A tale from Florence, Italy

By Kara Chamberlain

The reality of moving to another country never hits you while you prepare to leave, or when you’re on the plane, or even when you’re traipsing around your new town. No, the reality of living in another country comes when you realize that you want to go home but can’t. When you crave your favorite foods or shops and realize that they’re half way around the world. The realization comes in spurts and then one day as you walk to your latest destination it hits you. This street isn’t home, those buildings look nothing like the ones you grew up next to, and these people…well they don’t even speak the language that you know.
Before this experience the closest I ever came to living in another world was moving to Mississippi. Culture shock as that was, it compares to nothing that Italy has to offer. My expectations were erased and forgotten the moment I stepped out of the airport. I have no idea why my brain conjured this image of a quiet country town filled with devoted artists, passionate lovers, and perfected cuisine; a town that lived among the vineyards and hills. Nothing prepared me for the fast paced, jammed packed streets flooded with psychotic Vespas driven by people who learned something entirely different in their driver’s ed course. The only credit that I can give to Vespa drivers is that they never forget a helmet. Granted, as a pedestrian I’d wear one too if I weren’t already so obviously American.
There is no such thing as rules of the road or common courtesy here. No disrespect to Italians, it’s their culture after all, but I’ve found myself going against all my conditioned polite behavior just to get from one end of the street to the next. Let me demonstrate. Ladies, never assume that an Italian man will step aside to let you pass on the sidewalk. Always have the mentality that when walking on the street you are the person in the way of the by passer. I have yet to understand how you climb the ladder of sidewalk privileges, because I have yet to have someone step off the sidewalk to make way for me. I would consider that this is my own subconscious messing with my perception; however, my fellow roommates have reported the same experience.
Sidewalk etiquette is the least of my concerns when it comes to adapting to this versatile culture. Florence becomes an adventure every time I step out the front door. Immediately your eyes become overwhelmed with the details of this ancient city. After all, it is the city of the Renaissance. Florence played host and muse to fabulous artists and revolutionary thinkers such as Michelangelo, da Vinci, Galileo, and countless more that not even a Renaissance class can cover in one semester. However, it’s easy to lose sight of the marvel that is this city. Graffiti covers nearly every flat surface, a feature I never considered in my Florence visions. You can’t travel a near half mile without some man stopping you to sell posters, sunglasses, fake Pradas, umbrellas, maps, sweatshirts, wilted flowers, camera tripods, random useless toys, and anything they have taken from someone’s pocket earlier that day. Note to future world travelers, avoid these hawkers. However, people selling items from carts and at markets are completely different, and I encourage any traveler to venture into these local markets. Most of these items are created by the vendors themselves, who are more than willing to bargain. They actually find it amusing and enjoy a stubborn client that presents a challenge.
Enough of the travel tips. I could go on for pages on the do’s and don’ts of this city, but that negates my ultimate purpose. Despite my seemingly degrading descriptions of Florence, I find this city enchanting. Florence is something that words on pages can’t properly evaluate and depict. Pictures can only lead to false impressions of the character of the city. So, how do I give the proper description of this mysterious place? The fact is I can’t. The streets are a stringed maze that will never lead you exactly where you want to go but will always provide you with something new to notice. Whether it be a café with the creamiest gelato, a bar that seems to only be able to hold a handful of people but is bursting with hundreds, or a secret bakery that is only open in the odd hours of the night but has the freshest, warmest, most incredible bake goods in the history of perhaps the world. Florence never falls short of extraordinary.
I can always appreciate a city that can somehow get me lost on a path that I walk everyday. Though Florence hit none of my expectations, it has created a set of entirely new perceptions that change every morning. Italy has invited me on an irresistible adventure though the hills of Tuscany to study wine, the purpose of my travels. I have decided to approach these famous Italian towns with no expectations. I know now that the only thing to expect is that they will be nothing like what I have imagined or have experienced. Do I miss home? Perhaps one day. At this point there’s no use in feeling homesick, because I will be here for a few mere months. Why should I linger on the old and familiar when the new and frightening are waiting for me in the foothills of Tuscany? I look forward to my return and to seeing those I left behind, but I welcome my new and exciting future, and I hope to bring my adventure home through my stories. Arrivederci!
Kara Chamberlain is a University of Memphis student and Cooper-Young resident who is traveling in Florence, Italy for her last semester of school. She is studying Viticulture and Enology in Tuscany to learn the proper way to cultivate and develop vineyards.


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