The Frozen River: Florence, Week 5
A city is like a river when you’re just passing through. The shops, restaurants, streets, cars, churches, bridges, dogs and pedestrians all blur together into one amorphously screeching, steaming, exhaustive mass. Movement defines the patterns in the cobblestones, the reflections in the windows, the shapes of the clouds hanging over the skyline. You feel yourself being swept along, even when you’re the one doing all the moving. A passing bus offers an assortment of strangers like brightly-colored candies in a restaurant window – faces, hairstyles, clothes, eyes – before rounding a corner and bringing the curtains crashing down on the display. You crane your neck to catch a glimpse through a doorway, down an alleyway, under a bridge, and the next second you’ve been carried past it, hurried along by the knowledge that your time here is finite, that sooner than you’d like to believe, everything you see will be gone.
This was my first impression of Florence when I came to visit on a family vacation with my parents over seven years ago. Our time in the city was divided and parceled neatly between the major landmarks – the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi and the Academia – with little pockets for food, sleep and air nestled sparsely in between. I remember being infatuated with gelato and pizza, mildly impressed with the museums and monuments, and absolutely furious with uneven cobblestone streets. I remember sweating (it was July), snapping pictures like a forensic specialist (every angle, every surface), and becoming constipated from my rigorous diet of pizza and ice cream (my own fault). These are the solid rocks jutting up through the rapids; the rest, of course, is a blur.
Fast forward seven years and here I am again, back on the same continent, in the same country, the same city. Only it isn’t the same, exactly, because this time I’m here to stay. Not for life, or even a year, but for the next three months. And let me tell you: it’s a big difference three months can make.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve started to experience a different kind of Florence. Gone are the churches, the museums, the towers, the bridges, the arches, the statues. Gone are the famous squares and the equally famous landmarks in them. Reading this, it might sound like Florence has undergone some horrific bombing or demolition. Don’t worry – it hasn’t. From what I can remember of that first visit seven years ago, the infrastructure has remained relatively the same.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve started to experience a different kind of Florence. Gone are the churches, the museums, the towers, the bridges, the arches, the statues.
What I mean, at the risk of sounding incredibly snobbish, is that I’m no longer a tourist. Four weeks in the city have transformed it from a gleaming, glittering Disney World full of photo-ops and must-sees to the essence of what it really is underneath all the glamour: a city. Here is a Florence full of well-worn streets and names I can call familiar. Here is a Florence I can look at from the vantage of my third-floor kitchen window. I’ve been here long enough now to perform every major function of domestic life – take out the trash, mop the floor, do the dishes, wash and dry my clothes, etc. – and with these chores comes an onset of subtle and startling normality. The charm and beauty of Florence have yet to fade, and I doubt that they ever will, but the novelty is something you can scratch off like the numbers on a lottery ticket.
Underneath is something more rewarding. The first time I stepped out of my apartment building and onto the cobbled and shady Via Faenza, I was met, along with the sharp chirps of bike bells and whistles, the noxious wafts of grilled meat and baked pastries and cigarette smoke, with a terrible, crippling anxiety. To step out into that cartwheeling madness of foreign smells and sounds was a challenge, and I felt unprepared. I felt like turning on my heels and stepping quickly back indoors.
A few weeks later the anxiety is gone, and in its place is a growing confidence. Stepping onto the street every morning to head to class, or to the grocery store, or to a park to sit and read, I’m struck by the immeasurable possibility a city like Florence has to offer. The whirlwind of commotion that defines an average city street on an average day is no longer something I must weather, with a shoulder thrown forward and both eyes squeezed shut. It’s something I’m a part of.
That’s the funny thing about a city: it’s never really moving. That river-like commotion of blending sights and sounds is just an illusion to the passer-through. When you take the time to sit down in the middle of a place, to simply anchor yourself to a spot and observe, it changes. With the onset of autumn, the river freezes over. It becomes a solid place, a place for you to explore, a place where you can come and go as you please. I’ll never forget the Florence I used to know – the Florence of so much confused movement and noise – but with each passing day I’m reminded more firmly of the incredible yet indisputable fact that I’m no longer passing through.
I live here now.