I spent the first hour of my first international flight admiring the size of my complimentary blanket, pressing the recline button that tilted me back a whopping 10 degrees, getting excited for the unexpected dinner getting served later during the flight and being impressed at how smooth takeoff had been. Then I got suspicious, put my glasses on, and realized the white whipping outside the window 20 feet away from me was snow blowing across the runway, not clouds.
Studying abroad in Florence would be my first time outside the US, and I began the experience sleep-deprived and apparently, delusional.
Despite the dangers of such a perceptive person as myself leaving the country, I chose to study abroad anyways, for the same reasons many Stanford students have done and will do the same: because I wanted to learn. Now, learning can range from discovering how snorkeling in the Australian ocean and basking in the sun can meld with academics, to finding out what writing a weekly 10-page paper for one class can do to your sanity. Three guesses which direction I was leaning. I just wanted to learn how to flourish and have fun in a foreign city.
I wanted to gorge myself on Renaissance art and ancient architecture, prance along cobblestone streets with strawberry gelato in one hand and chocolate in the other, determine the accuracy of the Assassins’ Creed II map of Firenze, swan across the canals of Venice in a gondola, step into the arena of the Roman Colosseum and imagine a bellowing crowd satiated only by bread and blood, eat my weight in pasta and bread.
I’ve only been in Florence for a week, and now I’m realizing there’s a lot I didn’t take into account while constructing those little fantasies. It’s like how my idealistic dreams of Stanford shifted before NSO even concluded. For example, after jogging into three bike bollards during Band Run and having no idea where I was the moment I lost sight of my dorm flag, I realized Lake Lag was too far from Wilbur to go running there every morning. (Also, Lag wasn’t even a lake and I’d never been a morning person a day in my life.)
Well, the streets of Florence are so narrow that if I was prancing around carrying gelato, I would smear my gelato on the surrounding buildings. I would also worry I had bumped into one of the “professional criminals” that orientation constantly brought up, twist to check my purse, trip off the uneven sidewalk, smack into a bus barreling thirty miles an hour down the viale, then have my corpse flattened by the trailing half dozen mopeds. At least there are enough tourists that the Florentine economy wouldn’t miss me, and my insurance would cover repatriation of remains.
The Italy of reality is quite different than the one from my imagination. Five days ago, I mistakenly thought I had a good idea what life here would be like. At least now I’m starting to get the city. A little.
Light switches are at waist instead of chest level. Street signs are the color of the walls they’re plastered against, and therefore difficult to see. Grocery store cashiers sit on stools and slide your stuff down a metal ramp for you to deal with, rather than bag them. Pedestrian signs have figures of sprinting kids with limbs contorted in seeming desperation, instead of sedate adults strolling straight-legged to nowhere. There are endless numbers of painted shutters that fold outwards in half, or swing open to either side of the windows, or slide down like wooden rolling security doors, just as there are endless varieties of doors that are wood, or metal, or studded with nails and knockers and mail slots.
Then there are the larger details. My host mother doesn’t want my roommate and me showering after 10:30 p.m. because of the downstairs neighbors; Uber doesn’t exist here; every dinner takes two hours; no shops seem to be open after 7 p.m. unless you count bars; I’ve stopped holding my breath around cigarette smoke. It’s that or never breathe, and lung cancer won’t get me for a few years yet. Right? Right?
Everywhere I go, things are new. I know almost no Italian, so I spend a lot of time in a lot of places looking around rather than speaking. It’s like when my freshmen RAs gave a speech about “safe spaces” and “FMOTQ” and “open door policies,” so I zoned out and stared at the push-pin map of where all my dorm mates were from. I figured out where that one cute boy from my floor was from, and had a great conversation with him the next day.
You can learn a lot when you know nothing and are free to accept that.
A couple days ago, I was walking home with my roommate and two other students when I noticed many of the surrounding bins had levers near the ground. At that moment, a restaurant employee crossed in front of us, stepped on the lever, and dumped a plastic bag stuffed with food scraps into the now-open trashcan. I ran over once she’d left and stepped on the lever, but the bag was gone. In its place was an empty metal bucket.
“It’s gone!” I said, gesticulating and stepping on the pedal a couple more times so the metal mouth would flap open and shut. “Gone! Did you guys see that? And I can use my foot on this!” The other Stanford kids came over to look, too.
A man stopped at the intersection poked his head out his truck window and smiled at us. “Sottoterra!” he shouted, pointing to indicate there was a space underground. We all grinned, caught at being so new to Florence that we thought even the trashcans were cool. Silly students. Crazy tourists.
“Grazie!” we yelled in unison as his companion hit the accelerator and he waved goodbye. We laughed for a long time afterwards, not sheepish, just amused. So what if we had been naïve? Now we knew exactly where the trash went, and had added another Italian word to our repertoire to boot.
Maybe it’s good to let yourself be impressed by trashcans, sometimes. This is college! We’re young, and we’re learning, and in Italy, as in America, that is exactly what we are meant to do. And the best part is, we can have fun and be a little silly, a little dumb while we’re at it.
Contact Katiana Uyemura at kuyemura ‘at’ stanford.edu. (Be warned: she’s in a vastly different time zone.)