If I am writing this, that means it is over. My four months in Florence are reaching its end. My favorite pen that I have been using all semester has died. And I will be back in the United States and leave back the sense of nonchalance I acquired here.
I work with Global Liberal Studies freshmen who have been here since fall. They tell me how settled they have been here and are worried about the adjustment. I have only been here four months and have been to New York unlike them. Yet I feel the same way. I accustomed myself to certain routines, hangouts, people, and food. I do not know how long it will take to get back to my Empire State of Mind.
I learned about myself. For years, I dreamt of being in Paris, I did not apply there for study abroad because of a lack of courses relevant to my concentration. During spring break, I got the chance to go to Paris, my favorite city in the world regardless of the fact that I had never been. To this day, it is still my favorite city, and gives me a higher level of joy. I got around so easy and felt so comfortable. I spoke the language, It felt like New York City For that reason, I feel that Paris is a good city for me to live but not study. Every part of Florence is old. The architecture dates back to the 1300s. I love the lack of modernity which gave me access to art and history. Paris gave me subways and McDonald’s.
I learned to overlook some things but dig a little deeper into others. I am sorry to Leonardo Da Vinci because the Mona Lisa is small and slightly unworthy of the hype. Yet I became passionate about the content of the NYU Florence organization I work for, La Pietra Dialogues, LPD put on dialogues on immigration this semester and tapped into areas of the world I am very interested in learning about. Italy’s location makes it the overlapping of different cultures, social issues, and people from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. My colleagues interviewed African refugees, most from Senegal. I learned the meaning of “Made in Italy” and “Made in China.” I studied the dark side of fashion, learning about the saying in the industry,”You can tell the colors for next season by looking at the rivers in China.” referencing the use of dyes to make products for global distribution. I loved that I got to experience a global way of thinking here.
And I learned about my career. My Gallatin concentration is Journalism and Creative Direction. Through the Art of Travel, I was able to experiment with my writing through a personal style. I also got to reflect on my experiences in new ways of thinking through the weekly topics. I enjoyed learning about the other sites and made a list of places to see when I travel the world as a journalist.
So goodbye to spring semester, NYU Florence, junior year, and all of you. I think you are all amazing writers and maybe one day we will see each other in New York City. Ciao and safe flights home!
“Life is good, my friends. Nothing gets better than this.”
Those are the words of Franco, the waiter. Zack came to this restaurant with his parents once. But already, he and Franco seem like they have known each other forever. That Italian sense of instant camaraderie with strangers, I am going to miss that.
Zack, Lauren, and I just climbed the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio with our Renaissance history class. It is 11 a.m. on a Friday, but our stomachs growl. Running through the Florence streets filled with tour groups to get to Piazza Signoria by 9 a.m. will do that to you, Waking late and not having time for breakfast creates a bigger blunt.
Our professor dismissed the class once we returned to the bottom of Palazzo Vecchio. I promised myself that I would milkshake. I could not tell I was hungry yet. Perhap, my bladder screaming once I found out the tower had no bathroom at the top spoke louder. Serena was not hungry yet either. Yet somehow, we both agreed to accompany Zack and Lauren, thinking we would only get drink.
The four of us walked down Via Roma. The weather was beautiful and perfect in every way. Time felt nonexistent today. We reflected on our time here in Florence, how the semester passed so quickly, what we still had to do. Once we hit the Duomo, Serena parted though. To her, time came back, and it was way too early to eat lunch. Zack lead Lauren and me to the restaurant. Though at times, I questioned if he remembered where it stood.
Franco immediately recognizes Zack. They share inside jokes. The waiter points to an umbrella-covered table on the front patio. I sit and wait before asking for a restroom. Franco bring us complimentary white Prosecco. The wine tasted the best out of everything I have drank in Italy and in life. Lauren and I searched for the bathroom and left Zack guarding our belongings at the table. We passed a cute bartender and began a maze of restaurant decor, authentic architectural elements, and stairs to find the hidden restroom.
When we came back, bread decorated the table. Franco came to the table. Zack ordered risotto, Lauren and I asked for the penne salmone. We got red wine for the table.
My hand alternating between taking my glass of red, my glass of white, and a piece of fluffy bread. Franco floated around the table while our food was being prepared. In New York, it would be a slow day. In Florence, it is a chance to appreciate all that you have and all who you are with. Franco asks Zack about the Fiorentina game he went to. Then he tells us about his relative with a bar in Brooklyn called “AC Milan.” The bar serves pasta at 6 a.m. he says, the epitome of Italian, and plays football matches on huge flat screens. We promise to go when we come back to New York. We explain that we are planning to see a football match, hopefully with AC Milan playing.
Franco goes inside and brings out the penne salmone. Risotto takes longer, but Zack headed to the restroom could not take note of this. I cleaned my plate of the penne salmone and grabbed bread to swipe the extra sauce. The best dish I have ever eaten. I had no desire to take a picture of my dish for the memories. We sit forever with no sense of urgency. There are a million things I could be doing right now. But I will not budge. This is bliss.
We pay the bill and head back to my apartment to finalize football game plans. At my apartment, I concoct a random shot of juices and limoncello for my friends while the Wifi loads. In the course of an hour, we dumped our plans to see AC Milan in Turin. We had a flight to Spain and tickets to see Sevilla vs, Real Madrid, and ultimately the foundation towards my favorite experience while being abroad in Europe.
Here is my oddly specific guide to NYU Florence and living abroad:
It was February and the weather was quite indecisive. I dressed for New York City weather. Spring weather greeted me. I was hot. The next day I dressed for early fall weather with only a sweatshirt. It snowed. I got a cold the next day. April and May weather is more intense, smoldering hot. Pack a winter coat, bring cold medicine from wherever you are from, buy a spring jacket, and bring leggings for in between.
The rain sometimes goes on and off on days where the sky does not feel like being beautiful. The mosquitoes will come. Pack bug spray. They really only come randomly one day, usually when it has rained the day before.
The coffee machine was invented in Italy, Unfortunately, the size you get at Starbucks was not. Drinking coffee is more of a slow and casual past time spent at the counter of a pasteria. In the center of the city, there is restaurant in to the left of the baptistry. Doni, as I have mentioned in an earlier post, works there. Order regular coffee or iced coffee to-go or two to three euros and it is the closest size you will ever find to the United States. Get two, one for now and the to store in your fridge for a late night. On campus, Fernando works at the cafe and makes some killer cappuccino on a student’s budget for before class as well. And there are plenty of gelaterias for a study break every once and awhile.
While the sense of traditionalism in Italy is amazing, you might experience shorter library hours and in-and-out wifi because if it. But what differs most of Florence than any other site is that the buildings look the same as they did when Dante and the Medicis (you will learn how to correctly pronounce when here) did. Everytime you walk out your door is a learning experience, new paper topic, and a fascination you never thought.
That being said, live in the moment…of learning. While there are so many opportunities to be artsy with photographs or funny, having only one clear picture of a Renaissance portrait for your paper harms your grade if it has the Snapchat caption of a Jay-Z lyric on it. Been there!
You are student and probably cannot afford to eat out every night. What I have learned is that you can learn a lot about a new place by what they sell at grocery stores. In Italy, food is a very prominent part of the culture, and before here I did not know how to cook. I went out the first few weeks and then emulated what I ate at restaurants. That is how I learned how to cook. Also do not underestimate the quality of les-expensive but fresh pane ciccolatta from grocery store bakeries.
Also, as you walk through the streets of any city, remember every aspect of life has an economical, cultural, and social reason for existing. A man eagerly selling self sticks might be a Senegalese refugee and have that as his only means of income. The shoes you buy may tie back to illegal Chinese immigrants working long hours in Prato.
In addition, what to see in Italy and several places in Europe are churche so dress accordingly. I forgot that I was going to the Vatican when I visited Rome. The weather was so hot. I wore booty-short overalls with a cami to Saint Peter’s Basilica. Of course, I had to make a skirt out of my cami and pull it over my legs while I borrowed a friend’s jacket to cover my arms.
Lastly, the most important lesson I have learned is not to worry about being too cliche but to find my own experiences as well. There is a reason everyone goes to Santorini or the French Riviera and not a cute and adorable small village in Italy. The transportation is more reliable. My roommates and I had plans to go to Verona or the hometown of Saint Valentine. Doing so would have stranded us at either location past the weekend. And when you do go somewhere: do not be afraid of traveling alone, ignoring suggestions from someone else’s past on what to see there, and trying to conquer Milan or any other city with less time than you think you are capable of. But if you are sitting in a Seville stadium with a Real Madrid jersey on during a Sevilla vs. Real Madrid game, please bring friends to ease your comfort. Trust!
It is 1:41 a.m. I have class at 9:00 a.m. I cannot sleep. My eyes cannot close, but my whole body trapped under my sheets and cover make them feel shut. I am too warm under here. It is suffocating. Only when I am in desperate need of oxygen, I let my head out of the covers and squeeze it under my pillow. No skin shall be exposed. Everywhere is burning. No skin shall be exposed. I cringe itching.
Florentine nights are beautiful. A musician plays a sweet-sounding melody. The clear sky blankets over the rust-colored shackles on the rooftops of Medieval and Renaissance buildings. Couples cross the cobblestoned streets, hands intertwined. Nights here a romantic atmosphere. You want to open my window every night to let the fresh air in and bask in it all. Don’t! At night and sometimes midday, mosquitoes creep into your bedroom and lurk while you sleep. No inch on your body is worthless to them. And they will stay until they have hit them all.
This one guy loves flying around my head. Though he has already marked my face with red lumps, he still find it beautiful enough to come back for more. I turn to the side. He finds a new love eye. Ah, that Italian amore!
It burns. Morning face-washes sting the bumps. They hurt worse. I switched my shower schedule before my Frosted Flakes consumption. My citrus face-wash and lavender body wash might attract more mosquitoes in my sleep. My bed is gross – soaked by a sweaty body from a long day, waiting until 7:35 a.m. for a shower.
I sit in class scratching my face. The professor lectures. My fingers go up and down my chin like I am thinking. I’m not! Well, I am. – just not about what I should be thinking of. I cannot scratch my forehead. My professor will think I have an answer to a question I did not pay attention to because I was scratching.
I refuse to take selfies. My outfit is on point today, and the weather is beautiful. My face is red. If I looked at myself in any picture, I am afraid it will turn redder. My phone fills with pictures during my travels of places without me interrupting the scenery.
Honey waits back home on my nightstand. My roommate poured it out onto a saucer. She heard that the honey will attract the mosquitoes. So far, dust collects in the amber goo with the hair one finds in a female bedroom. But at this point, the white glass plate holds all my faith.
I come back one day to find the saucer missing from the nightstand. My roommate gives up on its power. The weapons come out – sneakers, cups, and paper towels. We go to sleep. My eyes draw close. I hear it! I hear the buzzing by my ear! I shout! My roommate wakes up. I flick the lights. My eyes target it. A white Converse sneaker thrashes against the wall. The war begins. Every night, a different weapon reigns supreme until no weapon is needed anymore.
Our friends the mosquitoes disappear for awhile. They come back after a period of rain, ready to unleash mischief all over again.
It is 6:13 p.m.. I have not started my homework. I have not gotten out of bed since I got in. It is easier to itch lying down.
“Being Italian is a full-time job. We never forget who we are and we have fun confusing anyone who is looking on,” the lines that open Beppe Severgnini’s La Bella Figura: An Insider’s Guide to the Italian Mind. In the book, Severgnini is the foreigner’s spy, traveling throughout Italy like a tourist but decoding modern Italian culture as a Crema-born columnist. I found myself in similar situations while wondering around the peninsula. The times I did not, though, I questioned whether I really understood Italian culture as much as I thought I did.
It was Italian Immersion Day – a fancy name for the big class trip for Italian class worth five percent of your grade. My class met at 8:45 a.m. sharp at Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence and boarded a coach bus. My Italian professor brought us on a tour of the Chianti hills in the Tuscany countryside with stops in Greve and Siena. The road through the hills left me nauseous sitting up front by the bus driver, but the images my Canon captured were anything but sickening. I saw gorgeous lines of grape vines running on forever in between villas I imagine the Brad Pitt taped to my fridge would own. The sun touched the hanging branches of olive trees. I saw heaven, but according to Severgnini, my tourist ways had me mistaken.
Severgnini spends his fifth day in Tuscany and logs it in the section entitled, “Tuesday.” He describes the region, “It risks being perceived as a sort of Nativity scene, with statuettes of picturesque little Tuscany, busy doing this and that, and visitors, like the three kings, bringing of gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” My friends always come back from the country with their tales of wine tastings and platter of cheese, vegetables, and breads on large estates. Being there, I was surrounded by the thoughts of such. The store fronts in a homey Greve piazza enticed me with the fresh meats and olive oil from the area. The cookies cooling the window of a shop in Siena drew me in. I falling pawn to seduction with no doubts about the source. Yet coming back to Severgnini’s words, my bubble feels popped.
He says that everyone gets duped by the facade of the Tuscany. I want to argue against him. But what are my views having been to the countryside this one time? For me, this one occasion was fabulous. Maybe for Italians, Tuscany is like the avoidable Times Square for me. I thought nothing of this while eating Stracciatella gelato along the Piazza Del Campo in Siena.
But being as clairvoyant for tourists as Severgnini is, he already knew I would be sitting at the piazza even before I came to Italy. I saw a white marble fountain, red brick spreading across the entire piazza ground, kids playing with toy guns that realistically produced smoke and a sound when they popped off, an elder woman accidentally walking into a schoolboy with a gelato cone, and my Stracciatella melting down my bag. Severgnini saw “emptiness” in a “shell-like shape [that] makes it Italy’s slightly irregularly belly button.”
He continues by a piazza is a “daily dose of social antidepressant” where one can examine the progression towards modernity in Italian life. While Piazza Del Campo hardly strikes me as abundantly modern, I think back to waiting for smoothies in Piazza Santa Maria Novella back in Florence. It is one of the places I find scarce of tourists and quiet like a hidden gem in the city. There are the typical venues in Florence there and the facade of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. Cyclists ride gently around and through the oval. People and dogs chill on the steps of the basilica. So many generations clashing without being in the same family.
An organic bar with sandwiches, juices, and smoothies is towards the left. I think of how those are all over the place in New York City. This is Italy merging with modernity. I have mixed feelings imagining such a place of serenity becoming like Times Square.
Severgnini scares me into thinking the Italy I am experiencing is unreal in a bad way. He titles his book after the phrase, “fare bella figura…it means ‘to make a good figure’ – which is not quite the same thing as making ‘a good impression.'” He criticizes what I found to enjoy about Italy. But in the same way that his biography on the back cover of the book calls him “a self-confessed Anglophile” who made his home in London for 15 years and me wanting to get out of Manhattan, maybe it takes a foreign eye to love a place and a familiar one to see its flaws.
I was confused as I tried to decode the London bus map. All I wanted was to visit Arsenal soccer stadium. The stops on the map did not match the ones Google Maps provided. I saw a girl with orangey-blonde hair and huge, red earphones and crossed legs sitting on the thin red bus bench with no cares in the world. I frantically interuppted her music. It was frustrating. I repeated my question too many times to count. “Is this the right side for so-and-so stop or it the other side of the road?” I slowed down my speech. I annunciated. London was my first and only place of visit where English was the official language and surprisingly where I had the biggest language barrier. I spoke her language, but my accent confused her.
I thought, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ME? YOU’RE THE ONE WHO HAS THE FUNNY ACCENT!!!!” I decided to just check the other side’s bus stop. My hand followed the line on the map enough to realize that the direction I wanted to go in required me back on the original side. I crossed the street back through the dark, creepy underpass with murky puddles and an abandoned blue mattress. I passed her and stood towards the bus sign. She gave me such a look. I have never felt like such an alien.
What does an American accent sound like? I know it exists. When my Italian class met up with local Italian high schoolers for bilingual conversations, one girl said she loved the American accent and said we sounded so cool. Um, thank you? Though, I feel like the American accent is like the Boogeyman – I know it exists, and I curl up in bed at night worrying about it, but it has yet to reveal itself to me.
The whole world is middle school, and America is the late bloomer waiting for puberty. When will I know what my accents is, Mommy? Everybody else does already. Everybody like the Frenchman I asked for directions in Paris. I spoke to him in my regular, adorable, somewhat-Snooki-like New Jersey accent. Nada – I mean, de rien! I spoke to him again, this time in English with a French accent – my own experiement. It worked. He understood. As self-conscious as I was, hoping he did not think I was making fun of him, me speaking with his accent made my foreign words comprehensible.
Overconfident, I tried again in Nice, France. I failed. The actual inhabitants in Nice have their own local dialect which proved too tricky for me to imitate. A local couple asked if I spoke Dutch. I bet if I spoke Dutch in a Nice accent, I would have succeeded. I walked away in frustration. I was again the outsider with no way of fitting in – poo, puberty.
The United States consists of a range of dialects and accents, but outside of the Western world, we possess one similar accent. It marks us. I doubt in my four months abroad I will realize what it is. I was born around it, just as my fifty-something father who is the only one not having realized my grandmother’s heavy Haitian accent yet. So I continue my dramatic readings of Elle magazine horoscopes in various accents to my roommates, never hearing, “Nice American accent!” between, “Are you a Australian leprechaun?” and “Yes, she’s speaking normally again!”
Since coming to Italy, I have been talking in foods. The weather feels fresh like a noon baguette. The Wifi keeps disappearing like Nutella jars in my apartment. And words are flowing out of head like oozing chocolate from a pastry. Wine glasses of Chianti, endless plates of pasta, and the food above make me curl up in bed in a total state of euphoria, falling asleep to the sounds of accordion playing, chatter, and cheers coming from outside my closed-shuttered window. Perhaps these are the reasons why Italians have such a relaxed attitude, chill like mint gelato on a waffle cone.
The amount of times I have heard, “I’m a hot-headed Italian,” from my friends back in New Jersey goes on forever. But being in Italy, makes me question whether that phrase actually means something. Here in Florence, the inhabitants possess a calm demure. They walk with ease. Their speed on the narrow sidewalks captures my attention. As I aggressively move around them at a Manhattan velocity, I am jealous of their nonchalance.
The night sky is clear, and the only light on the side streets come from cafes and bakeries. I rush home to cook pasta for dinner, hungry from the lateness of the hour. By then, couples take their strolls through the streets. Every moment seems eternal. They stay in the moment. The couple in front of me and blocking my dash to my kitchen is in their mid-30s to early 40s. They dress in black and dark tones, in clothes that avoid hugging their silhouettes and instead drape down their sides like most Florentines. They go back and forth embracing and holding hands.Their feet glide as if on ice. The night is young. They have no need to rush. It is almost nine o’clock to me. To them, time does not exist.
Wood-framed restaurant windows revealing large families laughing and enjoying bowls of bread and passing pasta down the white-clothed table, lit candles squeezing between wine glasses, the silliness of young children . Waiters and owners joining the camaraderie. Family, life, food. Those are the words I would use to describe the Italian experience. Their late-night dinners remind me of spending Thanksgiving at my cousins’: the intimacy of the company, the comfort in a space not their own. The complete opposite of the late night of trashy TV, Chinese food, and cleaning of my email that I would be doing in New York City right now. Italians fill themselves up with these large meals and still have the energy to converse with the people around them. They wait so late to eat and still do not possess half the crankiness I have in Italian class before lunchtime.
And most intriguing of all, they spend these long nights and still get up in the morning to gracefully sip – not chug – their small coffees. I peek into the cafe under my apartment on my way to the bus stop. An Italian man holds a white mug by the wooden counter. He stands at marble counter tops overlooking metallic machines while listening to milk foaming for espresso. He is right leg crosses the left. He chats with Doni, the friendly barista whom my roommates see regularly for morning joe. Doni also helps set up Sim cards and gives you raincheck on your coffee bill in case you are short of cash that day. Neither are in his job description, but that is just his Italian goodwill kicking in. Italians are gelati – simple without the decoration of sprinkles, traditionally crafted, and utterly cool to the cone.
I used to fool around on Photoshop, trying different hairstyles, lipstick colors, and outfit out on my body. In the 2000s, I am considered bored or a cautious shopper. But 500 years ago, I would be making big bucks.
“The Original Photoshop,” my fashion professor describes the techniques used in Florentine portraits. Ever since those words came out her mouth, I see art here – paintings, sculptures, coats of arms, and architecture, alike of the Renaissance, Middle Ages, and Medieval Times – in a new light.
Italian art here is all about the ideal, the unreal, how you feel, and for the sake of continuing a literary device, what life would be like if you took the wheel. Art is meant as a message to another person of how awesome the subject is and a mirror for subject acknowledging that they are” the fairest of them all.”And each piece is the combination of technique and imagination leftover from childhood.
I will take “The David” by Michaelangelo as my first example. Michaelangelo was born in the late 1400s. Thus, I highly doubt he ever met David. My professors say most artists of the time did not work with their subjects in front of them or had their presence only for a short time while working, despite the length of time it took to complete a piece. Seeing as as the person, David, is from biblical times, Michaelangelo had full creative liberty. He take the tales of David’s strength to create muscles and the physical traits of the Florentine male body and hair. I wonder how close the statue is to the actual figure. Other figures such as the Madonna and actual Renaissance people face the same adaption to the typically ideal Florentine body in religious and decoratives paintings as well.. If a person was paying for the artist to create a piece for them, the customer had say over the appearance of the people in it – which allowed them to show favoritism or lack of to historical figures, family members including illegitimate children, and aquaintances,
In most cases I have seen, the not-so-quite-accurate portrayal of subjects in Italian art traces back to social status. I remember touring the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella and looking at the painted scenes covering its walls. The faces of of biblical figures in the scenes resemble affluent patrons who donated to the church, similar to their coat of arms appearing all over. These patrons are also inserted as background characters. In the scene where John the Baptist is born, a young woman from a wealthy Florentine family appears with a billowing stomach. She was not pregnant when the scene was painted.She is meant to look pregnant, but not portray that she is pregnant other than in the painting – virginal but fertile.. Families had young women shown with bellies to give off their fertility as ways of attracting other families for marriage alliances. Other bodily morphs for beauty include oil-painted nose jobs and elongated necks.
The details of the clothes on art subjects hail from even deeper into the artists’ imagination. Think of being Valentino being paid for sketching a ridiculously amazing dress without having to worry about production or functionality. How rich the blue is, being embellished with jewels and accessories, or having gold thread are add-ons made by the artists.
What I learned about Florentine art is that is formulated the same way hyperealistic media in today’s society is but with different beauty standards affected by the respected social hierarchies. Italian art here (I say “here” so often because each part of today’s Italy was not unified at the time and was, thus, very different) has so many pressures of its corporate society as several of the pieces were commissioned by affluent families. While I am amazed by the beauty and artistry of Florentine art, I remind myself that each subject is not Beyonce, and they did not wake up like this #Flawless?
Right now, I am trying to study for midterms. I am in Italy, but the struggle of having to study for midterms equates with when I lived in Union Square. I live by the Duomo here. Outside, anarchists protest and yell into megaphones in words I would know only if I could focus on my Italian notes at the moment. My roommates add to the cries, “A bride!” And I run to the window to see. She poses in a sparkly strapless gown with her groom, and the cameras of tourists break from the protests to surround the couple. There is no way these two could gotten married at the tourist attraction of a church in front of me. They were so close to what author Dean MacCannell called a “back region” – getting married in a small, authentic Italian church with zero tour guides holding flag-topped antennas, street vendors selling selfie sticks, and uninvited guests crowding around. But they came here in front of the Duomo for a taste of Italian life in their wedding photographs. No Italians are
I live in what can be referred to as the Times Square of Florence. The high-end stores are to the right, the overpriced food is all around, and the drunk guys making dog noises at night are right outside your window. I sleep in between the Galleria dell’Academia di Firenze and the Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce and Ponte Vecchio. All these landmarks are deeply rooted in Florentine history, yet where are the modern-day Florentines? I see more tourists.
I have always wondered what church at the Duomo is like. Catholicism has played a huge part in life here. English masses are on Saturdays. Italian masses are on Sundays. I question how many attendees on Sundays actually live here and are not just coming for the experience. I thought about going on Ash Wednesday. I am Catholic, and usually get ashes year. Last time. I got ashes from some random minister near the Union Square subway on my way to class. But this year, I wanted to sit in the pews and wait for my ashes at the Duomo because I figured its what most people in Florence do.
As foreigners,we desire to see the back regions. But the places we actually go to rarely can be categorized at such. It feels like we desire to be ourselves in a foreign land rather than citizens of homely space. We want to the up close view with as much distance as possible.
Traveling around Italy, I made it a priority to be less touristy. I spent a weekend in Venice, living in the residential area – far from the Grand Canale. Finding restaurants became a hunt for gold, scarce but rewarding. Late nights are outdoor bars with eight people, older and under an awning with beers. In Palermo with friends, we waited until eight for real restaurants hidden in the nooks of alleys to open for dinner after being closed since two. And in one of those alleys, bars lined the sides, seemingly without walls so that young Sicilians could mingle with beers in the middle of the street without infrastructural boundaries. And we joined them. Being among the crowd was our education, was our museum.
I try to see Florence in a new light. Across the Arno, there are fewer popularized attractions. It is quiet. People go about their business. I come across less street vendors shoving things in my face. I see no tours scheduled to be in this area. This is where the Florentines live, and this is where I want to explore.
When I first came to Italy, I read no guidebooks. I knew nothing of the culture and planned on “winging it.” I knew more about London, the study abroad site I denied and instead chose Florence. The irony is that I am reading A Room With a View by E.M. Forster, a book about English women visiting Florence. Unlike me, the main character Lucy Honeychurch tries to adhere to her guidebook, Baedeker’s Handbook to Northern Italy.
Besides the use of lire, the way Lucy and her uppity cousin/traveling companion Charlotte Bartlett initially see Florence and Italians is far from what I am experiencing. The reason for their skewed views is that they remain living like the English do – staying in rooms decorated as Charlotte describes like London, scoffing at Italians, mocking their religion and its differences to Protestantism, and socializing primarily with other English people in the city. I have learned that the only way to fully understand life here Florence is to immerse oneself into the local culture, and when the author’s narration exemplifies this same method of succeeding as a foreigner in Italy, author Forster and the other characters in the book become the foils to the two women.
One of the first lessons I learned in Florence was wayfinding, when one develops a relationship to the new space they are in. Travel writers like Kevin Lynch and Rebecca Solnit talk about getting lost in a new place. Yet, Lucy and Charlotte want to observe from a distance rather than see Florentine space up close. The first chapter opens with the two complaining about their inability to see the Arno River from their room, as if viewing it from a distance is similar to being next to the Arno (4). In the same chapter, Lucy is peeved with fellow English traveler Miss Lavish’s “Florence by heart” gets the two lost. Lucy wants directions when Lavish says, “Two lone females in an unknown town. Now this is what I call an adventure,” which is the perfect opportunity for her to really explore(20). Forster’s narration of Piazza Signoria follows Lynch and Solnit’s advice for travelers with imagery and reflection that only one present in the space would think of, “The Piazza Signoria is too stony to be brilliant, It has no grass, no flowers, no frescoes, no glittering walls of marble or comforting patches of ruddy brick…the statues…Perseus and Judith, Hercules and Thusnelda…immortality has come to them after experience, not before (66). That passage is followed by Lucy saying, “I’m sick of Florence,” as she is immune to her surroundings (66).
Learning and practicing Italian like a local helped me assimilate into Florence. But Lucy comes to Italy with a wall up against any non-English person, “one of the ill-bred people whom one does meet abroad” (4). She meets Mr. Eager who encourages her to become more open to the Italian experience, “We residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little – handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome…quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their anxiety to get ‘done’ or ‘through’ and go on somewhere else” (69). It is not until Lucy incorporates her life into Florentine life – casual things like playing the piano and falling in love unexpectedly with George Emerson – and forms one quotidian life does she truly let go and see Italy beyond her Baedeker.