My First Glimpse of Florence

The Duomo  in Florence, Italy

The Duomo in Florence, Italy

by Shannon Berg

My first glimpse of Italy is one of my most cherished memories. I had dreamed of going there from a very young age, and arrived with an over flowing enthusiasm if very little knowledge about the actual place. I may have checked a map at some point before I left home, but very little more. On my arrival I had already completed two years of Italian, but had done so badly the prior director of the program actually took the pains to write to the college commission asking them to withdraw their offer for me to spend my junior year abroad in Florence. Lucky for me that year there were very few applicants for the program due to the war in Iraq and I was therefore permitted to go despite my pitiful language skills. In addition, my Italian professor defended me, arguing that going there would be the only hope of my ever learning to speak the language.

So, I flew first from San Francisco to Boston, then on to Amsterdam and to Florence. As we approached and then descended at the end of this last flight, I felt my stomach climb into my throat as the pilot forced the small plane into a sharp u-turn while landing in order to avoid the hill that sat at the end of the short runway. Exhausted and clueless, I was thrilled to find another student from my group get off the same flight, and we happily shared a taxi together into the city. It was back in 1991, before the center was closed to traffic, and so the taxi was able to drive all the way to the heart of the historic center, to Piazza Signoria, leaving us right in front of the Smith College Sede, or center.

As we drove from a more modern and industrial area in the periphery of the city into the historic center of Florence, I watched out the window taking everything in. It was a cloudy day that threatened rain despite the heat, making the air humid and creating a hazy white light. None the less, everything appeared brilliant and beautiful. My senses were going crazy with the new sounds of the language I could barely decipher, the smells of the flowers that bloomed around me mixed with car exhaust and over ripe trash bins, the heat and exhaustion, but mostly by the glorious sights that were everywhere I looked. I nearly hung out the window of the taxi trying to take it all in. The image that stands out most in my mind, though, is the approach we took to the oldest part of this city, past the train station towards the great Duomo of Florence. We turned the corner on Via De’ Cerretani and came straight on to the Cathedral, then cut in front of the Baptistery to the right, and drove on past the Duomo into Florence’s medieval alleyways. I must at some point in my studies of art history seen images of the cathedral before my arrival, but nothing prepared me for its glorious reality. As I hung out that taxi’s window, trying to take everything in, I was truly awestruck by its amazing beauty and grace. The colors and patterns of its many colored marble were breathtaking and so unexpected. I had visited other European cities including Vienna, Paris and Amsterdam, but none had ever left me so overwhelmed. My heart raced as we drove on until we reached the great Piazza Signoria, nearly struck dumb as my love affair with that Italian city began that day.

I spent the next nine months walking through Florence, both for economy and by choice. Not only was my budget limited, I also lived in fear of taking the wrong bus and never finding my way back, or worse, of missing some hidden treasure on the way as the buses flew through the city. I chose to walk everywhere instead, meandering down new streets in search of any new prize in the form of a fresco, Madonna or unusual building. I wandered through museums and art exhibits, often on my own, silently reflecting on the the wonder of it all. I went out of my way to meet and befriend as many Italians as I could, and even began speaking after a few months. I ate like I never had before, and even lost three dress sizes despite it all, tasting anything I could, always eager to try something new. Eventually my time in Florence came to an end. I cried all the way from Pisa to London, leaving my grandparents perplexed to see me in such a state when they met me at the airport there after a visit to a cousin in Wales. On returning to my family in San Francisco, I was left disappointed with my own home which I once felt was one of the most beautiful places in the world, and so my passion for Florence and Italy in general only grew. In the coming years I actually did go back many times and even lived there again for a number of years. Like many loves, the passion has died down and I now see some of Florence’s faults, but in my heart I will always store the memory of my first sight of this amazing city.


~ di worldsitetravellers su luglio 18, 2008.


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