"I Love Florence in the Springtime"
Shortly after landing in Rome's Fiumicino airport, it will hit you like a ton of cobblestones: You're in Italy.
Simply being in Italy is surreal. Walking around, the images that you've seen in photos and films literally come to life. The sites and people aren't extremely extravagant, but there is an abiding sensation that you are in a different world.
Last year around this time, York Italian literature professor Elio Costa told me about the annual trip organized by the Italian department.
"But it's too expensive," I thought immediately. I had been to Italy once before and three weeks of memorable travelling left me with serious credit card debt. Professor Costa told me to look into some bursaries and I did. When I was granted $1,500 in financial support, I started to stock up on film.
You land in Rome and take a coach to Florence, where you'll spend three weeks, staying at Instituto Gould, a hostel-like place that gives proceeds to needy children and orphans.
You'll have class from 9-11:30am, Monday to Friday, but calling it "class" doesn't do it justice, since most of these "classes" are walking tours of a city. The rest of the day is leisure time, as are the weekends (during which you can take a train to nearby Siena and to many other towns that border Florence). The three weeks spent in Florence will fly by, and you can spend the following three weeks in Italy's capital - and my favourite city - Rome.
Florence differs from Rome because in Florence, everything is within walking distance.
You will walk to everywhere - restaurants, churches, nightclubs, even trendy outdoor discotheques in the north riverbank Le Cascine district (walking there was easy, butwalking home in stilettos wasn't). We learned an important lesson walking alongside the Arno one night. Just a few feet away from us, over the river, colonies of pippistrelle, (or bats, which are pretty common in Italy) decided to give us some unexpected company. The bats were bold, generally flying within a few feet of us, and in large clusters. Every once in a while a single bat would swoop down and come face-to-face with us, startling us with its bravado. There are, I noticed, some striking similarities between Italian bats and Italian men.
But even if you opt for a cab, don't expect them to be readily available. Taxis in Italy don't speed around the city looking for passengers and if you happen to find one and flag it down, consider yourself lucky. Walking back to the hotel one night, strolling arm-in-arm with some friends, we noticed a police car stopped alongside the river.
"Let's ask them for a ride home!" suggested one of the girls. (For those of you that have never been to Italy, all of the police officers are young and gorgeous.)
So we approached the car and with big smiles plastered across our faces, tapped on the window. Our faces dropped when they rolled the windows down and we spied what they were doing in the privacy of their police car: Reading Italian comic books (we did not get a ride home).
It's hard to spend six weeks in Italy and not have dozens of adventure stories to come home with. Every day is filled with adventure: For instance, finding a cold drink.
On one occasion, I was at a train station and, seeking a thirst-quencher from the sweltering Italian sun, deposited 2 ' (about $3) in a vending machine for what turned out to be a lukewarm can of Nestea. Determined not to dehydrate, I popped another coin into the machine and got yet another can of warm iced tea. A stranger that witnessed the disheartening event leaned over to say, "E normale" ("It's normal"). Ironically, nothing is normal in Italy - especially not in Florence.
Even though Florence, along with other Greco-Roman cities, was a sort of blueprint for Western civilization, it's difficult for North Americans to relate to the Florentine lifestyle. Italians linger over lunch, they rarely watch television and they never talk about money.
So why do tourists flock there' It might be the aesthetic appeal. Along with the handsome police officers, the city is an open-air art museum. The city is full of massive architectural marvels, museums, hundreds of intricately designed churches, not to mention the hand carved beauty that can be found on every street corner.
With street names like Via delle Belle Donne (Beautiful Women Street), one has to wonder how even the seemingly mundane details of this city are infused with loveliness.
The streets themselves are lovely. Designer boutiques like Gucci, Ferragamo and Prada line the extravagant Via de' Tornabuoni, a higher end stretch of shops ideal for window shopping. You'll get lost in San Lorenzo's outdoor market, rich with colourful merchants who will get on their knees and beg you (I'm serious) to try on their goods. You'll marvel at the glittery jewelry stores along the historic Ponte Vecchio, one of the many cobblestone bridges that cross the Arno.
But since Italy and Italian cuisine are so inextricably linked, I have to say that Florentine cuisine is probably the best and simplest cuisine that exists, using basic, fresh ingredients, most of which are grilled (alla Fiorentina) to perfection. If you decide to eat in some of the more touristy areas (in any of the major piazze, or town squares) you'll pay double, maybe triple, the cost of what a Florentine citizen would pay. San Lorenzo has some great, reasonably-priced restaurants and of course there are hundreds of cafes, bars and pubs. The pizza - in almost every pizza place - is mouth-watering.
And the gelato' Oh, the gelato ... It is suffice to say that La Paloma and other gelaterie that are scattered around Toronto simply pale in comparison to what Florence has to offer. But since I am not a talented enough writer to do it justice with words, the gelato mention here will be minimal.
Florence is ineffable, and with obvious bias aside, full of love. Yet, in the midst of all of this tangible beauty (including 60 per cent of UNESCO World Heritage Sites) many North Americans are disappointed with their travels to Italy.
"Because [North] Americans go all over the world," explains professor Costa, "and they expect the world to be a copy of the United States. They want to travel the world and have everyone speak English and serve you hot dogs in the street."
After completing our course in Florence, my friend Mariangela Tagliabue (a third-year Italian major) and I spent the next three weeks of our trip travelling along the Northern part of Italy, but first spent four days in Rome, la citt'eterna, ("the Eternal City"). Rome is much bigger than Florence, so most of our getting to-and-fro was spent squished into the backseat of tiny little cars, careening dangerously around a city where streets have no lanes and traffic lights are purely decorative.
While in Rome, Mariangela and I had the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II. We sat through an outdoor mass in St. Peter's square, just four rows away from the now-ailing Pope, and when the mass was over we were ushered into a lineup of people for a brief encounter with him. We weren't prepared to meet him and quickly turned to the person behind us and asked what we should say to him. What, after all, do you say to the Pope'
The man, stifling laughter, gave us a formal phrase to repeat: "Sua Santita, prega per noi" ("His holiness, pray for us"). As we were approaching, the Pope was wearing red velvet slip-on shoes. When it was our turn, one of the Pope's aides that stood alongside him signalled us to approach quickly and kneel before him. Mariangela promptly stepped forward, but I stood just a few feet before him, transfixed by the majesty of this man, clothed in ornate robes and much larger than I had expected him to be.
Kneeling before him, a small cluster of papparazzi stood alongside us, snapping photos. In between all of the camera flashes and noise and the Pope's aides surrounding us, we were face to face with one of the most famous men in the world.
We were frozen. We held his soft hands (I actually wondered what kind of moisturizer he used, and whether or not he applied it himself) and he cupped our cheeks. We mumbled the ceremonial saying, unmoving. But when our time was up and his aide took my arm, I quickly added something that I knew my boyfriend would appreciate: "Luigi says hi!"
If not for the pictures, I doubt anyone would believe us.