How can you explain something you deeply love to someone else, in a way that will give them a true understanding? Often times, whether it’s your favorite song, the best spot to sit and read a book, or the best view for a sunset, these intangible things are hard to describe. It is even more frustrating because these intangibles are, usually, more meaningful than the tangibles. When given the opportunity to describe my experiences and impression of Florence after four months of studying abroad, I was intimidated. I find it hard enough to describe my weekend to a friend, let alone my entire study abroad experience to strangers.
However, someone asked me very recently to describe Florence as a person. I enjoyed this altered view of describing a city. A whole city is hard to comprehend, but a person? A person you can picture in front of you; they are in your line of sight, eye to eye. You can picture their laugh or the way that they dress. It’s possible to get a first impression of people very quickly, which is better suited for just one blog post. So imagine Florence as a person and, maybe, I can describe just how I understand her.
The first and most immediate character trait that I understood about Florence was just how comfortable she made me. Imagine one of your favorite family members, the one that you see and feel the wave of stress release after a long day of work. She could also be the friend that you haven’t seen in a while but welcomes you with open arms every time you see her. Back in the United States, I live in New Jersey, within easy driving distance of New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. Although I grew up spending time in all of these cities, none of them ever felt welcoming when I arrived. I, personally, never felt a sense of total comfort walking around the streets. While I love all of these cities, I was always ready to leave at the end of the night. From the moment that I stepped onto the cobblestone streets of Florence, however, I found a connection that was deeply rooted with my immediate infatuation of the city. This was an infatuation that has not faded away with time, instead, it has strengthened with age -- just like a fine wine. Comfort is something I’ve found to be invaluable in making study abroad a deeper experience. How can you truly explore and immerse yourself in a place if you don’t feel comfortable there?
Another character trait of Florence that I’ve come to know is her spirit of surprises and giving. Florence is the type of person to notice when you are upset and homesick, or excited and hopeful. She can tell when you are really immersing yourself in her culture and will almost inevitably give back to you in ways you wouldn’t have expected. I’ve been exploring Florence for a little over four months and there is not a day where I have not been given a little surprise or discovered something new about the city. It could be a small café tucked in the backstreets, a beautiful view of the Tuscan countryside that appears in-between the alleyways, or even wandering upon a historic parade or festival in an ancient piazza. Florence somehow always knows when you need a bit of a surprise to change things up, even if you don’t know you need it. She has certainly been the most spontaneous of any city I’ve experienced in my life.
I could name a few more obvious character traits of Florence that maybe you would expect; she is a good cook, she is very family oriented, she appreciates culture. These I would expect you to understand about most Italian cities. One of the most prominent traits of Florence, that really surprised me, is her ability to teach you more about yourself than you can learn about her. I wouldn’t call her a therapist or a counselor. I also wouldn’t associate it with the natural magic and aura she emits. Florence’s ability to let you self-reflect comes from the intimate moments you’ll spend with her. Its the moments you take a step back and realize you are living in a place with more history than you could read in a lifetime. These are the moment where you can understand that issues you thought were huge and monstrous are much more manageable than you thought. When you’re standing in a spot that millions of people for thousands of years have stood, is the time when you can ask, “Who am I in comparison to all the people who stood in this same spot?”. Florence has experienced so much and she is willing to teach you if you are willing to listen.
I am not saying that you will have an amazing time with Florence every second of every day, that is just unrealistic. There will be times when she will challenge you. There will be times when she throws her leg out and trips you. There will be times she waves an expectation in front of your face and pulls it back before you can grab it. These are not actions out of malice, but part of life is to struggle as well as to prosper; Florence understands this very well. A lot of the growth I’ve experienced here is in the moments I’ve felt challenged. These moments do not subtract from the fact that Florence is first and foremost a comfortable city. These moments show you that Florence cares enough about you to let you fall on your own and get back up so you realize you can do it.
This blog post is essentially when your friend is attempting to introduce you to another one of their friends and only has the ability to tell you things they know about them. The reality is, if you meet Florence, you’ll get to know things about her that I never got to know. Everyone’s relationship with Florence is different but her core values stay the same. If, or when, you meet her, you will be welcomed with open arms and when you leave she’ll let you know her door is always open if you need her. All of the moments in-between will be experiences that will stick with you and remind you why Florence is so special. I can’t stay with Florence forever, even if I wanted to. At some point I’ll have to say goodbye to her. So when you find yourself on her doorstep and see her warm smile, I hope that you will let her know I say hi and to take care of you during your stay with her. She did for me and I know she will for you.