I took a day trip to Siena with my newfound Middlebury friends Cody, Katie, and Naja just as autumn was descending, which meant beautiful, brisk weather along the Italian countryside.
Siena struck me as the type of place that is underappreciated by tourists who’d much rather spend time in Rome, Venice, and Florence, but is small and charming enough to traverse in a day. It was a typical day for us checking out Siena, moving through a maze of old, beautiful streets and making a beeline for food.
We had little to no plans and not many expectations for what we would do in Siena, so, we spotted the Duomo of Siena and admired it from the piazza, then had lunch, pasta of course, and hung around the city center.
Toward the end of the trip, we visited a farm. To get there, we took a breezy walk down a long dirt road, surrounded by fruit trees and saw sheep, goats, and geese, although thankfully partitioned away from me behind a fence. I am about as outdoorsy as you think I am. For me, “feeling outdoorsy” just means feeling like leaving my house. I stood up close and personal with one of the goats, (the fence wedged between us) watching him do nothing as other families gathered around to show the animals to their kids. A father explained to me that an apple was called a “mela” in Italian as he fed one to a “capra” although I did actually know that.
There were vestiges of old world beauty, with mossy stone ledges and an old abandoned well that had been grated over. We stayed at the farm until they closed, and then walked up the road past several other old, beautiful buildings that probably housed important things. The day was winding down and we set back on our way to Florence.
Being in Siena felt like being inside a painting that you have no wish to get out of. With stairs built into hillsides, crowded by lush, green nature, Siena is a place I won’t forget anytime soon. It was a quick, restorative trip down the countryside with fun people and amazing pasta.
Dolce far niente means “the sweetness of doing nothing” and there’s no better place to do sweet nothings than Florence.
It was while I was doing nothing in Florence that I made many shrewd observations:
Negronis are the strongest drinks in the known universe and taste like lighter fluid, going straight to your stomach and straight to your brain at the same time, Venus has abs for weeks and is surrounded by beautiful flowers, and rowing your boat down the River Arno looks fun but I’d have to do that with other people because if I tried to row, row, row my boat gently down the stream by myself, you’d all be reading about a tragic drowning accident in a few days time.
Let’s start at the beginning:
The buses were on strike, which was bad news for everyone except for the taxi services, so I spent most of the afternoon on foot in my knee-high boots, and feeling like I’d walked the length of Florence. I’d been listening to “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” which is ironic since my boots were in fact not made for walking. It was a bright, warm, and sunny day that made me feel mellow to my core.
As anyone who knows me will tell you, I really value the time I spend with me, myself, and I. It is for that reason why I set out on my own to find a cafe when I found an open-air market. In movie-like fashion, I made my way through every stall of nostalgia-based thrift stuff, bought myself a book on Florence, drank my chai latte outside of a cafe while reading “Call Me By Your Name,” and then did the same thing inside an empty restaurant that played real jazz from the 40s.
It would be at this point in the movie that I would stumble upon an attractive young guy who is very interested in me and therefore sparks up a conversation, changing my life forever. No such thing happened to me this time, thank god.
When I’d gotten my fill, I walked back to the Ponte Vecchio, lingered there for as long as I felt like, and then walked to the Uffizi where I spontaneously decided that this would be the day that I would see “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli for the first time.
I got lost in the Labyrinth that is the Uffizi but wound up on a rooftop restaurant where I had my first Negroni. It was a day for trying new things so I did it. I do, however, doubt that I’ll do it again. I took one sip and immediately felt drunk.
After not finding the painting for a while and having seen everything else the museum had to offer, I approached the two people I’d overheard speaking English with American accents and asked them where “The Birth of Venus” was. The vibe was very much “my fellow Americans.”
They led me to it and I saw her, taking up the entire wall with a pool of people around her. I walked right up to the painting, stunned to finally see it in front of me. It was no longer a watercolor painting on the back of a postcard, nebulously out of reach. It was right there in front of me, partitioned by only a thin layer of glass.
I wanted to reach out and touch this time capsule of feminine beauty. Instead, I stood there mesmerized by the flowers in the painting, which I’d never noticed before, and turned behind me to get everyone else to notice them too so that they could join in on my enthusiasm and bask in the beauty of it with me.
“Move out of the way,” said the man behind me who clearly didn’t want me to see the Birth of Venus up close and probably doesn’t support women. His wife made the international hand gesture for moving out of the way and then I did, but once they’d “moved out of the way” themselves, I got a different man to take my picture with Venus.
After my picture, I stood there, now uninterrupted, and stared at her for as long as I wanted and as close as I wanted, before leaving myself.
The next day, I returned to the same area to witness an opera singer busking in the streets in front of the Uffizi, singing her heart out. Her voice was perfection, which begs the question of what she was doing on the streets of Italy and not on the stage of the Sydney Opera House.
I then sat and had my portrait drawn by a man who spoke Italian with me. The opera singer started up again in front of me while someone played the “Bach G major” on the cello behind me. It felt strange in that moment to think that this was my life.
Posing for a drawing invokes a pseudo-celebrity feeling, as you attract the attention of random people and tourists on the street glancing over at you and taking pictures of you and the drawing as it is being created.
This was a supremely good Florentine day. Moments like this don’t always last or come around often. That is why it is important to do nothing when you have the chance and to enjoy the sweetness of doing nothing.
“Life goes by quickly, but if you live it right, once is all you need”
For my first trip out of Florence, I gate-crashed, broke-a-window, crowbarred my way into the other girls’ plans to go to Rome for the weekend. The plan was simple: see all of the Roman sites and stay in a hostel for the night, eating all the right foods at all the right places. It was right on track to be a wish fulfilling Roman Holiday.
Fortunately, the other girls made the plans since we’d be up shit’s creek with no paddles had that been left unto me. We shared a hostel room down the street from the train station with a shared bathroom that could generously be described as dirty, but not disgusting, and had a toilet that only occasionally flushed when you asked it to. We were “roughing it,” as the kids say. I haven’t roughed anything a day in my life and it seemed clear that neither had the other girls, but the hostel was just a place to rest our heads when we weren’t roaming the streets of Rome.
Out and about, we grabbed lunch near the Colosseum, where I scarfed down plenty of Carbonara and caci e pepe, two famously Roman meals. We ate gelato at the Trevi Fountain, followed by a photoshoot. I threw my euro in and made a wish, but that wish is between me and Trevi. I had my head turned once again as someone got proposed to, but I joined in the applause when a guy shouted, “she said yes.” There was wine with every meal and gelato after every meal, a slice of tourism heaven.
Later in the day, I walked the length of the Forum alone. I wanted to eat lunch at the rooftop restaurant at the Forum, with a perfect view of the Colosseum, but the other girls did not want to, citing “too many stairs.”
Speaking of stairs, we saw the Spanish Steps, not to be walked up, of course, and spent the next half hour in the nearby Furla flagship trying to talk one of the girls out of, or into, the $200 purse she ended up buying. We checked out the Parthenon and Colosseum, but didn’t go inside due to the need for reservations. Instead, we shopped around, dipping into whatever stores interested us.
I bought a purple rabbit fur coat (vintage, of course, so it doesn’t support the industry) and when we weren’t doing that, we were walking into various cathedrals with architecture that could bring you to tears, and encountering fountains entangled with statues of mythological figures dramatically heaving themselves on top of each other.
We made our way around Rome with us eventually passing by the Roman Senate (RIP Julius Caesar) and the place where Mussolini unfortunately gave his speeches near the Forum.
Towards the end, we went to a modern art museum to see some art that was very different from what we’d become accustomed to in Italy. An abstract art show, composed mostly of bright lights, is very different from a biblical figure made out of marble or a painting of character from roman mythology, but it makes for a welcome change.
It would be cliche to say “when in Rome” when discussing how we felt when trying to embrace what was around us, but few expressions encompass the fun and relaxing time we had in Rome that weekend.
I finally saw David. Not the guy in my class who I kept harassing for the homework assignment, who is also named David, but the actual statue of David by Michelangelo. Side note: I frequently ask the same person for answers as to where the field trip is and what the essay is supposed to be about because I often feel like I’m in the tall grass when it comes to what’s going on as part of my ongoing left brain hip check. I probably owed him a bottle of wine for his service, only that didn’t happen.
On a whim, while walking down the street near the Duomo, I decided to cross something off my list that had been on it since I touched down: seeing the statue of David by Michelangelo at the National. The line was short for once, the perks of being here in the middle of the day on a weekday, and I read my book in line while I waited for the museum like the cultured, civilized individual I hope that I am.
I spent the first half of my museum visit admiring the other statues first, trying not to let my eyes just glaze over them. I’d seen sculptures like this in the past, having seen the same mythological creatures carved in marble at the Met.
There they were, Greek and Roman gods and goddesses artfully splayed in throes of passion and sowing chaos, representing passion, beauty, and foley as they acted on their trifling whims. What’s not to like?
I was admiring these when I suddenly appeared at the statue of David himself. It was as if everything in the packed room had stopped and I was with him alone.
Michelangelo, with his God hands, created perhaps the most incredible piece of art I’ve ever seen. He’s shockingly tall, scaling up towards the ceiling, and sculpted so well you can see the veins in his hand. I wanted to reach out and touch him, which is now against the rules. I stood in front of him until I felt like I’d experienced him in his entirety, marveling at the human feat that he represents. Michelangelo’s brilliance reigns victorious, hence the fact that it has been around for hundreds of years and will be around for hundreds more.
Naturally, I believe that everyone should see him before they die, if they can. Afterwards, I walked across the street to the vintage book shop and had a look around at the Italian books before they closed. It was a fairytale day of girl-in-Italy-going-to-bookshops-and-museums. My parents can’t say that I didn’t get enough out of studying abroad.
Every time I saw something magical and Florentine that I’d wanted to see, I felt euphoric and relieved, no longer worried that something I’d wanted from my trip wouldn’t pan out. It was not long before I had an opportunity to cross something else off the list. Stay tuned.
A few months ago, circa my first month in Florence, I was invited for a night out at TwentyOne, Florence’s highly-rated nightclub on TripAdvisor. I pulled out my black silk, spaghetti strap dress that I bought before coming here, having told myself that this dress belonged in Italy. The dress however was not made for chilly weather, so when I waited in line, the very nice bouncer let me wear his leather jacket because I’m guessing I looked very cold. This was very kind of him; I couldn’t be the only one in line not wearing a leather jacket. I already was the only one not smoking.
People my age were waiting in line in head-to-toe black, smoking cigarettes and decked out in leather jackets. This was the fashionable side of Florence I’d heard about but never seen.
Once let inside, it was obvious to me that my companions were not there yet, so it was incumbent on me to get the party started– a task I am not well suited to.
All of the women in the nightclub were so nice to me. Some of them asked me if I was straight (it must have been my dancing) and when I said that I was, they informed me that this was a gay bar. I had ascertained that much from the men in the corner who were far more interested in each other than they were in the women at the bar. I was invited to dance with some of the girls as the dance floor quickly became a mosh pit.
The dance floor quickly became a mosh pit. TwentyOne is selling a pretty sweet package. Those who come for a night get a free drink, a drag performance, and to be danced on by some scantily dressed men.
My friends joined later in the night, once I’d had about an hour to myself on the dance floor. The people-watching was fun as we rested our feet. A woman whose whole figure was composed of some well-done implants was with a man whose entire being screamed, “I’m rich.” (Seriously, he was wearing a pocket square in the breast pocket of his double-breasted three piece suit and gold-rimmed glasses in the club). A woman and her sugar daddy, out on the town, she looking very cool and sexy, and him looking very uncomfortable but trying to pretend that he is not. I salute you girl.
I showed up when the club opened at midnight and left around the time that it closed at about 4 am. I then got home around 6 am. We danced for a few hours before leaving and tried to get a cab, a nearly impossible task in Florence on a night on the weekend. We walked for two hours and called 15 times before my friend Naja and I got a taxi. I, therefore, got home at around 6 am, hungry and cold and ready to faceplant in my bed, which I did, a strangely anticlimactic end to an otherwise fun night.
A night of sweaty bodies on dance floors, mainlining drinks, followed by walking through the streets of Florence in the middle of the night. It was truly a first experience to say nothing of a dip out of my comfort zone. Similar out-of-comfort-zone experiences to follow.
Some time ago, who knows when, I went out with a few of the other members from the program for a night of drinks and music. Thursdays are the new Fridays for us since most of our classes end on Thursday.
First there was dinner. You can’t do what we were planning on doing on an empty stomach. A few people went home after that, as is always the case and surprisingly, I was not one of them.
For once, I was in the mood to go out, especially since the plan was to go to the Florence Jazz Club, an underground jazz club where they ply you with alcohol. Themed to look a bit like a dive bar, but is completely up to code, the Florence Jazz Club is, for me, an excuse to drink a vodka cranberry and listen to live music.
We’d camped out at a table in the back and refused to get up since a table at a nightclub that was this packed is like prime real estate and when people crowded in front of us, obscuring our view of the band, we stood up on the benches to dance, earning us a bunch of strange looks.
I gotta tell you, a lot of that music wasn’t actually jazz. We all sang along to “Mustang Sally” but that is not a jazz song. Do I wish there was more actual jazz music? Yes.
There’s no follow up to that thought. I just wish there was more jazz music.
People were getting hit on, going outside for smoke breaks, and dressing revealingly. In other words, it was a proper night out when you’re in your twenties. I’ve been told by adults in their 40s and 50s that it’s moments like this that they miss: getting put into a cab, a little, or very, intoxicated, their eardrums pounding after a night out with friends and being hit on whilst dressed to be hit on. And all that jazz.
We ended the night by walking down the street and calling taxis from the Virgin Rock Pub. It was the middle of the night. Music was still pounding in my ears. I hit my pillow that night already practically unconscious, but still thinking about how I enjoy the reckless abandon, the lack of responsibilites, and the quick turnaround hangover recovery when you’re under the age of 25.
On a pleasant afternoon, when I didn’t have any plans, I decided to go with my fellow SLC study abroaders, Natalie and Elsie, for a picnic. Our plan at first was to see some secret garden, have a few main character moments, take a few instagram worthy pictures, and call it a day, but because everything was closed due to it being Sunday, we decided instead to go to have lunch at the Piazza Vecchio, followed by us waltzing across the Ponte Vecchio on the River Arno.
We got some food at the market on our way to the Piazza Vecchio where we had a quick picnic underneath the statues. The statues are your normal, run-of-the-mill statues of mythological figures, naked women, and lions, all of which I approve of. I ate my panini and pasta while constantly under siege by pigeons who had the audacity to fly directly at my head with so much fervor that I probably could have filed a harassment lawsuit. I felt like I was in a Hitchcock film.
Then, onward to the bridge. The Ponte Vecchio, or the old bridge, is the oldest bridge in Florence because all of the other bridges were destroyed by the Germans during World War II. The Ponte Vecchio was specifically saved, supposedly, as a direct order from Hitler, due to its “cultural and historical significance.”
Now, it remains as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Florence, where people can buy expensive jewelry from street vendors and young assholes can scribble their names with sharpies. It was very important for me to know that “Dan was here” apparently.
Defacing an ancient historical bridge aside, the bridge is a beautiful site. It offers a perfect view of the river and much of the city.
From where I was on the bridge, the water looked warm and inviting and kayaking seemed like a good idea. Instead, I bought myself some new jewelry on the bridge, believing this to be the better option. It was.
We called it a day shortly thereafter. Surprisingly, a walk across a bridge and a quick snack was all it took to make a great day. I got some good food, a new ring, and a quick history lesson, all in one outing.
I’m usually pretty immune to FOMO (my fear of missing out usually gets shut out by my desire to curl up in the fetal position and rot into the couch) but I let all of that Dead Poets Society, seize the day, Gather Ye Rosebuds, go-into-the-woods-to-live-deliberately stuff, infect me and I was beginning to feel like I haven’t done a very good job of gathering my rosebuds since coming to Italy, so I decided to wake up early one morning to rectify that.
I’ve been outside the duomo almost everyday since coming here to the point where I was almost getting used to seeing it. It’s just a massive centuries old cathedral that has hundreds of tourists churning around it 24/7. How could a person not get used to that? I had, however, never once been inside it.
The only way to see the duomo for free is to attend Sunday church service, during which time, you are not allowed to actually walk into the dome, but since every other instance requires a reservation and money, I chose not to go that route quite yet. So, gripped by FOMO, I pulled out my Sunday best and went to mass.
I doubt Fomo has ever had this effect on anyone else, let me tell you.
I hadn’t given any thought to what the inside of the cathedral would look like. Immaculate is the word that comes to mind, of course, but it also does not even begin to cover it. It is an all expanding cathedral with a fresco on the ceiling and whenever my mind would wander off, I would look up at the dome and suddenly notice something different in it. The skeleton was a pretty cool find when I finally noticed it. Yes, you read that right.
I went to church, hoping to test my Italian comprehension, only for most of the service to be in Latin. In hindsight, that should have been obvious. They played the hits: In Excelsis Deo, Dona Nobis Pacem, and Sanctus. I fit right in.
Being raised Catholic, I knew how the church service was going to go. I might not have always known what was being said, but I always knew when to stand and kneel. Membership has its privileges.
I sang all of the psalms. The lady next to me and I had a pretty good harmony going for a while there.
I took a hit of eucharist, only for it not to be washed down with any wine, which is tragic when you consider how good the wine has been on this trip. COVID strikes again.
After church, I wanted to see the statue of David. Il museo accademico, where the statue of David resides, is also free to the public on the first and third Sunday of every month. In a perfect world, the plan would be to go to the duomo for free and then walk down the street to see the statue of David, also for free. It’d be easy like Sunday morning.
However, this does not account for the two hour long line that wraps around the building at any given moment. I stuck it out for about ten minutes before deciding that this was a rosebud to gather another day.
Instead, I had a picnic by myself in La Piazza Di Santa Croce, while reading A Room With A View.
My first couple of days in Florence were surreal and dreamy. My classes hadn’t started yet, I was meeting new people almost everyday, and everything was exciting and new. I was living the dream.
The dream mostly consisted of good food and shopping, the things that most people usually travel to Europe for. Sometimes, the dream came in the form of drinking a cocktail while the others smoked cigarettes out on a balcony in full view of the duomo, having their main character moment. Other times, it’s me listening to Megan Thee Stallion and Britney Spears outside of the Duomo the way God intended. Most nights are more chill than not with me making plans for a hot date alone in my room with pizza, probably Netflix, and a bottle of rosé. Other nights are considerably less chill with me throwing back drinks and having to witness a drunk girl being face-down, ass-up on the floor, as she tries to twerk and shout “I prefer Nicki Minaj.”
I don’t think I need a copy of the communist manifesto in Italian, do you?
Either way, it’s an experience.
In the early days, I stumbled upon an open air market and pranced around the park, perusing their selection of used books, clothes, paintings, and jewelry. I bought, as I can be counted on to do, a small painting of a naked lady, some jewelry, and a new jacket.
After having a bad day– although clearly it wasn’t that bad because for the life of me I can’t remember what was bad about it– I decided to do some retail therapy at a nearby vintage clothing store down the street from the duomo that contains nothing but high-end designer labels. It’s called mental stability: look it up.
It was there that I found every European designer label you could fathom. I’m talking about Hermes, Yves Saint Laurent, and Chanel. The whole store was a shrine to Moschino and Miu Miu. I’d found my happy place. It was there that I picked out a vintage Moschino blazer and mauve Barbour International raincoat and went to go check out.
My credit card declined and a piece of my soul died.
There is something so mortifying about having a card decline. You either look like a dumb bimbo who doesn’t know how much money is on her card or you can play it off like you’re confused too and something outside of your control has gone wrong.
This was a moment to maintain my composure and have some dignity, so naturally I cried about it in front of everyone instead. The man assured me that everything would be okay and that he would save the clothes I’d picked out for me for the next few days while I got my card sorted.
Natalie told me that she understood my reaction and we went to get dinner where I handled the situation by inhaling some creamy ravioli with a huge glass of merlot and splitting a chocolate souffle with Natalie. It’s called self-care. Look it up.
It was one of my first days in the country and the card was locked. My mother had gotten a fraud alert that she’d missed. I then had to call my credit card company that night and tried not to go full-tilt Karen. (“I HAD A VINTAGE MOSCHINO BLAZER IN MY HAND WHEN MY CARD DECLINED!”)
I went back a few days later and redeemed myself. I am vindicated.
I have since become a reliable customer. My new Moschino mini skirt will back me up on this.
Those were how I spent the first couple of days. Trust me, the plot only thickened from there.
I had to open the post with that, because I am now officially in Italy, trying to use words like that in an attempt to learn a second language.
I’ve packed my best clothes and my favorite books. I did my duolingo, watched Italian tv with Italian subtitles, and listened to Italian language podcasts in an attempt to sprinkle some last minute language skills into my repertoire before showing up. Before I left, I asked for a small photo album that could fit in my bag for my birthday. That way I can bring pictures of my family and friends with me to Italy to look at whenever I get homesick. The photo album came as a pair, so now I will be using one for my loved ones and filling the other one up with images from my time in Italy when I get back. I have my favorite pictures of my parents and friends during my favorite moments with them, peppered in with glam shots of my precious, plump cat Calypso.
My friend and fellow Sarah Lawrence student, Natalie, traveled with me from Atlanta to Rome and then from Rome to Florence. We’ve all seen the Instagram “models” strutting down beautiful European streets, not at all hot and sweaty, with perfectly coiffed hair and no fanny packs strapped to their waist.
This was not that.
I remained grimy, and oddly sticky, for much of the duration of my plane and subsequent train ride, in need of a shower, long nap, hot tea, and steamrolling. After tripping over my two behemoth suitcases, not knowing how to operate any machine I came across, and struggling to string together a coherent Italian sentence except when apologizing to whoever was around me, I managed to get to my destination. Jet-lagged and hungry, I was therefore unaware of what day, and, possibly, what year it was at any given moment.
So, you see, my friend and I were not the poised, unbothered, clearly-made-of-money ladies that have graced all of our Instagram feeds, who are conspicuously never juggling multiple cross-body bags and effortlessly getting around the suddenly uncrowded streets of Europe. We were the flushed-faced tourists, hiding our fanny packs beneath our clothes, while rolling our suitcases down the street in comfortable walking shoes and stretchy pants that are good for airplanes.
I am not complaining. This is all part of the adventure.
After a character-building day, I went to bed in my host family’s apartment only to wake up the next day in the middle of the day.
Day #1: Lost
My host family asked me if I was dead. Surprisingly, at 3:35 in the afternoon, I was not. In order to actually do something with my day, after sleeping away most of it, I decided to set out to see the city.
There were a few problems with this task.
Whenever I leave the house, I always get lost. Whenever I get lost, I cry. Whenever I’m crying out on the street, people aggressively try not to make eye contact with me. I therefore strived to get a grip, but I have not yet mastered the art of taking a deep breath. That will surely come in handy one day.
After a charming day of getting lost in a beautiful city, I called it quits, ready to redeem myself the next day, which, I am pleased to report, I did. Natalie lives near Il Duomo and accidentally stumbled upon it during her time lost in the city, so we set out for Il Duomo in order to get our feet wet on our second full day in Florence.
My first full day in Florence: My First Cup of Coffee
After eating a dinner of ravioli and red wine with a dreamy view of the duomo, I ordered myself an espresso shot over a tiramisu. Since I was in the land of cappuccino and espresso, I decided that my first real cup of coffee should be here. If I was ever going to fall in love with coffee, it was going to be here, save for perhaps Rwanda or Colombia. I also thought that drinking espresso over dessert is the mature, chic way to go.
When in Rome.
Update: I am still a tea drinker.
I still have too much of a sweet tooth for something that bitter, which is probably why I chased it with gelato while wandering around the piazza. It was there that we watched the sun go down around the Duomo, more than making up for yesterday’s disaster.
So that was the start of a beautiful time abroad in Italy. More information to come.
I came here for a number of reasons.
I wish I could say that I came here for the people that I would meet or so that I’ll be changed as a person, but we all know that I’m not like that. The main reason, which should be obvious, is that I just wanted to see Florence and other parts of the world, but mostly, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I knew even when I signed up for this program that there would come a moment where I’d be so frustrated, so hopeless, and so out of my depth that I would come to regret it, but I decided to come anyway because I knew that I would have to push through those feelings and feel better for it.
Now, I’m here, actually doing it. I’ll let you know how that’s going.