom because the temperature fell below 60 degrees Fahrenheit and I was only wearing a t-shirt and shorts to the dinner table. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? GO GET A SWEATER AND A SCARF AND A HAT!” she aggressively suggested. I tried explaining to her that in the United States, especially in my hometown in Northern California, people tend to underdress for the changing weather because it really doesn’t get that cold. Even after spending my second year in the winter in New York, being in the “arctic” temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit was not, frankly, all that cold. Reluctantly, I went to grab a sweatshirt because I didn’t want to distract her from her dinner.
Walking down the streets on the first day it truly felt like fall, you could quickly spot who was Italian, and who was American. The American students and tourists could be seen wearing light layers, maybe a light jacket. The Italians, however, seem to all have brought out their ski jackets and wool scarves, and they WILL judge you if you are wearing anything less than that. And that’s the thing about living in Florence – the Italians are particularly good at spotting and acknowledging those who stray away from the normal style whether it be the way foreigners dress or their dining habits. My Italian teacher spent an entire session explaining the many dining customs in Italy such as how frowned upon it is to order a cappuccino past eleven in the morning or how eating alone is a sign of loneliness and sadness. I remember a student asking her, “But what if you just don’t have anyone to eat with at that moment?” to which she sincerely responded with “why don’t you have someone to eat with? Are you sad?”
I believe that coming to a foreign country should be somewhat of a culture shock, at least at first. As travelers, you simply don’t know what you don’t know, but eventually you begin to grow into the culture. That is, if you allow yourself to. The progression into the foreign culture is shaped by the style of your environment – how people interact with one another, what you see and hear and smell when you stroll down the street, how the city’s organization affects how people behave in public spaces. For example in New York, specifically Washington Square Park, the open space invites people of all different backgrounds to treat the public space as their own. On a nice day, there are people tanning, playing games, meeting their friends for a quick picnic, or trying to sneakily have sex with their loved one under a blanket in the shade of a tree. Open spaces welcome relaxed and diverse behavior. Here in Florence, however, the Renaissance buildings are narrowly shoved together and you can barely have conversations with your friends because you walk in a straight line on the sidewalk to avoid getting hit by Italian drivers. It makes sense that the people here are quick to point out the outsiders – and it’s not like all American students are doing much to mediate that relationship. At night, you can hear drunk students running around the streets screaming and disrupting the otherwise serene Florentine evening. I hope this post doesn’t make me seem like I’m resentful of the American stereotype abroad – I just feel as though it is an extremely American attitude to bring our culture to another country without first trying to assimilate. After all, it’s just a semester and we can all go back to drinking cappuccinos at three in the afternoon soon!
Studying abroad has not only exposed me to a completely different country, but also to the foreign concept of going to school on an enclosed campus. Here in Florence, the chance of sitting and enjoying a coffee alone is slim because the Villa Ulivi café is a central meeting spot for students – even when I arrive alone, I will soon be swarmed with social classmates and friends. And this seems like a silly and superficial thing to be taken aback by, because I really do appreciate the enthusiasm and warmth. But when you’re placed in an environment in which everyone around you is trying to travel as much as they can, it is hard to escape the latent competition of “who is traveling the best,” which is a competition driven by means of social media.
One day, I sat in the café and I overheard a conversation between friends regarding travel. “Yeah and I mean, all we want is to just go to the top of the mountain, take a picture to post on Insta, and go out to drink,” he said. Perhaps modern tourism is much more focused on the extrinsic motivation of generating envious peers, rather than actually seeking out new and foreign experiences. The goal to get a picture just to post online and then continue on with familiar activities such as frequenting an American bar is a fairly disappointingly common way of travel for many people these days. But perhaps it’s just all about perspective and respective priorities.
Not only has social media changed the ways in which we seek destinations, it has also changed which destinations are more heavily marketed. An infographic from a Hospitality, Travel, and Tourism blog explains how local businesses and tour groups have to change their marketing strategies to keep up with the immense power of recognition on social media. In order to be successful and attract business, these businesses have to be accessible via Internet, meaning the importance of mobile sites, contact information, and proof of quality through consumer-contributed photos. It seems as though travelers are solely dependent on what others have to say, out of fear of wasting time. This may be a reflection on the prominence we Americans place on efficiency – we don’t like to waste time and we seek the help of others to maximize our productivity, even while traveling on vacation.
In the United States, I read through tens and hundreds of reviews of nearby restaurants, just to make sure that I won’t be disappointed after deciding to spend money on a meal out. But in Italy I tend to not trust Yelp as much maybe because in my mind, I don’t trust the people who write Yelp reviews here. It seems that the majority of Yelp reviewers are Americans, and I would rather collect recommendations from locals who are familiar with the town and do their best to avoid tourist. My personal favorite way to travel is to just stay with a friend who lives in the area. I want to be able to strike up conversation with the local baker, instead of running around to take pictures of monuments that Instagram has already seen millions of times.
All that being said, how you go about traveling is ultimately up to you, because it’s supposed to directly bring you perspective and experience. Social media has undoubtedly changed how everyone views travel, either from the consumer point of view or that of the industry workers. It all falls downs to how our individual personalities best mix with travel strategies, and finding the paths that satisfy our rising expectations.
And you thought that even though this post is focused on a selection of books, I wouldn’t get a chance to bore you with my passion for Italian cuisine.
Tuscany in Mind, an anthology assembled by Alice Powers, explores Northern Italy through the lens of American and English travelers. The collection covers topics from art history to urban organizational psychology, but I chose to focus in on two of the texts that discuss Tuscan food culture and customs.
Elizabeth Romer’s excerpt from The Tuscan Year describes the humble extravagance of a typical Italian wedding between an Umbrian girl and her Tuscan fiancé. Italians have quite a bit of pride for their respective regions – every region’s citizens are thought to have their own stereotypically significant cuisine as well as personality. Romer describes how “The Tuscans chide the Umbrians for being too hedonistic, drinking too much wine and not taking life seriously enough, and they distrust the richer Umbrian cooking. The Umbrians, on the other hand, maintain that the Tuscans hav “e no sense of humour, are too severe and prone to keeping their money well tucked away under the mattress; they deride the plainness of Tuscan cooking” (271). By immediately recognizing the relationship between a region’s cuisine and their perceived personality, it is clear how heavily the Italians rely on food as a tool for expressing their cultural identity. These ideals can even be seen throughout Florence and other parts of Italy, where “foreign” cuisine in Tuscany can also describe the cuisine from another region in Italy. The country’s humility is also seen through its cuisine because of its reliance on slow and whole ingredients; here in Italy, all of the produce has been grown locally and yet nobody jacks up its prices or boasts their quality as a way of making profits. High quality foods are simply expected and the rudimentary key to honest Italian cuisine.
Romer then narrates the procession of the typical Italian wedding meal: five hours long in duration and eleven courses. For us Americans, it is difficult to imagine sitting at the dining table for five hours, working on the same meal. But for the Italians, even if five hours is a little extreme, long celebratory meals are rather common. Once, I sat at a lunch table and struck up a conversation with a local Italian, who was describing her wedding with her Venezuelan husband. Their wedding was in typical Italian fashion, set for ten courses, but after the first course, the Venezuelan family members all left to hit the dance floor because they thought that the meal had ended. These nuances perfectly characterize each respective culture’s relationship with food, and gave me the ability to use a culture’s eating habits as a way to describe its characteristics. For example, some argue that Americans do not have a national cuisine, but rather a national way of eating: one that prioritizes convenience. Food on-the-go is such a common concept in American, especially New York, as New Yorkers run down the streets of Manhattan with bagels and deli wraps in their hands.
The building blocks of a culture’s cuisine often spring from necessity – using what was available for sustenance. In Kinta Beevor’s A Tuscan Childhood, she discusses how the Tuscan cuisine has developed over time from early kitchens that used highly accessible ingredients. Beevor’s excerpt begins with, “In those days, just after the First World War, the kitchen was the best place in which to get to know the region” (3). The entire except discusses how much the Italians rely on food as a way of expression, and how food has crept its way into all parts of life – medicine, social life, economics, religion. It is simply impossible to discuss Italian culture and history without mentioning the impact of food, and I believe that Americans are now making more of an effort to pay closer attention to the production of wholesome foods.
When trying to figure out how to entertain my sister and brother-in-law who are visiting next month, I suggested the normal tourist destinations: the Duomo, Mercato Centrale, Piazzale Michelangelo, Pisa, and Venice. My brother-in-law quickly replies, “I don’t care if Venice sinks or Pisa falls or the Coliseum crumbles. They’re just manmade things that I can see in a high res print. What’s harder for me to experience vicariously is the feeling of discovering something new, the flavor of local pigs, signing to a local because I can’t speak Italian. Take West Village vs. Empire State Building. Like, no single photo really makes WV stand out. But the feeling of walking up Bleecker St. with a coffee in hand when the sun is out and the trees shading is one that can only be experience in person.” Well that just made planning a little trickier.
I tried to analyze what are the things in my everyday life that seem routine by now, but to an outsider looking for a truly Italian experience would seem fascinating. I suppose my brother-in-law could hang up my laundry to air dry with me, or walk to a market using only ambiguous and convoluted verbal directions, or wander around after lunch while all the stores are still closed.
While in Florence, I find myself falling into a routine that allows me a little too much time to relax – something I’m not accustomed to when running around in New York. This is the first period of time since my freshman year of high school that I have not been actively employed. In the “mornings,” I lazily get out of bed an hour before my class at noon starts. I begin the usual routine of brushing my teeth, brushing my hair, applying mosquito repellent (seriously, aren’t they supposed to be dead by now?), making my coffee with the stovetop Bialetti MokaExpress, and beginning my hike up Via Trieste and Via Bolognese to campus. My weekends are packed with exploration; when not traveling abroad to other countries, I enjoy becoming well-versed with Florence and walking around the tightly knit streets. Every day, I am out until I return promptly by 8:30 pm for dinner. The hardest part about dining is that there are so many rules and traditions that I’m not even sure if I’m doing things correctly. Who is supposed to sit where? Does everyone have a role at the dinner table? My host mom always sits closest to the kitchen for easy accessibility, as she is the one who brings out each course and takes our plates when we are finished. Even when my roommate and I try to help her, she always says “Non ti occupare. It’s my job.” And we retreat back to our spots at the table.
I’m not sure how long it will take me to finally get used to living abroad here, to the point where everything feels like it has been repeatedly discovered and acknowledged. On my way to school, I always pass by and notice the same open windows. I always walk past this plant that looks like it’s sprouting green beans (and I tell myself each time to google what a green bean plant looks like, but always forget to). But there are still components to my daily walk that seem to be indefatigably changing: how many cars are on the road that day, the colors of the motorcycles parked on the side of the road, whether or not that dog barks at me. Although travel is popularly thought to be a whole string of brand new experiences, I still consider myself to be a traveler; it’s up to you whether you want to keep an open mind to discover new things amidst the pull of the daily mundane.
It’s a Tuesday and I begin on my normal stroll to my class in the center of Florence, about twenty-five minutes away. I walk through the graffiti-tattered tunnels and amidst the piazzas where all the locals gather to chat before succumbing to the demands of their daily plans. In the neighborhoods leading up to the center of Florence, sometimes I pass by an open window and the aroma of an already started soup or sauce is wafting by. I smell the familiar scent of a sofrito – a combination of celery, carrots, and onions – and look at my watch. Only ten o’clock in the morning, and some Italian nonne are already preparing for dinner. The care for the preservation of tradition is my favorite part of Florence. That, and the lack of Starbucks locations.
I have to keep reminding myself that Florence is not New York. On one hand, I’m very glad that New York has trained me to be an observant and focused traveler – noticing my surroundings while keeping my focus directed ahead. Here in Florence, you have to look out for a different sort of thing. All people should be kept at a distance, but here, you don’t have to worry about aggressively drunk homeless men jumping out at you (those of you in Union Square, beware of Stephan) or dodging the drops of air conditioner unit rain. You do, however, must be extremely aware that nobody is trying to distract you while his or her accomplice is reaching into your pockets for your belongings.
On the other hand, I feel like the speed in which living in New York requires cannot be applied to Florence. I find myself getting irritated at people who slowly stroll down the streets. Don’t they have anywhere to go? Anything to see? Yeah, probably not. They seem pretty content with just moseying along at their own pace, and I am trying my hardest to slow down and appreciate my immediate surroundings rather than get caught up with my next destination.
I hate to sound like that asshole who indefatigably speaks about how living in New York has prepared them for a vast number of situations, but I am extremely appreciative that the skills I have developed have helped me be more adaptable to new environments. Also there are drastic nuances in each city’s characteristics, being able to notice them and accept them are important parts of respecting the city culture.
The city center is filled with venders, tourists, and few locals. I’ve learned to avoid the Duomo like I avoid Times Square, and strive to venture out to the neighborhoods farthest from the center. Several days ago, I happened upon Mercato di Sant’ Ambrogio, an indoor and outdoor market that sells everything from fresh produce to bread (and I even found a little Asian foods stand!). The market closes at 2 pm, and just before closing, the vendors sell many of their goods at a discounted price. I’ve been told that locals usually frequent this market, and I accept it as a good chance to practice my Italian (basically writing and memorizing a script every time before speaking). I grab my bag of fresh fruit and vegetables and make my way back through the city.
At night, I walk home around eight o’clock, back through the graffiti tunnels and the piazzas in near silence. Other than the occasional ambulance siren that always tricks me into thinking that it is an instrument that I had never paid attention to in the song coming from my headphones, the only sound that can be heard is the clanking and clattering of plates and dishes; tables are being set in every home for their family dinners. I walk a little longer and I hear loud Italian yelling (I’m assuming from a common dinner table dispute) and can’t wait to make it back to a family dinner of my own.
There are certain English words that we take for granted in the United States: oatmeal, pun, and common slang such as “gonna” or “wanna” to name a few. Even though I am now only in my third semester of learning Italian, I can understand 75% of everything my host family says! Granted, they take their time to talk slowly to make sure that I have enough time to piece together the big picture. Every now and then, an unfamiliar word comes up and catches me off guard; thankfully, my host family is very understanding and observant of my confused look and pauses to explain. All throughout middle and high school, I took Spanish. Having a basic knowledge of a romance language has been both a blessing and a curse – it’s easier to pick up on listening and reading because many words and sentence structures are similar to those in Italian. However, the slight nuances between the languages often get in the way of speaking Italian. During my first few weeks of Elementary Italian I, I had a hard time switching from the Spanish phrase “Cómo estás” to the Italian phrase “Come stai?” I have concluded that I will just have to choose one language or another – learning both simultaneously is too much for my American brain to handle.
In the center of Florence, English can be heard everywhere. All the tourist shops, tours, signs, and workers speak English so they can attract English-speaking tourists to their businesses. However, as I exit the city center and go to my neighborhood, English is rarely heard (and that’s just twenty minutes away!). Before classes began, I went on a mission to acquire a folder. Apparently, it did not occur to me that studying abroad actually was an academic semester, which meant that I needed school supplies. I saw that the small shop across the street from where I lived sold notebooks and other stationery supplies, so I went to investigate.
And right when I stepped through the door, the entire chapter where we learned all the vocabulary pertaining to stationery and office supplies escaped me, and I was left with that one feeling you get when you get your slip of paper during a game of charades and you KNOW that you’re in trouble. Have you ever gotten the phrase “folder that doesn’t have rainbows or cats or dogs on it” during a game of charades? No? Because I wish I had, so I knew how to prepare myself for this unfamiliar situation. Eventually after sifting through ever single piece of paper-holding apparatus available, the store owner finally got to a plain colored folder. Dio mio.
Although my Italian is still fairly choppy, I am indefinitely thankful for universally understood gesticulations. Pretending to hold a pen and write in mid-air gets me the check after dinner. Pointing to certain pastries usually pushes along the ordering process. A humble nod of appreciation when an Italian driver rarely gives you, the pedestrian, the right of way. All of these things are ways to help the language and culture barrier.
I feel most comfortable in a kitchen or restaurant setting. Food is a language that exceeds any language barrier. When I am cooking with my host mother, I quickly take notes and am careful to ask her why she puts a certain herb in the dish, or where a dish came from. The way she swiftly moves around her familiar kitchen. Speaking the language of food is easy! Just show that you’re enjoying an Italian’s mom’s cooking and you will have no enemies.
I’m not going to lie – traveling to countries like Germany or Austria makes me a little nervous. What am I going to do outside of my romance language-comfort zone? I’ve always been able to get by, but if I’m searching for a truly local experience in my travels, English may not always be accessible. Going to have to find my way around that one, but in the mean time, I’ll just keep acting out every single thing I need to communicate.
Being lost in the physical sense is truly a difficult feat to accomplish. You always see girls posting on their superficial blogs or Pinterest boards that they strive to get lost in a city. I find it extremely hard to become truly lost in a city like New York, where all the streets are perfectly labeled for you; you know that even streets run east and odd avenues run south (with the exception of the West Village, that is. Why must we have triangle blocks?). In a city like Florence, once you locate the Duomo, everything else falls into place; the Duomo acts like the North Star of this little city. When meeting new friends, a popular discussion topic is where each other live. Most of the time, a suitable answer is just “Oh, I’m 10 minutes away from the Duomo!” or “Just a couple blocks south of the Duomo.” It seems as though the Duomo is main navigational landmark Florentines use.
Living in a homestay has really helped me sharpen my sense of direction. Streets are beginning to look more and more familiar, as I find myself instinctively knowing which ways to turn, and which direction was north. After staring at a map of Florence for so long, I believe the city’s physical organization has been etched into my mind, and I am thankful that I could quickly adapt to my new environment!
But one can be lost in more ways than not knowing which streets to turn. I hear all the time that my friends in New York City feel lost – and I don’t blame them! It’s very easy to realize that you are psychologically lost amongst the crowds of aggressively determined people. And perhaps it’s even easier to be psychologically lost than physically and geographically lost. I believe that the treatments for both kinds of disorientation are similar – one must find the Duomo in their life. They have to find something that always orients them to a familiar path. For me in New York, my personal landmark is having my sister and brother-in-law living so close to me. We lived one block away from one another last year, and it made all the difference in the world having a piece of home so close to me in a big city. I also looked to my a cappella group, the NYU Cleftomaniacs, for a sense of home and direction. Being a part of a group really helped me acclimate to the sometimes unfriendly NYU atmosphere, and I wish that I could express to the freshmen who transfer to another school that they should give NYU another chance! That said, the city definitely isn’t perfect for every personality, and it’s important to know where you are in relation to where you want to be.
The act of losing oneself requires more conscious decision-making than I originally thought. Once you develop an internal GPS, it is very difficult to ignore it. I find that my time here in Florence has been extremely directed – even when I am hopelessly roaming around the city, I do not feel lost because my purpose is to explore as many crevices, alleyways, and tunnels as I can. And that’s the true essence of traveling, right? I think we often put too much of a negative emphasis on being “lost” that we forget that we discover some of the best things when we aren’t searching for anything in particular.
As frustrating as it is to figure out the way an unfamiliar city works, the process of getting to know it is an experience in itself – learning how to ask for directions in a different language leaves you with a sense of accomplishment that is unparalleled to finding your way using the navigation system on your smartphone.
Traveling alone is the greatest opportunity I will ever have. Sure enough, we aren’t TRULY alone here in Florence, as we are guided and supported by NYU’s amazing staff and faculty. I was worried that perhaps traveling alone would get lonely at times, but I have discovered quite the contrary! It allows me to travel freely – I don’t have to wait for people to slowly take off their jackets at airport security, and I can explore off-road crevices and alleyways as I please. In a city like Florence, this is the best way to travel and thoroughly see.
Before my twenty-two hour journey from my home in a small suburban town in Northern California, all my anxieties revolved around the theme of logistics – will my bags arrive on time in Florence? Have I left myself enough time in between flights to navigate through a foreign airport to reach my next departing gate? Yes. Everything worked out surprisingly seamlessly. My first flight arrived in the Newark, New Jersey airport, from which I could clearly see the Manhattan skyline. I won’t say that the thought of leaving the airport and hopping on over to Greenwich Village didn’t cross my mind… From Newark, I flew eight hours to Geneva, Switzerland where I landed around seven in the morning. Walking into the main airport area was slightly less than a surreal experience due to the pristine and shiny stores that were open for business so early in the morning. I walked past boutiques selling high end perfumes, caviar, Rolex watches, and it all felt stiff and other worldly. Needless to say, I couldn’t be happier to finally make it to Florence where I was greeted by NYU staff.
Studying abroad in Italy was always the clear choice for me. I am studying Culinary Entrepreneurship in Gallatin (which basically is a lot of Stern business classes mixed with Food Studies in Steinhardt and Hospitality Management in SCPS) so I came well-prepared with my recipe notebook, ready to learn everything I could about the food culture from anyone who was willing to give me the light of day. I was so excited to meet my homestay family and cook with my host mom! I’m living with a family that consists of a father who is a CFO at an international wine distribution company, a mother who is a pathologist by day and excellent cook by night, and their daughter, who is a high school student. I love their culture of having the busiest schedules during the day, but always making it clear that having dinner together at 8:30 pm is a top priority. Every night, the mother comes back from work and starts cooking at 8 pm. I do my best to go up to the kitchen and watch her as she quickly chops up vegetables and boils a pot of salted water for pasta. Dinner with the family is easily my favorite part of the day because it provides me with a safe environment to practice my sparse Italian with locals, of course over a lavish three course meal (pasta first, vegetables/meat/fish second, and fruit for dessert). My host family owns a house in Cavallina (which is about half an hour away from Florence) and they grow their own vegetables there! We’ve been cooking vegetables from the last of the summer harvest and I can’t say that I’ve ever had better tasting produce.
In Pico Iyer’s “Why We Travel,” I really loved his discussion on the nuances between the “tourist” and the “traveler.” It seems as though all of a sudden, many young people are traveling all around the world in an attempt to “find themselves” or otherwise. Many of these first world travelers may flood their social media accounts with proof of traveling, but this documentation is far from an accurate representation of their realistic experience. Just within a week of being here, I’ve heard many people who complain about the cultural differences they’ve witnessed i.e. eating late dinners, air drying clothes, and more. I think it’s important to just keep in mind that every culture has a set of beliefs and values that may differ from that of your own culture, but all customs should be respected (especially when in their country!).
Overall, it’s been an amazing experience! I’ve been walking around 5-8 miles a day, exploring the small streets as thoroughly as I can. The only downside is really just the mosquitoes (26 bites and counting), but even that can’t interfere with me having the greatest time here in the beautiful city of Florence.