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When I first arrived in Florence

Posted on Sunday, February 5, 2006

So many things happened in 1997 that prompted me to come to Florence. I had visited Florence only once with an ex-boyfriend. He, eleven of his friends, and I rented a villa in Umbria for a week. My ex and I flew to Milano and rented a car to drive down to the villa. We didn't drive directly to Umbria, we first spent a few days at Lago di Como, had lunch in Parma, and then stayed a few nights in Bologna.

After we arrived at the villa in Umbria, we took day trips to Siena and Florence while everyone else sat out by the pool and took in the sun. At the time, I was living in Hampton Court (Surrey) in England, so the sun was definitely an attractive feature for us all. While the others sat by the pool, my ex and I ventured out to see as much of Italy as we could.

I initially fell in love with Siena, but I knew that I could never live there as I found it a little too small for me. I have always loved big cities especially after living in Paris for six years. I missed Paris's majestic beauty, the hustle and bustle, and the fast-walking Parisians.

After my ex and I broke up, I felt a bit lost in England renting a room while I was looking for an apartment to live by myself again. I had moved out of Paris to be with him a few years before and I wasn't sure I really wanted to stay in England. I had made a lot of friends there, but still I felt something was missing. After talking with a friend of mine who asked me what I would do if I could do anything, I realized that my dream was to move to Italy, learn Italian, and write.

For the following weeks, I focused on realizing my dream. I searched for schools that I could attend in Italy to learn Italian. Back then, the Internet wasn't as comprehensive as it is now, so I went to London to visit the Italian Consulate and picked up a few flyers for schools in Florence. When I spoke to someone at the consulate, they told me that I should go to Florence or Siena because the Italian language originated from there and there would be no dialect that I'd have to contend with.

I was hoping initially to go to Rome because I thought it would be like Paris: exciting, beautiful, and inspiring for a writer. I liked Florence and Siena, but I opted for Florence because it was bigger although there was only one thing I didn't initially like about Florence and that was the droves of tourists roaming the city. I felt like I would just be another American in a city full of Americans. It's not that I didn't want to be with other Americans; it's that people begin to generalize about a group of people the more they see them and meet them.

I emailed a few of the schools and only one responded. It was August and I was planning on going at the beginning of September. I told them that I wanted to live with a family for a month and be able to have breakfast and dinner with the family to practice listening/speaking Italian.

A few nights before I left England, I watched a few subtitled Italian films, like "Cinema Paradiso" and "Il Postino." I naively thought that I could accustom my ear to Italian a little bit, but I had no idea that the accents would be so different. I knew only enough Italian to say "per favore," "grazie," and "ciao." Everything I initially learned I did so by reading a phrase book.

Within a few weeks, I had everything planned: I handed over all of my clients to a friend of mine and told him that I'd return in three months, right after Christmas. I moved all of my things into storage, dropped off my car at a friend's house, and left England.

I took the train from London to Paris, then down to Lyon where I attended a friend's wedding in Lyon, and then back up to Paris for one night. I stayed at a friend's house in the 16th and each way to and from the Gare de Lyon, the taxi drove through the underpass where Princess Diana had just passed away the night before, so I saw the crash site twice. And, each time chills ran through me as I stared at the pillar.

The Eurostar train went from Paris to Milano. When we arrived in Milano, I had to run to catch my connecting train to Florence. I arrived in Florence with two suitcases, my cell phone, and my Macintosh PowerBook. All I had was an address and phone number of where I was going. On the train, I met an American guy who was from Hawaii and had just finished INSEAD (a well-renowned business school) in Paris. He was doing the "Eurorail" thing for a few months. I gave him my new home number and email because he said he was staying in Florence for a few days, but we never saw each other again.

I took a taxi to the family's house in via La Marmora near Piazza LibertÓ and was startled by how dark the house was. There were three other straniere (foreign girls), the woman's son and her ex-husband. The lady of the house had a small bedroom where she and her son slept and the ex-husband slept in the living room. All the doors to the apartment were kept closed. There was a total of six bedrooms and two bathrooms I figured out later. The woman showed me around speaking only Italian to me. It was already dinner time, so I sat at the table with them to eat in silence and then went to my room, which was right next to the kitchen. The other girls in the apartment whose rooms were on the other side of the apartment went out and so we didn't even meet.

That first night while I laid down on a cot in a room the size of a pantry, I couldn't help but cry for what seemed like hours. I felt alone in my new home: I had no one to talk to. All I could do was curse myself for leaving my home with all my friends and job back in England. I was wondering why I would leave all of that just to learn Italian and focus on my writing and why this change seemed so painful when I thought I made my choice out of love and not fear.