Lost and found

Heather Baysa
December 11, 2008

I've concluded that it's the walk. Speeding down my street each morning as if I'm 15 minutes late for something, even when I have nowhere in particular to be, I stand out among the Florentines, whose measured steps and leisurely strolls belie any stress or pressing engagements. The urgency with which I cut through city streets never fails to reveal my identity as a New Yorker.

 

Once I forced myself to slow down, however, I began to take note of everything Florence has to offer beyond its museums and churches. I noticed all the small wonders invisible to most tourists, like the grocery store regulars who would give me a smile or nod when we recognized each other in the aisles, or the man who chases the pigeons every day in Piazza Santissima Annunziata. I was filled with an immense sense of pride when Italians began asking me questions about the bus routes and I was actually able to answer them confidently.

 

I also became friends with Silvia, the woman who runs the café beneath my apartment. The first Italian to reach out to my roommates and me, she would always say hello to us when we left the apartment. It was nice to have a neighbor with whom we could talk, and, thanks to her, we felt like we were home.

 

One weekend Silvia invited us to come out for drinks with her and some friends. As they were stylish 20something Italians, and I am socially awkward in English, I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to keep up with conversation in a foreign language. But to my surprise the atmosphere was as relaxed as with my oldest friends back home. Everyone seemed pleased and enthused to meet us, greeting us with handshakes and hugs before even learning our names. There was none of the harsh, cold appraisal one might find in an American social setting. We were friends with Silvia, so therefore we were part of the group.

 

We all walked over to the Santa Croce district, where on the weekends the church steps usually resemble a house party moved outdoors, filled from top to bottom with dozens of Italian university students chatting, drinking, playing music and having a good time. We went to a couple of bars and lounges in the area that Silvia and her friends frequent-places with a European crowd around the same age group as at the American clubs, but noticeably more mature (e.g., no one dancing on top of the bar or vomiting within close proximity to the entrance)-and we talked about all of our reasons for coming to Florence and shared jokes about American and Italian politics. We ordered rounds of Silvia's favorite drink, the B-52, and the house special, the Caipiroska. The guys there would not allow the girls to pay for anything, which I'm fast learning is Italian custom, and while I prefer self-sufficiency as much as  the next feminist, the whole situation was charmingly nostalgic. To end the night, our new friends took my roommates and me past the Porcellino statue and taught us how to drop a coin into the fountain to ensure a return trip to Florence.

 

It was then that I finally realized what it means to live in this city with the personality and charm of a tightly knit small town. In a place where tradition is so honored, newcomers must prove themselves worthy of becoming a part of it. Now, as I prepare to return to the United States, I am seeing that the true Florence was there all along, buried just beneath the tourist kitsch. It was in the chaos of searching for produce in the Mercato Centrale, in encounters with locals waiting in long lines at the post office and in conversations with my new Italian friends. The spirit of Florence is far from lost; it just needs to be found.

 

 

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