Study Abroad: Alone in Florence

 
Ponte Vecchio  - Florence, Italy - Photo by Peter Horvath

Ponte Vecchio - Florence, Italy - Photo by Peter Horvath

 

During the four months I spent studying in Rome, I was able to visit Florence (Firenze in Italian) twice. Both experiences were completely different and signified different points in my personal development process. Although my first time visiting was a great experience, it was also emotionally turbulent.

It was only my second week in Rome, and without truly exploring the beautiful city I was living in, I was already giving in to the pressure of leaving Rome for the weekends. The vast majority of students who study abroad come from white, upper-middle class, suburban families. Naturally, these students study abroad with the funds to travel around as often as they please. As the weekends approached, the trending topic of conversation was always, “Where are you going this weekend?”. Granted, I also had intentions of visiting different places, but traveling on my own dime, I knew I had to pace myself.

Being completely honest, I was jealous that I didn’t have the privileges my peers had. Their nonchalant attitudes and visible lack of appreciation for their ability to travel freely, angered and confused me.

Sure, they had fun, and spoke highly of their travels, but something about their vibe told me it was just another trip, or that they were just traveling for the Instagram pics. There were even students who didn’t care to be in Rome at all, because they’d been there before. For someone like me, who had only dreamed of traveling outside the Dominican Republic, and whose main reference of Rome was The Lizzie McGuire Movie, this was not just another trip - this meant everything to me.

So my decision to randomly book a trip to Florence (the day before), was fueled by all of these things. Although I travel because it is what I love to do, there were parts of me that wanted to prove to myself, and to my well-off white peers, that I could do it too - and do it better. 

 
 

As soon as I left the station, I felt empowered, as it was only my second solo trip. The first thing I did was head to my Airbnb, which was on the outskirts of the city. Something I found interesting, was the huge amount of Africans I saw. The only Africans I had seen in Rome, were always in the tourist areas selling bags and handmade jewelry. But in Florence, I got to see them as an integral part of the society, as residents of the city. A black mother with her son, bringing home groceries and speaking Italian; a Senegalese teen on his way home from school. I became so curious about black history in Italy, and how they are treated. I wanted so badly to stop them and ask about their life stories, how they ended up in Florence and why, but I didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. The last thing I wanted was to make someone feel like an exhibit, the way white people make black folk feel when they ask if their hair is real, and if they can touch it.

The house I was staying at was cozy and welcoming. I was greeted by my Airbnb host’s father, a really old, and sweet Italian man. I felt so bad letting him carry my bag all the way to the top floor but he insisted. He spoke very little English, but luckily, I had already learned enough Italian to understand most of what he was saying. He provided me with keys, a map, a travel guide, and a bike. Then he left, and my weekend alone in Florence had begun.

 
Famous  Ponte Vecchio  - Florence, Italy 

Famous Ponte Vecchio - Florence, Italy 

 

One thing that happens when you travel solo, is you stop and awkwardly ask yourself, “Okay, what now?”. It’s a bit intimidating knowing that it’s all up to you, but then again, how often do you get to decide what it is that you want to do while traveling? The first thing I wanted was to eat, but I walked around, and the few places I saw, were closed. I should’ve assumed this by the very thorough tour of the kitchen, and directions to the supermarket the old man had given me.

The shitty emotions I experienced that night, began with a lack of food. I was in an attic, hungry, cranky, bored, and lonely as hell. At that point, all I wanted was to lay down and watch Netflix. I went to open my laptop case, and realized that I had locked it and left the key back in Rome. On top of that, the Netflix app on my phone wasn’t working. This is when I realized the universe was trying to teach me something.

Until then, I had fooled myself into believing that I was comfortable being alone, but in the absence of weed and Netflix to distract me from myself, my true emotions and insecurities began to surface. I spent hours writing, delving into what I was feeling, and learning about the roots beneath my fear of loneliness. As you’re reading this, you may be thinking, “Oh no, this is not my idea of a vacation, I’m not tryna do all that.” The truth is, traveling is not always perfect, and learning about yourself isn’t always easy, but both are essential to your growth. I wouldn’t be the strong and confident woman I am today had I not spent nights like this.

As the weekend went on, things got better and better. I woke up the next day refreshed from all the inner work I had done the night before. It was a beautiful Saturday morning, the weather was perfect, and I was ready to explore. I biked through a huge, beautiful park to get into the city (Parco Delle Cascine), which took me about four hours, because I didn’t want to leave the park; I was like a kid in a playground. I sat and had the best panino I’d ever had, chatted with Italians, rode around the park a few times, and even laid on the grass and tanned.

 
Palazzo della Signora  - Florence, Italy 

Palazzo della Signora - Florence, Italy 

 

When I finally made it to the city center, I walked for a half hour searching for the Salvatore Ferragamo museum, but when I found it, I decided not to go inside - simply because I no longer felt like it. That was the moment that I discovered one of the best parts of traveling solo: you can truly do what you want, when you want. Had I been with anyone else, they would’ve been so upset at me, and probably would’ve forced me to go inside. I kept walking around the city, as Florence is a beautiful open-air museum, with unforgettable art and architecture. My night ended with a book, and a delicious dinner outdoors at a local restaurant by where I was staying.

 
Florence Cathedral and  Il Duomo  - Florence, Italy 

Florence Cathedral and Il Duomo - Florence, Italy 

 

The next day, I met a really friendly couple from Seattle. They had been backpacking through Europe for weeks, staying at different farms, as they planned on starting their own. Being from New York City, I thought this was weird at first, but seeing how happy they were, made me believe in their dream, and taught me another lesson: not to judge people’s reasons and ways of traveling, just because they are different from my own. The three of us rode our bikes into the city, through that beautiful park I had fallen in love with.

I had originally planned to spend the day museum-hopping, but then they told me about the Gelato Festival Finale that was happening that day. All I could think was, “It’s lit, and God loves me.” First, I decided to visit Il Palazzo Pitti, a breathtaking Renaissance palace with seven museums, an amphitheatre, and beautiful gardens. Then, I went on an uphill mission in 90 degree weather, to make it to Piazzale Michelangelo, where the gelato festival would take place. For 12 Euro I got to taste 18 unique gelato flavors, and watched live cooking lessons. 

 
Palazzo Pitti  - Florence, Italy 

Palazzo Pitti - Florence, Italy 

 

After taking in the gorgeous view, and eating more than I could handle, I rode back to the Airbnb, took a glorious nap, then headed back home, to Rome. 

 
Piazzale Michelangelo  - Florence, Italy 

Piazzale Michelangelo - Florence, Italy 

 

Not only did I have a great time visiting Florence for the first time, I also learned a lot about myself, and was forced into facing my fear of being alone. This trip not only made me feel more at peace with myself, it also gave me the courage to keep working on this, something I am extremely grateful for today.