Never in my early imaginings of Italy did I foresee a Zen experience. In a country known for loud, gesticulating talkers, cussing, reckless drivers, and droves of chatty American tourists, I didn’t anticipate a space for quiet or introspection. And I was perfectly happy with that.
A textbook extrovert, I’ve always hated being alone. Other people give me energy and life, whereas alone, I tend to get trapped in my own head, to spiral downwards into an abyss of negative thoughts and memories. The older I’ve gotten, the more insistently I seek out company out of fear of silence. At school, I’m nearly never alone, surrounding myself with people whenever I eat, study, or do extracurriculars. I call people on my walks to and from class, I’m in constant contact with my friends throughout the day, I even take short showers to avoid the quiet.
Before I left for Florence, my friend told me that his favorite and most rewarding parts of study abroad were those when he travelled alone. He regaled me with tales of getting lost in the crooked backstreets of Germany and Iceland, of wandering into careworn pubs or beautiful gardens, of forming spontaneous, childlike friendships with locals and travellers alike. He told me that the only way to truly know yourself is to put time and effort into the relationship.
As hard as I’ve tried to brush off those sage words throughout my time here, they’ve stubbornly stuck in that steel-trap brain of mine. Now, with the semester winding down, there’s less to do. I secured my dream internship, finished all my final papers, and read nearly every book in the tiny English section at the local library. So, I decided, as a final hurrah, to get to know Florence on a personal basis.
Every day, I run the six miles down from our golden Villa on the hills to the Duomo, the gorgeous landmark in the heart of the city, to the soundtrack of NPR’s This American Life or Serial. From there, I go on mini Kate adventures. One day, I went to All’Antico Vinaio, Florence’s best Panini shop. Unfortunately, it’s a badly kept secret, and tourists formed lines miles long, clutching guidebooks and oversized water bottles. My face dropped as I took in the spectacle. Waiting two hours for a sandwich, when the line had been nonexistent just two weeks before, felt absurdly touristy to me, a hardened and sophisticated pseudo-Florentine.
As I was contemplating biting the bullet and getting a substandard Panini at the place next door, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A guy with a University of Florence sweatshirt had broken off from his group of his friends towards the front of the line. He asked me if I wanted him to order me a sandwich, rolling his eyes in characteristic Florentine disdain at the bumbling tourists who’d invaded his city. Five minutes later, I emerged triumphantly with my prosciutto, pecorino, and truffle sauce sandwich, buoyed by my new Italian friends and unexpected good fortune.
Another day, I decided to tack on a couple more miles and run to Gusta Pizza, the acclaimed Neapolitan pizzeria adjacent to the Ponto Vecchio. As usual, it was packed. Impatient customers waved their little white deli slips like flags of surrender, demanding tables and citing the many minutes they’d already had to wait. I got to the front of the line and asked the beleaguered cashier for a margherita pizza to go. He looked exhausted and completely overwhelmed. A pang of compassion shot through me, and I asked him how his day was going. After we chatted for a few minutes, he took a surreptitious look around and grabbed a newly completed pizza from the rack. Slipping it to me, he winked as he called out the next number, a full twenty digits from my own. I left the shop smiling and absolutely starving. Cracking the pizza box, I saw that he’d given me one baked in the shape of a heart.
These stories probably sound like little more than a series of vignettes in which nice Italians help me jump lines. But they’re also personal triumphs. In the few weeks I’ve been doing this, I’ve finally encountered and befriended actual locals, breaking out of the wonderful but completely insular community at the Villa. I’ve given tourists directions and taken special shortcuts, finally feeling like I belong in this city. I’ve had the time to reflect on myself, my life, and my semester here, as I walk down uneven streets peppered with leather vendors and artists.
I come back from these runs centered, calm, and usually well-fed. Italy has given me a newfound appreciation of silence, a joy in wandering its streets and drinking in the springtime air perfumed with wisteria and honeysuckle. I’ve been able to let go of that pervasive anxiety and default replaying of bad memories and weighty to-do lists that used to occupy my mind when I wasn’t cramming it with social interaction and constant stimulation. I run. I eat. I make a friend. I wander. It’s a freedom unlike any I’ve ever experienced before, and it’s put me on much closer terms with a person I’d been neglecting for months – myself.