As I boarded my flight, my heart pounded with anticipation. I had been dreaming of this moment for a year—the moment when the plane would dip through the clouds to reveal below rolling Tuscan hills, an expanse of terracotta tile roofs and the unmistakable shape of the Duomo.
The dream stopped there, though; after a four-year absence, I wasn’t sure what to expect upon landing. Returning to a closed chapter of your life is not an easy task. What does it look like to return to a place that hurt you, a place where you changed, a place you grew to love? How are you supposed to grieve and rejoice at the same time? Those were the challenges set in front of me as the plane shakily descended on Italian soil.
After a week of being back in Italy, I’ve found that Florence has not changed much. As I wander the twisting, narrow streets and pass the famous monuments, some shops may have changed names and certain roads freed of cars, but my heart and feet still know their way around the city.
There are moments when I feel I’ve stepped back in time—or perhaps never even left. Unlike the city, I have changed and grown in many ways in the past four years. One thing remains the same: my identity in this country. I look like a tourist on the outside, but my heart has known Italy intimately. When an Italian woman on the bus asked me for directions, I rejoiced—I had succeeded in convincing at least one person I fit in here. Yet as soon as I opened my mouth to answer her, a jumbled mess of Italian and English spilled out, revealing that I will never truly fit in. It is the age-old plight of immigrants, and anyone who doesn’t quite look like everyone else in one way or another—no matter how hard you try, a culture is quick to recognize its own. While I am welcome here, I will always be an outsider. Similarly, in the United States, I look like everyone else but still feel like an outsider there, too. So I’m left in the middle, not quite fitting in either place but feeling at home in both.
I find myself reliving many of the struggles I experienced my first days, weeks and months here nine years ago—a bus sciopero that forced a long walk home, an awkward cultural moment at Esselunga, judgmental stares at an unfortunate choice of flip-flops in the train station.
And yet, I’m also reliving all the joys of this beautiful country. Even the simplest reminder of my past here, like a cracker brand we used to buy or a bus stop where we frequently waited, brings a smile to my face. Despite its familiarity, the beauty of Florence—the hills that cradle the city, the history that lingers in every stone and tile—still takes my breath away.