In two days, it’ll be a week since I left what was my home in Florence, Italy. And it’s still bittersweet.
My time in Florence marks a new me: a me I’ve been working toward for the past year. It wasn’t until the summer after my sophomore year in college that I began to really work on myself. And here I am, the summer after my junior year and I can start to see how far I’ve come. Of course I take steps back. Of course I have bad days. Of course I do things I’m not proud of. But I am proud of who I’m becoming. I’m becoming a woman who loves more than she fears, who feels more than she numbs, and who moves more than she second-guesses. I wasn’t always that woman. And I’m not always that woman. But it’s who I’m becoming. Italy taught me strength is not found in the number of strong days you have, but in the number of weak days you push through.
While I was in Italy, I found myself in a culture that allowed me the headspace I needed to work on myself. Italians aren’t looking to rush through each day, eager to cross off the next thing on their schedule. Instead, they value being in a moment and experiencing it to its fullest before moving to the next. Florence forced me to slow down and it taught me that a day sitting on the Arno beach, taking in the sun and chatting with friends was just as valuable as a day of productivity. I was able to see incredible things, do incredible things, experience this incredible culture, and grow.
More than just the place was the people. I couldn’t have been luckier than to have found the people I did while abroad. The cliché of making relationships that will last a lifetime holds true. How a group of strangers became such a close-knit family in four short months is beyond me, but I am so grateful it happened as it did. I ended up with two mothers, a best friend, a person to shake me from my stubbornness, a person to challenge me to love, a person to love me when I’m crazy, a person to believe in me again, a person to share in my love of Bueno bars, a person to show me the beauty of the occasional kebab, and many other people who came to mean the world to me.
These people and the experiences I had grew me. So here I am, stronger and happier. And thankful that my time in Italy helped me get here.
So here I am, sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops, stuffed from having just had lunch at my favorite panini place, and thinking on the evening ahead: the music venue I might check out and the Sangria I'll have with my friends at our favorite spot. Call me cocky, but I can’t help but feel I’ve started to figure this place out. Over three months here and I have discovered not only local treasures, but some gems of my own as well. So here it is: my quick and dirty guide to Florence. Though a day is not near adequate to see all this city has to offer, if you only have one day, here is how I’d spend it…
Every Italian knows that the only way to start your day is with coffee: not the Starbucks doused with sugar and syrup, but a straight espresso shot at the bar with maybe a croissant on the side. At this point, I’ve certainly come to embrace Italian coffee. In fact, coffee here has such a better kick that I’m wondering if coffee in the States will even do the trick for me now. However, my love for Italian coffee doesn't change the fact that a pastry for breakfast doesn’t cut it. So Le Vespe is my place. One of my favorite cafes here in Florence, they not only have hearty breakfast options like pancakes, eggs, and the goods, but also smoothies (somewhat of a rarity here in Italy) and a variety of other options. So it's pretty much a perfect spot to fuel up for the rest of your day.
Onward toward the Uffizi. The area around Santa Croce is full of wonderful shops and cafes, including my favorite Florentine record store, Data Records 93. Exploring as you travel from one place to another is absolutely essential. One of the many beauties of this city are the streets dotted with treasures, waiting to be stumbled upon.
The Uffizi is definitely worth a visit. Housing renowned Renaissance works like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Caravaggio’s Medusa, even those who aren’t art fanatics are likely to still enjoy exploring the various rooms. Warning though: all museums (Le Vespe too, as a matter of fact), are closed on Mondays. Also, anticipate a relatively long line to enter. It goes pretty fast, but it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll have a wait.
If upon leaving the Uffizi you’re starved, what I consider the best place for paninis in Florence is right next door, Osteria All’antico Vinaio. You’ll know it by the lines leaking out the door and the sidewalks cluttered with people standing, eating their glorious sandwiches. Though you can craft your own panini after entering, I think the best approach is to pick your meat and ask them to do the rest. My typical order: “I’ll just have a really good sandwich with fennel salami.” They’ve never done me wrong.
Not far from the Central Market is Museo Novecento, a modern art museum that, believe it or not, is my favorite museum in Florence, despite being almost completely overlooked by tourists and locals alike.
After visiting this museum, several hours can be largely left to exploring. Not far away is the architectural pride of Florence, the Doumo. Also in this area are Accademia (housing Michelangelo’s David), Piazza della Repubblica and a great shopping area. Shops in Florence are always a treat, especially with how many artisans house their crafts in stores dotting the streets. Anything from Chanel to a silver artisan shop can be found with a little exploring.
About an hour and a half before sunset, heading toward Piazzale Michelangelo is definitely the way to go. And why not have a little gelato on your way over to the view? I would suggest crossing the Ponte Vecchio, the famous Florentine bridge and going to my absolute favorite gelato spot, Gelateria della Passera. This whole square has wonderful restaurants and cafes, making it a good stop even if you don't have a sweet tooth.
The walk up to Michelangelo's is quite a trek, but so worth it. If the view from Michelangelo’s doesn’t cause you to fall in love with this city, nothing will. Sitting with a bottle of wine on the steps and watching the sun sink is my favorite thing to do here, but just as a warning, buy your wine before you get to the top, as the wine there is quite overpriced. Italians love taking their time to be in the moment. So do the same and relish your time and this gorgeous view.
After the sun drops, I’d suggest making your way over to Santa Spirito, another piazza and home of one of my favorite restaurants, Santa Spirito Osteria. You really can’t go wrong with the menu here. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every dish I’ve tried. Close to this restaurant are a variety of bars within the piazza, the perfect place to grab a few drinks and enjoy the open air and energy of the piazza.
So there you have it. From gelato that will make your mouth water to a view that will make your heart melt, if you decide to follow my [not so] quick and dirty guide to Florence, the city I’ve fallen for, I can guarantee you will fall for it too.
Let go of control. Easier said than done. What I hoped would be a lasting lesson has been harder than expected.
As I followed the lead of Nadia, dicing the fresh tomatoes from her garden, I carefully took in her words. She spoke of following the seasons, of letting the garden and seasons command the menu. Agriturismo Marciano, the organic farm/bed and breakfast owned by Nadia and her brother, was always at the mercy of the seasons. The seasons and weather decided when grapes would be harvested for wine or olives for olive oil. What a person was in the mood for didn’t matter. What mattered was using what was fresh, in season, and available, and crafting it into the perfect dish. If that which Nadia was craving was *neither in season not growing in her garden, it would have to wait.
And for good reason. By following the seasons, each ingredient is at its finest. The meal my cousin, Calloway, and I had at Agriturismo Marciano was quite likely, the freshest I’ve ever had. I found it so much more satisfying to let nature decide my meal than to follow the whims of my cravings.
Humans, by nature, try to control everything. Set in a mentality that if you want something, you take command and get it, has left us settling for low quality ingredients in favor of getting what we want when we want it. I’ve noticed this tendency in my own life, too. A control freak, there have certainly been times when I should have let a day guide me, instead of trying to grab the reins myself.
In Europe and especially Italy, logistics can be a pain and a half. Unless all parties involved have wifi at the exactly the same time and are able to keep it for the duration of a full conversation, you can forget a seamless meeting. And I, being a stubborn planner, struggle with this quite a bit. Just yesterday, I had a full day to myself: a day full of potential and one of the few full days I have left considering how soon I go back to the states. I woke at 10, thinking I could perhaps go with friends on a hike. Maybe even take the train to the beach. I just had to wait for my friend to finish her papers. Afraid that I would loose wifi and not be able to coordinate with her, I stayed at home, conscious of the beautiful sunlight streaming in through my window that I was missing. Time continued to pass until, at last, my day of beautiful potential turned into a day a laundry, cleaning, Netflix and FaceBook. Had I let the day command me, perhaps I would have been found on the height of a Tuscan hill, the sun warm on my back and shoulders.
So it seems I still need to allow Nadia’s lesson to fully sink in. Maybe I can let go of my own control and leave wasted days behind me.
As my time here continues, I can now say I’ve conquered a little bit of Spain.
If you can rightly get a feel for a country in only a week, I believe Julia and I may have done it. By tackling Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville for spring break, we got a pretty good taste of Spain. And within each city we quite literally got a good taste, considering the amount of paella and tapas we consumed. Paella, a traditional Spanish dish of rice and seafood, was almost impossible to pass up, as was the sangria we had almost every meal.
Beyond the food, there were other experiences that really set Spain apart from the other places I’d been. Discovering the clear distinctions between cultures of different countries is perhaps my favorite part of traveling. There are crossovers, certainly, but each place that touches you leaves fingerprints unlike any that came before.
Spanish culture, while similar to the Italian culture in such ways as family values and a commitment to siesta (you’d be surprised by the number of shops closed down at 2 o clock in both Italy and Spain), certainly has distinctions that set it apart.
Catching a Flemenco dancing street performance, riding through the streets of Seville on a horse drawn carriage, Sangria game night at our hostel in Madrid (with perhaps the most eclectic and random group of new friends ever), finally finding a vinyl I’ve been looking for the past two years, drinking the best freakin fresh strawberry coconut juice ever at the market off Las Rambles, having tapas with our wonderful tour guide Evan, who thankfully forgave us for showing up five hours late our first night in, and having talks with Julia on the pier, our converse sneakers resting on the rocks at our feet, made this trip quite memorable. I’m fairly confident I picked a good way to spend my spring break.
At times you find yourself thoroughly contented and hoping it will never end. It’s a beautiful, full feeling. Even knowing such times are fleeting, you can’t help but feel a deep-seeded satisfaction and a hope that perhaps you’ll be able to hold this feeling for a few days, months or maybe even years longer.
This is where I find myself. Content.
My time in Florence has been graced with more joys and pleasures than I rightfully know what to do with. My mornings find me at cafes, sitting silently and listening to beautiful Italian banter about me as I work.
The days find me lost in the small, cobblestone streets, my scarf blowing aside me as I duck into a silver shop. The artisan working diligently as he crafts a small ring, looks up to greet me.
My nights have increasingly found me among music, a little difficult to find here, but a nice, hidden gem when you find the right spots. Sitting, sipping on a glass of Chardonnay and listening to acoustic chords is not such a bad place to find yourself. It doesn't matter that the lyrics are incomprehensible to me. Italian or not, the emotion is there. A connection is somehow formed even with my inability to understand his words.
There have been evenings of sunsets over the beautiful Tuscan hills atop Piazzale Michelangelo. Nights of cooking with Shawn and the no doors crew at the apartment. A night of wine and muscles at a delicious restaurant across the river with new friends. An evening at my favorite coffee shop, reading the book I’ve spent centuries trying to finish, never making the time until this trip. Stops to get macaroons with Julia and admire the attractive Italian who works there (after trying quite an assortment, we’ve found raspberry and strawberry marshmallow to be our favorites). And, of course, there have been nights with the apartment crew, Chandler often playing DJ as we get ready for a night of bars, laughs, and shenanigans.
It’d be naïve of me to think I can continue in this complete state of elation for the remainder of my days, but I’m starting to understand that the pursuit of happiness is a little less formulaic than we’re often led to believe. We stress this one size fits all idea that the ticket to happiness is a checklist of steps: Go to college, major in something practical (even if you don’t enjoy it), get a job, make money, get married, have a family, and voila, happily ever after. If you’re lucky, you’ll even retire early, do a thing or two you enjoy, and go to the grave happy as a clam.
But finding contentment can’t be boiled down to some overarching strategy that works for everyone who follows it.
Since being in Europe, I’ve noticed a full embrace of passion here, an acknowledgement that living in the moment can sometimes be enough. And while I’m not dropping out of school any time soon on some hell bent pursuit of good vibes and good times, I also don’t want to get so consumed in a drive to follow some supposed tried-and-true formula to find happiness that I miss out on the happy moments right in front of me. Maybe by having an openness to the other formulas and possibilities out there, I can hold onto my current contentedness at least a little while longer.
Who knows where the coming days will find me. But hopefully they find me still content, blazing whatever trail I see fit and living in each moment that finds me.
Steam rose from the plate of pasta that sat in front of me. As delicious as it tasted, I couldn’t help but poke at the meat, wondering how my lovely blind host, Roberto, had been able to tell if it was fully cooked despite his lack of vision. He looked so fragile with silvery white hair, not much of it, and his endearing cream sweater. It wasn’t long into a conversation, however, that you realize “fragile” is far from describing his character.
We made an odd crew, the seven of us: The architect, the musician, the film producer, the three students- Nina, Sirena, and me, and our gracious host. Despite three of our company being older than 60, we also, surprisingly, made an incredibly lively group.
“Johnny B. Goode,” streamed in from Roberto’s living room to the patio where we were dining. Lucca, the musician who’d invited us to join him and his friends for dinner, had impeccable taste in music and made sure the background noise for our vibrant conversations featured only the best Italian and American classics.
Lucca volunteers with Nina and I at St. James Food Bank, where we first connected over our mutual love for music. Little did we know, our friendship would lead to a night of great food, wine, karaoke, conversations, and, of course, a guitar solo or two on Lucca’s part.
I was concerned when I first arrived in Florence that I would miss out on really experiencing the true Italian culture. The Florentine culture is surprisingly satiated with American influences thanks to the insanely large number of abroad students studying in the city. Instead of being stretched to use Italian and fold myself into a completely new culture, I was all too easy to find myself only speaking English (Why not, they understand it, right?) and going to some Americanized bar because my friends were.
Though, as time has passed, I’ve been able to snag little opportunities, like dinner at Roberto’s, allowing me to experience the Italian culture a little more fully. They are people who love to embrace an evening for all that it’s worth. There is a complete emphasis on the enjoyment of good company; so much so that 8 o clock dinners drag on until 12:30am and only end when I regretfully suggest our leaving (I knew my 6am meeting would come only too soon if I didn’t get at least some sleep). Who knew it would be the 21 year old having to call it a night before the men in their sixties.
The Italian culture is a beautiful one of compassion and hospitality, and one I’m growing to appreciate more and more. It may take a little extra effort to find the real Italian experience here, but it is certainly worth the extra energy. It wasn’t until I began surrounding myself with these vibrant, passionate people that my love affair with Italy really began. Thank God I still have over two months to let this love affair ensue.
I'm not the first to be captivated by Paris' charm. Some are taken when walking through the winding streets, lost in a sea of cafes and shops. Some are taken when they first see the brilliant dance of lights, the Eiffel Tower glowing before them. Some are taken as they sip wine by the Seine, forgetting they ever had a care in the world.
While parts of me were taken by these small Parisian charms, it was something a little different that ended up holding me hostage. There's a creative energy to Paris that is unlike any other. It floods the city, reaching from the streets, with a brilliant juxtaposition of spray painted masterpieces and elegant Parisian churches, to inside the walls of jazz clubs, where musicians and onlookers alike lose themselves in the notes circling the room. And as much as I love the other aspects that make Paris so endearing, it is this energy that fuels my complete captivation.
If you're going to do Paris right, it's pretty essential that you have a super trendy and artsy belle of a tour guide to show you around. Enter Mélina.
There couldn’t be a person more qualified to show me the creative energy alive in Paris than my lovely French friend. Paris doesn’t have to be a laundry list of sightseeing. There is so much more this city can offer.
As Mélina led me up the winding staircase at 59 Rivoli, walls and steps alike were covered in drawings, writings, and paintings. We went room to room in the six floor art studio, watching the artists and visitors interact with one another.
Half finished projects awaited completion while the artists paused to speak to those admiring the works around the studio. The whole space exuded a spirit of innovation and passion with the community of creators sharing in each others’ motivation and energy.
It's in places like these that I feel my own passions begin to stir. After seeing how alive artistic expression was in Paris, I couldn't help but feel refreshed and inspired to delve into my own creative energy with a renewed commitment.
So yes, it's true that I missed swinging by the Notre Dame this go around and I didn't even make it to the top of the Eiffel Tower. But Paris is more than the sites that can be plastered on a post card. It's a city that threatens to steal you away from your expectations to instead be consumed by the intoxicating energy of creativity and passion.
It would be easy for me to write an entire entry on how it felt to take a running jump off the side of a mountain and become one with the sky as the wind caught beneath you.
But oddly, as invigorating as that experience may have been, what I enjoyed just as much this past weekend in Switzerland, were my social interactions. Even when thinking of soaring through the air, my hilarious Aussie instructor, Bernie comes to mind. Apparently the two most important things to remember when hang gliding are to run fast, and look good. Bernie was also so kind as to remind me, moments before our take off, that I was taking my leap of faith on Friday the 13th. Great.
While in Switzerland, I felt more in my comfort zone than I have while being in Italy. Yes, I know as little Swiss-German as I do Italian, but at least my blonde hair didn't scream, "I'm clearly not from here," among the Swiss. So, instead of shying away from talking to locals and feeling as through I stuck out like a sore thumb, I was far more apt to put myself out there.
While waiting on our bus to arrive, one of my roommates, Lindsay, and I went on a walk and stumbled upon a trail leading into the mountains. Beyond having photo opps to die for, the trail also offered some wonderful company. We talked to a few people who crossed our path, but one in particular really stuck out to me. She told us of the spiritual journey that brought her to Switzerland as well as her perspective on American culture and politics. I learned quite a bit in the fifteen minutes we stood listening to her. It was beautiful to meet a woman so captivated by her spiritual inquiries that she let them lead her to entirely new places. Beyond that, I was reminded of how blind Americans can be to our own prejudices. America is, no doubt, a wonderful country, but we sometimes see the rest of the world through a tainted lens. She admitted admiring the courage of American people as a whole, but felt a bit disturbed by what she saw as our more ugly political underbelly. It took only fifteen minutes with her to gain a new point of reference.
It's crazy how much you can learn from even the smallest of conversations. Each person's story offers a new perspective, a better understanding of things you thought you understood. When with people of other cultures, it is fascinating to glimpse not only their culture, but get an outside look into your own.
I've always valued the conversations I have with people in passing and people from cultures different than mine, but in Florence these have been a little harder to come by. I like to blend into a culture, become one with its citizens. However, it seems my inability to blend in while in Florence has left me too intimidated to embrace the people around me. I think it's high time to move past that. I may never exude a Florentine aura, but I shouldn't let that keep me from embracing the Florentine people around me.
So, here's hoping that in time I will be better able to learn about this incredible city from the people who know it best. After all, the smallest of conversations can easily teach me as much as an invigorating flight through the sky.
I never thought bubbles would be the most exciting part of my day in Italy. But there I was, with a stupid grin, feeling totally giddy as I watched little children jump, straining toward the bubble that was just out of reach. The smiles on their faces as they laughed and ran about were contagious in a very real way.
With guitar music streaming into the scene and a carousel right beyond the gleeful kids, there couldn't have been a more perfect moment. Man and dog alike were in a state of elation, with one particular french bull dog perhaps having the best day EVER (the little guy almost took out a kid while dashing toward a bubble, but man, was he happy).
A small crowd had started to form around us and we all seemed to be in a bubble of our own, where nothing could touch us and everything was right. All the world would ever be was joyful; full of beauty and life.
Even as I left the square I was filled with a certain contentment and peace. There is something about those unplanned, little moments that amount to far more than anything we could have planned ourselves.
I had come so close to missing this little bit of heaven we'd stumbled upon. I had planned to see one of the most incredible views in Italy at the top of the Duomo, but after a mix up with tickets, I instead came across a scene far better than any the top of the building could have offered.
Landscapes are brilliant and breathtaking, but there's something about seeing people, joy and life that ends up taking the cake. To see parents radiating as they watch their kids run about. To see young adults act a little less adult to pop the bubble that comes their way. To see Italians, Asians, and Americans alike enjoying the same simple satisfaction of technicolor spheres floating through the sky.
I guess Italy is teaching me to not focus on my own agenda so much, but to instead take in a little bit of everything.
Nine sleepless hours in a plane sitting next to a guy who smelled like an ashtray and wheezed with every breath (not usually a problem unless you're desperately trying to sleep) could not have been more worth it.
I wasn't sure what to expect upon landing and was starting to feel a little unprepared. The app that was supposed to teach me Italian wasn't working fast enough. I couldn't imagine my few phrases like hello, my name is, and please were going to get me very far.
Not to mention I was starting to run through a small laundry list of the things I already knew I'd forgotten- the sunglasses in the seat of my car, the new top I'd been excited about wearing and toothpaste (I promise I bought some here; don't think I opted for going without) .
I even realized how foolish I was to ix-ney all those sweaters that took up too much room when I was packing. Considering it was in the 30s when we touched down, a few of those might have come in handy.
As I got off the plane, small comforts started hitting me one by one.
There was the comfort of finding the SAI group (I'd envisioned looking at the held up signs with SAI's nowhere in sight) and realizing that, thank God, I wasn't going to have to bode for myself in an Italian cab, praying he took me to the right place.
Then there was the comfort of arriving at my building. Not only was I in the heart of the city, but I was close to the river, the building was beautiful (I occasionally look outside to see people taking pictures of our lovely abode), and the place was so much bigger than I would have ever imagined. I expected some dinky, hole in the wall, falling apart apartment, so it's safe to say I was thrilled.
Then there was the comfort of meeting my roommates. They hadn't seemed too psychotic when stalking them on Facebook, but one can never be too sure. Meeting them, however, affirmed that they were not in fact crazy. In fact, they were pretty perfect. Our whole place gels in the best way. We even have other students on the floors of our building, so we've established a nice little crew. Living with these people the next few months will not only be tolerable, but a really good time.
And then comes my last comfort. Firenze. We got settled in and all went out to grab our first Italian meal. The little establishment we found close by was just the ticket. The food and wine were to die for and we left full and content. Roaming the streets of Florence is nothing short of breath taking. I knew I looked obnoxiously American with my eyes glued upward, snapping pictures here and there, but I honestly didn't care. I was captivated by the small streets and charm of this wonderful city. As we walked back later that evening and watched the sun set over the river, everything felt just right. Florence, it's good to call you home.