Here is the Cliff Notes version of the past month: Florence had that sort of sticky heat where I couldn’t even bring myself to sleep under a blanket, but seemingly overnight, it morphed into the Alabama/Florida equivalent of January. It feels both refreshing and morally incorrect to be wearing a coat in October, but I'm doing it anyways. I have what feels like a million projects going on at once, but they’re surprisingly coming together. For some reason I thought it was a good idea to write this blog post instead of working on those million projects for midterms next week. I’ve realized that- surprise!- working in the darkroom is actually wonderful. I’ve been on weekend adventures with the photo MFAs to Parma (where a bowl of pasta almost made me weep with joy), Fontanellato (the tiniest, quietest little town famous for its camera obscura and castle), and Cortona (where I saw what was hands-down the coolest photography exhibition I’ve ever been to). Lastly, of course, I’m still taking more photos than I ever have in my life.
I’ve been asked a lot if I’m homesick, and I’m not sure how to answer. Of course I miss the people close to me, and there have been moments where I’ve wished for the convenience of the US (home of Super Target), but there’s never been a second where I’ve genuinely wanted to be back. Even now that the newness is fading and I have a routine, I feel totally in my element in Florence and at SACI. The dominant emotion when I think about Alabama or Florida isn’t sadness; instead, it’s more of a surreal detachment. Nearly every aspect of my life changed overnight, so it doesn’t feel like I moved away. Instead, I feel like I’ve stepped into a completely different life.
If I’m being honest, that probably stems from Facebook. Seeing pictures of the people I care about doing things like getting ready for College Night, printing photos in Bloch 11 (the classroom I considered to be my home), celebrating holiday weekends on 30A, and going to open mic night at Eclipse is more bizarre than it is sad. I’m used to being within a 4 hour driving distance of the cities that I call home; now I feel like I’ve entered some sort of alternate reality, so those cities can’t exist in the way that I’m used to. It’s hard to believe that everything is more or less the same in the places that I left behind. It probably doesn’t take moving across the world to understand this detached sort of feeling, and I’m sure it’s something many people my age are familiar with as they make their way into the world. Still, it’s something I’ve never experienced before.
With each passing day, Florence becomes more familiar. I’ve become a regular at two coffee shops (one near my apartment and one by the school). On the weekends, I start my day with a cappuccino at the closest of the two and follow it with a visit to the Sant’Ambrogio market for produce. I can name my favorite streets and my favorite piazzas and my favorite bridge. I joined a gym, even though I’ve hardly gone to it (walking everywhere is turning out to be enough of a workout). I’m surrounded by talented, intelligent people who have made me feel welcome from the very start. Never once have I felt lonely or isolated. In some ways, Florence feels more like home than Alabama ever did.
Of course, there are other times in which I’m acutely aware of being out of my comfort zone. For example, a visit to a medical clinic devolved into a seven-hour ordeal, thanks in part to my inability to express myself in anything more than basic terms. I can pick out bits and pieces of Italian conversation now, and I think it’s more frustrating than not knowing anything at all. When you have no idea what’s being said, it’s easy to tune out, but now I constantly feel like I'm missing something. In addition, I’m learning every day that certain things are “non si fa”- not done. Italians can be quite traditional in that sense; certain things are done certain ways, and deviating from that norm is an automatic giveaway that you’re not from around here (not that I’d fool anybody anyways, especially once I open my mouth). Italians are famously warm, but I’ve also seen that Florentines can be somewhat closed off to new friendships. Learning these customs and the undertones attached to certain words and phrases is just as difficult as the language itself. At the end of the day, no matter how well I speak or how much I integrate, I can never actually be Italian.
As funny as it sounds, the knowledge that I am always attached to my origins can be comforting. It’s partly because I’m (sometimes) proud of my Alabama roots, but it also has to do with a certain sense of freedom. In a way, it’s liberating that I can never completely blend in. I know it’s not going to happen, so the embarrassment about making a mistake with the language or accidentally committing a “non si fa” are lessened. It’s easier to forgive myself without that expectation; I don’t feel as timid as I did when I first came to Italy and was overly embarrassed of the fact that I’m American. From my experience, as long as I am being respectful (and reasonably quiet at restaurants), speaking English isn’t a bad thing. Also, as I’m navigating my way through this new place, I’m seeing a side to the city that born and bred Florentines don’t experience. My relationship to Florence is unique to me.
So, that’s what I’m doing- I’m building a relationship with Italy. It’s easy to idealize this city, and it’s easy to become disillusioned with it as well. I’m trying to find that middle ground and accept Florence for all it has to offer. It’s working well so far, because there hasn’t been a second where I’ve wished I’d gone to grad school elsewhere. This is because my school is incredible and because this city has so much heart to it.
There were plenty of routines and elements to my life in the USA that made me feel safe and at home. Mostly it was the small things, like my favorite wrap from Eclipse, drinking coffee and reading in Barnes and Noble, the Alabaster YMCA, or one particular pillow on the couch of my old apartment. I’m starting to find those elements here in Florence. Again, it’s little bits and pieces: my morning cappuccino, hours spent obsessing over small details in the darkroom, the silly jingle that plays over and over in the grocery store, walking past the Basilica di Santa Croce every morning, and roommate dinners at our giant dining room table. It’s still surreal to be here, but I’m starting to feel less like I’m living in a fantasy world and more like I've found a place for myself.
These are the elements that make up my life, and right now, my life is really beautiful.