photo by Petname (Flickr group)
If you are just arriving in the grand old city of Firenze, I can promise you two things: you are about to fall in love, and you have much to learn! As a veteran of this crazy rollercoaster ride called study abroad, I would like to share some of the more helpful and interesting facts that took me four months to learn. Florence is a city that is rich in wonderful secrets and illusive quirks. No matter how small or strange a question might seem, everything in Florence has a story, so don't be afraid to ask! My aim is to fill you in on what I felt my guidebooks and orientation left out so that you can spend your next few months digging even deeper!
Outsmarting your tour guide
What's the deal with all the Pinocchios? It's no lie that Carlo Lorenzini, a native Florentine, wrote Pinocchio in 1880. He adapted the pen name C. Collodi, in honor of the town of Collodi where his mother was born, despite the popular misconception that he himself was from Collodi. He is buried at San Miniato al Monte Basilica in Florence.
I personally explained with great satisfaction to my visiting family members that the cupola of the Duomo designed by Brunelleschi was completed in 1436, while work on Giotto's bell tower began a century earlier, in 1344. What I did not know to explain was that duomo doesn't mean ‘dome', in reference to the cupola on the top of the church; it means ‘house of God', and every town's most important church is called the Duomo. The real name of the cathedral is Santa Maria del Fiore.
Don't let Dante's stony grimace make you feel like an outsider as you approach the church of Santa Croce. Dante was exiled in 1301 as a result of the power struggle between the Guelfi Bianchi, the White Guelphs, Dante's party, and the Guelfi Neri, the Black Guelphs. Although he participated in rebellions to try to regain entry into Florence, all ultimately proved unsuccessful and Dante spent the rest of his days in exile, during which time he wrote his famous masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. In 1315 a law was passed allowing exiled persons to pay a fine to regain their citizenship, but, showing his true Florentine roots, the stubborn poet preferred to remain an exile rather than pay to regain his rightful citizenship. Florentines eventually came to regret his banishment and attempted to recover his remains from the city of Ravenna where he died-to no avail. The keepers of his body were so determined to prevent the remains from being taken to the city that had treated him so poorly that they hid the them in the monastery walls. In 1829, an empty tomb was built in the Santa Croce Basilica.
While we're on the subject of tombs, another of Florence's fortunate sons, Galileo Galilei, after resting for 95 years next to the novice's chapel, was placed in the main basilica of Santa Croce in 1737. The Inquisition's ban on his work had ended only 19 years earlier, in 1718.
Don't feel foolish thinking that you have been lured into a tourist trap when you realize that the David standing proudly outside Palazzo Vecchio is an imposter. The real David did stand guard, slingshot cocked and loaded, from its completion in 1504 until 1873 when the statue was moved to the Accademia Gallery to protect it from the damages incurred by the elements.
If a long day of art appreciation at the Uffizi, or perhaps sunbathing in Boboli, leaves you hungry for a quick panino, walk in the opposite direction of the Ponte Vecchio, unless you have a time machine, that is. In the fifteenth century, the bridge was lined with butcher shops, but when Fernando I came to power he wanted the world to see the power and wealth of Florence so he expelled all the butchers and installed jewelry shops in their place.
Dining like a pro
If you feel like you just haven't found the restaurants with all the good bread, I have some bad news and some good news, for you. The bad news is that almost all the bread in Florence is unsalted and has been since the 1100s. The good news is that you are serving your city proudly as a loyal Florentine. There are several different legends about the catalyst for the switch to baking without salt, but all share the same core. Pisa, one of Florence's oldest rivals, controlled the port during the twelfth century and placed extremely high taxes on salt. As an act of defiance, Florence began to bake bread without salt. It is also thought that the tax was a direct effort on the part of Pisans to block salt from making it to Florence. Thankfully the animosity between the cities has lessened significantly over the past thousand years, except on the soccer field, but the Florentine tradition of unsalted bread has endured.
Stop! Don't shoot! Sip your limoncello. This strong after-dinner drink thought to aid digestion should be served ice cold in an ice-cold glass. It is meant to be sipped, despite its shot glass container and the insistence of flirtatious waiters.
I hate to be the one to break it to you, gentlemen, but no matter how many grazie milles you offered as your dishes were served, and, ladies, no matter how many bellas and bellisimas you received from each member of the staff, your waiter is not trying to keep you around for the rest of the night by not giving you your bill. You have to ask for the check when you are finished. A polite Vorrei il conto, per favore, after those last few bites of tiramisu is the perfect way to end a nice evening of dining out.
If your family has been asking you if the dipping oil in Florence is 10 times as good as the kind served at your local Italian restaurant back home, break it to them gently that a true Tuscan uses bread to soak up the mouth-watering sauces that accentuate one's primi and secondi piatti. Bread with butter is essentially unheard of, so if you're desperate be prepared to throw your passport on the table and ask specifically for it.
Blending in (or at least avoiding The dreaded ‘tourist' label)
I was surprised to find during my first soccer game at Stadio Artemio Franchi that although you can get almost any Fiorentina paraphernalia you could possibly want, such as shirts, pens, and scarves, one souvenir you will not be able to purchase is an oversized foam Fiorentina #1 hand like at ball games back home. I was equally devastated to find out that I was not about to be the next Florentine millionaire by bringing this novelty to the city. In Italy, when you use your fingers to indicate numbers you have to start with your thumb. Therefore raising your index finger implies two, your middle finger three and so on. This can be especially handy to know when ordering a cappuccino at a noisy bar with only exact change in your pockets!
Flip flops are for the beach! I will save you the suspense: there are barely any trees in Florence, not to mention beaches, so your cover is blown. I will, however, make the guilty confession that as I sit here writing this I am twirling my toes in my favorite sandals from home. Some creature comforts are just too hard to give up, so if you are like me, at least you will know why they are staring.
I'm about to give you a tip that will save you a lot of time and anguish in your first few days, maybe even weeks if you are as observant as I am. Stop looking for door knobs right now! That funny red button in the middle of the door that looks like it was built for Shaquille O'Neal? Indulge your inner child and push it! That circle thing with a chain lopped off? Give it a pull. Even if it looks deceivingly like a door handle, perhaps an oval, like the one I struggled with daily at my internship, be prepared to grab, fiddle, and twist until you hear it click in the right direction. You will never be stranded indoors as long as you are adventurous and just a bit creative.
Buyer be warned: go for postcards, not diamonds, when souvenir shopping! Although upon first glance the latter might seem the better option, Italians and most other Western European countries use the comma to indicate a decimal point, and the period to indicate a comma. Therefore, you are not mistaken if upon first glance at your receipt you are think you just paid a thousand euros for that pair of David boxer shorts for your roommate. €10,00 is not a misplaced comma; it is the equivalent of €10.00. By that same token, the ad asking €1.000 for a used Vespa is not in fact the deal of the century!