This is a guest post by Suzy Guese. If you want to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read more here.
As the van screeches to a halt, the driver forcefully launches my bags on the sidewalk. I am far from the familiar. One-way Via Della Vigna Nuova in Florence fills with people and light. I yell back at the driver, ” Che numero e?”? in a shaky, uncertain voice. ” Tre!”? she screams back at me, mid exclamation and already the white van has turned the corner.
I look for Biliotti on the golden doorbell frame. Just below, Dolce & Gabana share a spot in the building. I notice a Gucci store is my neighbor. I begin to wonder if I have reached Italian fashion heaven, that if I ring Dolce & Gabana, who or what will open those impressive caramel colored, gold detailed doors. Instead I decide to stick to the plan. I will ring my assigned host family.
The van that dropped me off held a handful of excited, gabbing American college students, ready to begin their semester abroad in Florence. However, most of these students do not face those intimidating doors in front of me.
The majority will live together in apartments around town, speaking the common foreign language of English. One chatty Kathy begins to go around the van, drilling everyone if they know Italian. I am the only one with any experience. It seems most just make their way to Florence to guzzle down the wine, meet hunky Fabio, and travel around Europe.
Who can blame them? Florence is an idyllic city, covered in Renaissance art and architecture. Some of the greatest minds and artists hail from Florence, one of which Dante Alighieri. Dante supposedly lived just down the street from where I make my new home. He is credited with glorifying the Italian language to what we know it as today, the language forty somethings have started to learn post Under the Tuscan Sun for its romantic appeal. I have come however to live with Mauro and Loriana, two older Florentines looking for some American company.
The door buzzes open and I begin to maneuver my cumbersome bags through the threshold. An older red-faced Italian man rushes down the stairs, excitedly greeting me with those overly expressive Italian hand gestures. He stops to give me the double Euro kiss. I am always so awkwardly American at those, never knowing if I should go right or left first, making the exchange more of a standoff of head bobbing.
We climb the stairs and I meet Loriana, Mauro's wife. My jetlag subsides and I feel that excitement. I am crossing over, but not in the hokey John Edward TV show sense. I am crossing cultures, becoming an Italian for a semester.
Travelers can easily get by without speaking a word of Italian in Florence. Students studying abroad in the city for the most part bring their mini America to the streets the Medici used to rule. At the end of the semester in Florence, there were those few students that confided their envy at my host family set-up, jealous of my connection to actual Italians I can take home in memory.
Florence is covered in English speakers. A redheaded, American looking girl, even if she speaks Italian to get those scoops of gelato, normally is met with English. The Florentines are just so used to the English invasion to their city, with thousands of foreign students studying abroad in Florence every year making no attempts towards speaking Italian. On a small scale I tried to change that impression.
The only advice I give to those college students choosing the independence of studying abroad is to stay with locals. Most home stay programs include meals with your Italian family. Those breakfasts, lunches and dinners turn into Italian conversation lessons. Some days, after five classes, you do not have the energy to do it, but you must out of courtesy sit with your family and try.
Powering through bad moods and fatigue creates an overwhelming sense of independence. You do not just come home with a slew of photos from all over Europe to show to your family and friends. You come home with friends and family from another culture and a wider understanding of life in general.
Night after night, I dined with Mauro and Loriana, learning about their sons, previous lives, and Italian history. Mauro's know-it-all Italian male nature was apparent, telling my roommate Lisa and I how life goes, at least according to Mauro. We would later go back in our room, chuckling about Mauro's persona, but there was something so fatherly in the way he treated us.
Loriana fulfilled the motherly role, always making sure I left home with a sweater and umbrella. On sapphire blue colored sofas, I would lounge with Loriana, discovering she was once a famous Florentine fashion designer. We would watch Italian talk shows and dramatic soap operas. Tonight, Loriana is probably up late, glued to the newest soap and what I would not give right now to be doing the same, not only speaking Italian but bonding over Italian TV with ” i miei genitori italiani”? as I call them, my Italian parents.
Suzy Guese is a travel writer based in Denver, Colorado. Travel has always been an integral part of her life with family vacations at a young age and her year in college studying abroad in Florence, Sicily, and Sorrento. Find out more about Suzy by following her on Twitter or reading suzyguese.com, where she takes readers physically or mentally around the world with a red-headed temperament.