Florence, an old lady, and me.

In 2. Getting oriented, Florence, The Art of Travel Spring 2018 by Andrew Cohen2 Comments

Italian is not my first language. Or my second. Though I grew up around Italians, none of them seemed key on learning the mother-tongue beyond the required curse words that “every good and bad Italian should know”. I took Italian 1 in New York in hopes of gaining some grasp on the language in hopes of being better acquainted with the language before being thrust into the country. To my horror (or I suppose, honest expectation), that bit of Italian hasn’t been much help. Anyone I try to interact with in Italian will either switch immediately to English, or after a few sentences of back and forth, just try and get to the point to get me away from them whenever possible. Up until this morning, I was confident that I would be forever seen as just the tourist in town.

When I was getting ready to take the infamous 25 bus (students of Florence know and I pray everyone else never will), I had no clue where the stop was. My currently living situation is a few blocks from the nearest stop for the 25, but close to other buses, so asking for “la fermata di 25” usually gets some puzzled and confused looks out of people, either because they’re tourists and have no clue what I’m talking about, or because they’re locals who don’t know where that stop would be. After wandering around for a good 35 minutes, I found myself completely lost. When Lynch writes that “indeed, Florence is a uniquely visible city”, he must have been standing in a completely separate place from me (Lynch 94). I couldn’t find anything recognizable, not the dome of the Duomo, not he location of the church bells I could hear, nothing. I was on a random street in a city where everyone that I spoke to either couldn’t understand me, or didn’t want to take the time to have a conversation with a mediocre speaker of their language.

Thankfully, by what I can only describe as the grace of God, an older woman stopped and asked me, “scusi signore, dove’ I 24”. I hesitated. Did I have the heart to tell her that I don’t speak Italian? If I said I didn’t know, would she fume and walk away? For whatever reason, I responded to her “non lo so (I don’t know), tu sei dove la fermata per i 25?”. She smiled, and then slowly but surely gave me directions to the piazza san marco (a place I now walk to confidently each morning). She asked if I was learning Italian, and I said I was in my second year, and then in English said that it was her second year of learning English at one of the local universities. She said that none of her friends that age knew the language and that she wanted to be able to show off when people came into her shop. It was a rare human moment that I will treasure for a long time.

Though it can be easy to figure Florence out if you stay within the ancient Roman core, once outside, it’s easy to forget where you’re going, and how to get back to where you can from. Those few moments I’ve had of truly being lost since coming here will probably be my most memorable (and honestly, most frequent as I find myself wandering increasingly off the beaten path). Just remember, if an old woman ever approaches you asking for directions to the new bus she has to take, never be afraid to try and communicate with her…although now that I say that, it feels specific. I suppose it’s best to just not be afraid and to embrace whatever confusion that a new space throws at you.

(Image: Campus after an afternoon shower.; Source: Andrew Michael Cohen)


  1. Andrew, the story of your communication with this old woman is such a beautiful anecdote. I am imagining these two individuals, at completely different stages in their respective lives yet attempting the same difficult feat of learning a new language. To me this interaction resembles an image of two juxtaposing parts meeting in the middle and thus finding their way to a space in-between. In many ways this connects to being physically lost, as you were both able to find some belonging within one another by finding a piece of yourself in the other. Maybe I am delving too deep into the imagery of this meeting, but I think it is because to me, it is the epitome of what people look for in connection when everything that surrounds them is foreign. In some respect I believe that individuals who place themselves in foreign environments like students who study abroad, are looking for connection to something new, and are looking for similarity and sameness in places of difference and peculiarity. I am curious to see how this theory progresses over my time abroad, but I would say that this anecdote—and the way that this interaction has stayed with you—is a pretty good indicator of the impact sameness in moments of difference can have.

  2. Andrew Michael Cohen!! First of all- long time no see, miss you dude; second of all, I want you and this woman to become language buddies/best friends/bus buddies. I love the humor in your writing and how friendly the tone is in this entry. I’ve never been to Italy but it was easy to imagine the bells, the Duomo, and that infamous bus. The Parisians I’ve met sound nearly identical to the locals on your commute- a little confused, a bit miffed, and ultimately helpful. The language barrier is impossible to scale alone, but when both parties put in a little leg work, everyone can make it over. Can’t wait to hear more about Florence!

Leave a Comment