Written by Hannah Katz, (University of Wisconsin-Madison) Student Correspondent CET Florence, Summer 2019
When my mom told me to “bring good walking shoes” before heading to Florence, I laughed it off as just another piece of advice she tried to cram in my brain 10 minutes before I left for the airport. I thought I would be fine wearing my ratty old converse that carried me around Disney World last summer or my boots that I’m can hike uphill to class in. Four and a half days and 120,000 steps later and I’m left with the all-too-common thought: I should’ve listened to my mom. Instead, I’m left with blisters covering my feet and what I think might be shin splints. Despite the constant aches and pains, my first few days in Florence were an absolute whirlwind, and things are still looking up.
Arriving in a new city is terrifying, especially when you barely speak the language and were completely unprepared to travel in the first place. The street names are unfamiliar and the geography isn’t anything like your hometown. After finally landing in Florence, I just wanted to sleep, to hide out until I felt ready to face the new world surrounding me. Though I had just ended a 13 hour leg of travel with only a quick nap on my connecting flight, but it was only 4 p.m. so I decided to perk up and do what any person who recently landed in Italy would: I grabbed my roommates and went out for pasta and gelato. After our perfect dinner, we started walking. We walked for miles and suddenly I stopped feeling tired. Even though I was going on 36 hours without sleep, I felt the most awake I ever have. I was absolutely stunned by the city. The moonlight reflecting off the Duomo, the rush of the Arno River, and the bustling of the Ponte Vecchio invigorated me. I could’ve walked all night.
Eventually the four of us stumbled onto some unfamiliar streets that were crawling with nightlife despite the fact that it was nearing midnight. There were a mix of locals and tourists, young and old, restaurants still open with people only beginning to enjoy their meal at such a late hour. We found small corner shops selling goods and hole-in-the-wall restaurants that had a few loyal patrons sitting there. Though it wasn’t Piazza San Croce or Piazza del Duomo, we felt at home, completely comfortable despite the unfamiliar city. It was nearly two in the morning before we returned home.
The next day, we completely avoided the tourism altogether. We wandered down strange side streets, interacted with some locals in shops, restaurants and gelatarias (I tried to put my meager Italian skills to use) and spent a long time just looking. It was a similar area that we wandered the previous night, and suddenly it looked less scary and more familiar. Later on in the night, we continued to see all the city had to offer at night. We saw more streets that all looked vaguely similar, yet felt different.
The last few days were spent preparing for class and, of course, more exploring. We hiked up a mountain to see the city view, walked from city edge to city edge, and finally saw some sights. Of course the tourist destinations are incredible- that’s why so many people go to see them, but I also think it’s important to find the beauty and significance of things that may not but initially attracted toward, such as parks or certain restaurants and shops. From my journey here so far, these are the locations that are just as, if not more, memorable than the big sights.
As I said, It’s easy to fall into tourist traps when you first arrive to a city, you’re basically a tourist for the first few weeks anyways. Despite this, I recommend trying to find your own spots- they don’t have to be full of Italian citizens or completely desolate, but by exploring and finding the one area that will eventually have significance to you and your friends, you find a way to make the unfamiliar city your own. It’s important to stress that studying abroad is a time to dive head first into the unfamiliar- perhaps you got that great restaurant recommendation from your friend who studied here last semester, or your uncle’s cousin lives 20 minutes away and wants to show you around, but I would perhaps advise to stray away from these. Try to discover your own places where you’ll be a regular customer, find the study spot you’ll use all semester or determine what landmarks you MUST see on your own. It is your trip, of course. For me, I finally feel as if I can navigate the once intimidating cobblestone streets that I intended to shy away from, and I feel incredibly proud of myself for becoming familiar with my surroundings in such a short time. What was once scary and unfamiliar is now mine to conquer. One more bit of advice- bring good walking shoes!