by Olivia Wolpe
During a recent break to mark the arrival of Spring, I got the chance to travel to Florence, Italy with two fellow students from SciencesPo-Paris, Menton. Following are what I have found to be the most important tips to keep in mind while traveling, backed up by some concrete data I gathered while in the field.
Tip #1: Have flexible departure hours
Our trip, while magnificent, did not get off to the smoothest start. To begin with, I was awoken not by my alarm, but by a phone call from the train station where one of my fellow travelers, known from now on as Native, was demanding to know where I was. I looked around. Before reading this next part, let me just highlight that this was the morning after the hectic and mind-numbing mid-term week ended. When I awoke, I found that I had fallen asleep in my roommate’s bed, a banana peel (from my dinner) on the table next to my head. Not only was I not yet packed, but I was surrounded by dirty laundry and the random dishes that seem to accumulate while studying. I jumped out of bed and as I tripped over the books and bags strewn across the floor (yes, this is the place I call home) we made plans to catch the next train. I cannot recall exactly what happened during the next 25 minutes, but needless to say, I was out the door and just in time to see our train departing from the station while I watched from afar.
Luckily, I choose to travel with some like-minded humans, and while I was watching the train from one side of the tracks, I could see one my of blond-haired travel companions, we’ll call her Magnet, from across the road, watching the train with a look of forlorn confusion. Thinking on our feet, we grabbed the first taxi we found and after chasing down Native who, on a whim, had decided to venture to the station on the other side of town (for fun…?), we were cruising across the border in a Mercedes, unsure of what we would find on the other side.
Tip #2: Must have good connections
Upon arriving in Florence, we were lucky enough to have the hospitality of a childhood friend I was able to reconnect with this summer (great timing, right?) Because he is currently studying in the United States, we appropriately took advantage of his mother and her partner, we’ll call them Matasha and Menrico, who welcomed us into their home on the stunning Via Santo Spirito, right on the Arno River. Our first night, Menrico treated us to Borgo Antico, a stunning little pizzeria right on Piazza Santo Spirito, not to be missed if visiting the city. And while partaking in the consumption of delicious food was certainly a crucial part of the trip, having hosts that know their way around the city led us to all sorts of experiences we would never have stumbled across. While indulging ourselves in a fabulous dinner at Camillo’s, another eatery to be visited, we had the good fortune of being introduced to the head-gardener at the Boboli Gardens, a good friend of Menrico’s. The next day, we spent the afternoon on a private tour of the gardens, stunned with the architecture, history and beauty it contained. For Magnet and myself, the history was somewhat lost as neither of us can understand the language, but Native was able to provide us with an eloquent translation afterwards. While the magnificent Buontalenti’s Grotto was closed to the public, we were able to sneak in (with the help of our ever-faithful guide). It is a masterpiece, a beautiful combination of light, liquid and temperature, giving you the aura of being deep underwater. While taking in this magic, I kept sneaking the chance to run my hand over the cool stone, thinking “Maybe Michelangelo touched this, maybe Michelangelo touched this.”
On an early-morning excursion with Matasha, we were led onto the premises of some of Florence’s longest-running businesses. While visiting the storeroom of the Rossellini’s, a family of sculptors who have been in Florence since the 15th century, Matasha was able to attend to some work-related business. We too were able to attend to business on our own, and being the academically-minded students that we are, Native and myself set about pretending that the statues could talk while Magnet tried to pose like many of the animals within her sight.
Tip #3: Enjoy the food
While the Italian food might be one of the greatest legends and/or stereotypes known to mankind, it is my professional opinion as a great consumer of food that all of these stories – nay, fairytales – are real. Our days were marked not only by great sights and memories, but also by the food we ate. Following are some examples of conversations we had during our time in Florence:
Magnet: “I think I left my camera in the park we were in yesterday.”
Native: “Which park was that again?”
Magnet: “We went there after eating ravioli with that mushroom sauce in that restaurant.”
Native: “Oh yeah, that one.”
Native: “I want to see the cute guy again.”
Myself: “Which one?”
Native: “The one who made us those Paninis yesterday.”
Myself: “Oh yeah, those were really good.”
Magnet: “I think we should go get some food.”
Native: “Me too.”
Myself: “Oh yeah, definitely.”
We were enjoying our food so much that on the day of our departure, we chose to miss our first train in name of breakfast, and while rushing to get home to grab our bags, we passed a restaurant that looked good, so we stopped and had lunch, missing the second and third train in the name of that important meal.
Tip #4: Bring loose clothing
See Tip #3
Tip #5: Get to know the locals
After dinner our first night, while Native was escaping the advances of some middle-aged men and I was working hard to shed the reputation of being “American,” Magnet was outside, luring helpless waiters into her vicinity. That night we met our first group of friends, the waiters from the pizzeria, who are known not as individuals, but as a unit we called Group One. The next day while Native and I were enjoying food and Magnet was enjoying a cigarette, we met group number two, known as Lavender Sweater Guy and His Friend. From there we met all sorts of people, such as Bertie the Brit and Her Creepy Friend Sam; Annoying Guy from Volume and His Creepy Friend; and Cute Panini Guy and The Other Cute Panini Guy (both who were referenced in Tip #3.) During lunch our second day, we stumbled upon a delicious restaurant, Pangies, where the chef sat down with us after our meal was served. Soon the whole restaurant (that is, all three occupied tables) was instructing Native on some history of Florence while Magnet and I attempted to understand, but soon reverted to making faces at one another in secret across the table.
Tip #6: Steer clear of the Americans
While Florence is, and in my mind will forever remain, a divine city, there are 45,000 people studying abroad in Florence during the school year. While students are a great addition to many cities (take Menton for example) I was stunned by how much it bothered me to see so many Americans walking around. And it amazes me how easy it is to spot them. While I sat at a café, they began to congregate, bringing with them loud, nasal voices and an aversion to cigarette smoke, when (let’s face it) if you chose to study in Europe…. The first thing I want to do when I see a gaggle of girls barreling towards me while I am trying to sip my latte macchiato in peace, is to grab their shoulders, shake them hard and tell them that wearing leggings as pants does not even pass when back home, so do not even try to pull it off while in classy Italy. Secondly, I want to ask why they insist on ruining my fantasy of Italy, because I came here for Italian culture, not to feel like I am in the food court of a random city in the U.S. (At this point, I feel morally obliged to announce that I too am an American girl who has a tendency to speak at volumes louder than normal. However, I will never wear leggings as pants, so in that respect, I am quite the individual.)
While with Group One our first night, I was in a conversation with one of the waiters (Waiter #2) when he turned, and prefacing his sentence with the words “Please don’t take offense at this…” proceeded with saying “You are the most intelligent American I have met.” While one might assume I would be elated by these words, he followed quickly with the fact that he had only met two Americans before. Flattered as I was by his highly educated view of me, I was saddened by the fact that I was the most intelligent American he had met. While I can hold my own in a conversation about the mounting price of universities, or can easily quote Howard Zinn, I have my fair share of Idiotic Fails: I managed to obtain not one, not two, but three concussions in a single night over this past summer. I once spent an entire evening searching my house for my set of Harry Potter CDs. After having been in Florence for a week, I managed to not recognize the street we lived on for the entire 7 days we were there.
So to all Americans reading who are planning to travel to Italy in the near future, please act with class and dignity. And please wear pants.
Tip #7: Choose Travel Partners Well
Please remember that I hope to stay objective when I say: we had the best vacation. Ever.
The people you choose to travel with make all the difference. For us, there was a balance between Magnet, Native and myslef that worked well. Luckily, we had worked out our duties before embarking on this adventure: I was able to provide housing and good humor, Native was able to bring both her Italian and her grace and elegance to the table, while Magnet consistently remained, well, a magnet for attracting some very charismatic Italian men. She was also able to provide some great entertainment, some wonderful one-liners, and a newly developed love for chicken liver.
While we have had to take a temporary leave of absence from our new hometown to obtain a higher education, fear not, Florentines: the Tenacious Trio will surely return.