Since getting here, I have found that walking around the city alone is one of my favorite things to do. A lot of my friends here were nervous at first about leaving alone and getting lost, but I found that I valued the time to myself and I was able to soak up so much more when I was alone and just observing the city, rather than focusing on keeping up conversation.
For for the assignment last week I decided to head out with only intention of wandering. After my last class ended, I set out towards the city center and just started to follow the streets wherever I felt like turning. As I walked, bicyclists and people on vespas (or “scooters” as they call them here) whizzed by me. I’ve noticed that people do not really yield to pedestrians the way that they do in the States. They will mow you down with no problem, and then keep on going. I ended up in one of the famous piazzas, Piazza della Reppublica, and was instantly surrounded by tourists. There is a beautiful carousel in this piazza that attracts hundreds of people each day. Looking around the piazza, I saw the street vendors pushing everything from selfie sticks to electrical converters into people’s faces. I kept walking towards the piazza with the main cathedral, which is another tourist hotspot. This week, I spoke to a school administrator about her life in Florence, as she has lived here her whole life. When asked how the city has changed, one example she gave is that she was baptized in the baptistery located in this square and on that day her parents simply drove into the piazza and had the ceremony. Today, that is incomprehensible, as the entire piazza is swarming with tourists at any hour, and the baptistery is currently shut down for renovations. It is incredible to imagine that a city that is constantly noisy and bustling with people was once quieter and not a victim of mass tourism.
From the Piazza del Duomo, I went west. At first, the streets were still pretty crowded with tourists, since I was still near the center of the city, but as I kept walking, the masses thinned out. People were walking in and out of stores, eating gelato, and chatting with friends in many different languages. While wandering around, I noticed how odd the smells of this city are. One second I would smell the most delicious pastry or pasta I had ever smelled, and the next I would smell something foul. I realized that this is kind of symbolic of Florence as a whole. On my walk I would pass a beautiful piece of Renaissance art, and then at the next street corner there would be ugly graffiti covering a wall. In my opinion, the city is a blend of the beautiful and the ugly, the old and the new. As I continued on, I passed a shoe shop, and I stopped to take a look. The owner was an older Italian man, making beautiful leather sandals. I browsed around and then left, but not before promising myself to come back and buy something soon. A little further down that road I found a shop that sold inexpensive rainboots, which was something that I have been looking for since getting here. The store was more of shack scattered with shoes than an actual store, so I tried my hand at haggling with the owner, since that is accepted at some places. However, I soon realized that this was not one of those places and I paid the 15€ the woman initially asked for.
After getting my boots, I realized that I was near the Central Market, which is the fresh market of Florence. I decided to walk towards the market and go inside. On my way, I passed the street food cart that I stopped out with my History of Food and Culture class while on a tour of the city. During this class, our professor insisted that we try a traditional Florentine street food without knowing what it was at first. I tried it, knowing full well that it was some sort of intestine or stomach product just because of how it looked. I did not particularly like this traditional food of cow stomach, but at least I can say I tried it. I decided to forego the “lampredotto” that day and continue towards the market. The market is one of my favorite places to go in Florence. It is full of fresh fruit and vegetable vendors, butchers, fish sellers, and fresh pasta makers. The produce here is so fresh and delicious and it is a cool experience to be surrounded by locals. I asked for some peaches, in Italian might I add, from one of the vendors, paid my 1€ (all of the fruit and vegetables are so cheap here) and continued on my walk.
I started to make my way back towards my apartment, and on my way I passed some of the traditional restaurants that people had recommended to me. I was going to stop in, but then I realized that they were closing up for the day. Many places here are open for lunch and then they close at around 2:00, and reopen for dinner. This is such a strange concept for me, coming from a world where everything is open ALL the time. In fact, the traditional places that I was hoping to try that day do not even open up again at all for dinner and are not open on Sunday. These places are also priced very reasonable. For example, a pizza at these places is generally 5€ and pasta is around 8€. A professor explained that this is because many Italians value quality over quantity. This means that they realize that they could make a lot more money by staying open for dinner, but they would rather sell good food at lunchtime and have the evening to spend with family. Since I could not stop for lunch at these places, I settled on making lunch in my apartment. I continued home a different way than I normally go, and I ended up discovering a bigger and closer supermarket than the one I normally stop at. I put this location in my map and kept going.
When I was close to my apartment, I decided to stop in the cafè that I had been wanting to try since getting to Florence. I walked in, and was greeted in English. I guess I still stick out pretty obviously as an American. To the shop owner’s surprise, I greeted him in Italian and then placed my cappuccino order in Italian as well. He was so impressed that he gave me a discount! Slimbach says in chapter seven, “When people ask, ‘What are you doing here?’ simply answer, ‘I am here to be a neighbor.’ Explain that you are there to become part of a family and neighborhood…” (185). Although I did not explicitly say it, I think that by speaking the local language, I showed this man that I was looking to be more than just an American in Italy.
The travelogue I read, Not in a Tuscan Villa, by John and Nancy Petralia, was about a retired couple who decided to move to Italy for an entire year of cultural immersion. Instead of doing what a lot of people do and renting a beautiful home in the hills of Tuscany somewhere, they decided to rent an apartment in a city and try to live like Italians. I found this relevant to what I want from my experience, since I do not want to live like I am simply vacationing here. The two of them provided a great model for communitas who are helpful to each other and do not hold each other back. They continuously supported one another and pushed each other to try new things and work on their Italian. One quote from the end is incredibly reminiscent of Slimbach, when John says, “You realize early on that Italy is not going to adapt to you. If you’re going to make the most of your time there, it’s you who will have to change” (267). This reinforced the idea for me that I need to be open and willing to new experiences and new people while here in Italy. The Petralia’s made many friends, learned new things about themselves, and had the best year of their lives because they stepped outside of their comfort zones, and I hope that I can do the same.
This picture was taken this weekend at the Bardini Gardens, which are famous and historical gardens in Florence. It is a picture of a tunnel formed by ivy. I chose this one because it makes me think about how I am still at the beginning of my journey, and I cannot see what is at the end of the tunnel yet. Even though I am not sure where these next few months will take me, I will embrace the unknown.