In the Getting Oriented chapter of Becoming World Wise, Richard Slimach writes, “Physically “being there” is just the first step. Our actual entrance into the community requires that we venture out to observe every day life, interact with strangers, and slowly absorb an alternative reality,” (Slimbach 184). Today marks 3 weeks that I have been living in Florence, Italy; however, I am not truly living here just yet. In order to become a part of my new environment I have been venturing out into the city to better accustom myself with Italian life. Like Slimbach suggests, walking through Florence has been a tremendous ‘teacher’ to me. I am already familiar with my surroundings and can navigate the majority of the city without using a map. The Duomo, Florence’s main cathedral, is one of Italy’s major churches and a focus point in the city. I use this area to help me navigate to other areas off the beaten and path. Another helpful landmark to assist in navigation around the city is the river Arno and the Ponte Vecchio. The river crosses Florence and the Ponte Vecchio, literally translated to mean ‘old bridge’, crosses the Arno and is a popular tourist destination. My apartment is settled on a small side street closer to the Arno so most days I walk along the river on my way to class. On any given day it is a beautiful view, but in the late afternoon the area is crowded with tourists. I’ve learned through my travels not to eat or buy anything in these main areas. The prices are sky rocketed for tourists. I got a small cone of gelato near the Duomo for 5 euro compared to a large cone of gelato near my apartment for 1,80 euro.
Asides from walking, I also learned the ins and outs of Florence through running. Upon my arrival to the city I was unsure if this was an accepted practice so I kept my running shoes packed away until this recent week. From walking to class everyday I noticed in the mornings the path along the Arno was packed with Italian runners dressed from head to toe in running gear. One Sunday morning I was feeling ambitious so I laced up my sneakers and joined the pack. It was truly a worthy experience as I got to see Florence from an entirely new perspective. Locals didn’t stare or gawk at me running, but the tourists did as I ran around them. From watching the locals the past couple of weeks, I knew that it was okay to run around the large tourist groups because they did that to me. The locals don’t stop life for anyone – especially not tourists or students. Bikers, motorists, and drivers will run you over in the street. It’s like laws are optional here. I was standing just beyond the curb outside of a restaurant one evening talking with friends when I turned and a motorist had the front tire of his Vespa at my shin. I looked at him confused as to why he was so close to me but then I looked around and noticed I was positioned in a traffic lane. The irregular traffic laws and lack of curbs have nearly gotten me hit a dozen times already.
Although it’s taken me a while to become familiar with walking the streets of Florence, I have learned some basic life skills in Italy. Using the Euro has been a huge adjustment for me, but I picked it up quickly. Restaurants, shops, bars and the like don’t like breaking large bills. When I go to the ATM, I try to get denominations of 20 euros rather than 50 in order to avoid this. The smallest euro denomination is 5 and anything less than that is given in coins. I get the 2 and 1 euro coins easily mixed up for quarters since they’re similar in size, but now that I know the value I have gotten a small coin purse and carry it around with me. For the most part, things here are cheap. On my way to class I can get a croissant for 1 euro and a ‘caffé con latte’ for 2. Locals normally sit down and enjoy their morning cappuccinos and pastry, however a lot of bars (another name for cafes here) can give you things for ‘take away’. There are even some osterias (taverns/casual restaurants) that will give you cheaper prices for take away items like pizzas or pasta. I also learned that if I am hungry or need to get shopping done it needs to be before 1pm (13:00) or after 3pm (15:00). Many places close for lunch during this time period. Military time is also used frequently so I’ve been forced to learn how to read it.
One big lesson I’ve learned in Florence is also proper etiquette. When entering shops oftentimes I am greeted by a ‘buongiorno’ in the morning or ‘buonasera’ in the afternoon/evening. My Italian teacher taught us to reply with the same rather than ‘ciao’ as it is an informal greeting typically between friends. Tipping is not required or expected in Italy. After dinner one night, our waiter explained to me and some friends that “Italians don’t tip. Americans tip because they’re dumb”. It was funny, but also so true. Not tipping or being taxed is something I can easily get used to. Sometimes certain restaurants have a sitting fee, usually 1 to 2 euro, which can be the equivalent to a tip – and some restaurants require you to buy something in order to sit as well. Splitting checks is not common either so it is always best to carry cash. No matter what the purchase is as well you will always get a receipt in Italy. For the most part, business owners and workers all speak some level of English, but they are much more appreciative if you attempt their language first.
The little customs and quirks of the city I’ve discovered through my walks make me much more appreciative of my new lifestyle. In my travelogue, Italy, A Love Story, twenty-eight women describe Italy and why they fell in love with it. Each story tells tales of different cities, but not about the expected, always about the little quirks and unanticipated experiences within the city. The encounters each woman writes about are out of the ordinary tourist experience and are more culturally focused and personal. For instance, one of my favorite accounts titled, “A Hunger for Monica’s Mascarpone,” describes a woman’s visit to Venice and how her friend Monica brought her to a local restaurant away from the tourist attractions. Monica showed her the ins and outs of Italian eating and in turn, received impeccable service from their waiter. I had a similar experience to this one. A local in Florence brought us to a pizza place on the outskirts of the city and explained to us how to order, what to order and why we should stay away from mainstream restaurants. I ate the most incredible stuffed pizza at a crazy cheap price. The owner spoke little English, but made every attempt to talk to us and give us great service. We taught him some English and he taught us some Italian. Slimbach writes, “the thresholds we cross through informal movements and encounters prepare us for the core of our orientation experience: a systematic exploration of specific, settled place,” (Slimbach 192). These types of experiences are truly the thresholds in my liminal process. I feel more mentally aware through the small incidents in Italy like this one, rather than the larger ones, like climbing the Duomo. Both are extremely significant to my time abroad, however; I can take more away from the personal incidences.
Pictured you can see my view during my morning walk to class. I walk along the Arno and everything seems to peaceful when the sun is just rising, yet still full of action with the bikers, runners and motorists. There is never a moment walking by the river that I do not see someone or something. The streets are never empty and it makes me feel comforted. I feel safe even through I am surrounded by strangers. I couldn’t picture the streets without people on it. By walking this route everyday, I think that I am playing a part into the everyday life of Florence.