My Love/Hate Relationship with Florence

Il Duomo
Il Duomo

Five years ago right now, you could have found me living on Via Sant’ Egidio, a couple of blocks away from il Duomo, in what has been consistently named the best city in the world. Since that time, I’ve had a passionate love/hate relationship with Florence, Italy. I absolutely despised it 95% of the time I called it home. But it’s the city that changed me. It made me who I am today. And recently, I got to go back.

Mia bella città.

Mia bella città.

When our train from Rome pulled into Santa Maria Novella, I had this deep sense of déjà vu. I’d been here many times before. I recognized the train station, the street outside. I knew exactly how to get to the Duomo, my school, my old apartment. I’d walked this road dozens of times. In a different life.

After checking into our AirBnb a few blocks away from the heart of the city, we set out to explore. I had a map in my purse, but I knew I wouldn’t need it. It had taken me two months of living in this city to finally figure it out, and it’s something that’s forever ingrained in my memory. Within minutes, I’d found the main building of Lorenzo de Medici, the American school I attended my last semester of college. It was the first stop of many on my road to rediscovery.

Next, we passed through Piazza della Repubblica, glancing up at the archway I walked through each morning on the way to school. I knew I was almost there. One more turn, and I would see it. The Duomo, in all its detailed glory. It really is a stunningly beautiful sight—the façade seemingly one giant work in cameo. So ornately decorated, almost dripping in sculpted beauty. This is the place I passed by every single day. I had tread these grounds before—only five years prior, but a lifetime ago. How could I not have appreciated this?

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Within minutes, we’d made our way to my old apartment, a place we’d both been before. Kyle had visited me here briefly during his trip to Italy over our mid-semester break. We’d just gotten engaged in Venice, and we had one final night before he returned to America. We walked hand in hand through this city I felt held me captive. All I wanted was to go home with him. I would have given just about anything for a seat on that plane next to him. But I had to stay. I still had two more months to spend in this city I’d come to loathe. Two more months before college would end, and our life together would officially begin. I couldn’t wait for it to start.

My first apartment.

My first apartment.

But walking through this city again, revisiting all of the places I frequented, made me feel so nostalgic—yet so out of place. The city was still the same, but something inside me had changed. Over the last five years, I’ve completely romanticized my memories of Florence. They say hindsight is 20/20, and never in my life has that been more true of anything than my semester abroad.

This is the place that completely changed me, setting in motion everything that was to come. Before my study abroad, I’d never even set foot on a plane. I embarked on this crazy journey reluctantly, at the persuasion of my college roommates who chose to study abroad in Florence. Come with us, they said. It’ll be fun, they said. And so I got on that plane, heart in my throat, and my newly-printed, unstamped passport in hand. It was the beginning of my love affair with travel.

It was a surreal feeling, to find myself back in the city where I once felt like a prisoner, but now remember as the place that changed me for the better. I wanted to love it. I wanted to hate it. I wanted to feel it—to soak it in, and never let it go. I was overcome with nostalgia, and the need to recreate new memories with my husband.

Standing atop Piazzale Michelangelo, the only part of Florence I ever adored, I knew this spot would hold a special place in my heart forever. Somehow, we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of people who gathered to watch the sunset cast golden hues over the birthplace of the Renaissance.

View from Piazzale Michelangelo.

View from Piazzale Michelangelo.

If there’s a reason to love Florence, this is it. There’s something magical about witnessing it all. We stayed for over an hour, and I snapped picture after picture of this city that had somehow twisted my heart more than anyplace on earth. I knew I’d never be able to put into words how standing there again made me feel, but I also knew I’d never ever forget it.

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

Even during dinner an hour later—the city aglow with streetlights and cigarettes—I felt entirely conflicted. As we sat enjoying a delicious Italian feast mere feet from the Duomo—one of the greatest, most recognizable structures on earth—I couldn’t fathom how I’d walked by this every single day, but never really looked at it. I felt completely ungrateful in that moment, and somehow I just couldn’t peel my eyes away—wanting desperately not to make that same mistake again. I had to use this single night to make up for the four months of missed opportunity.

Waking through the streets, I wondered aloud if somehow I liked the city more because I knew I was leaving the next day. I didn’t have to stay there for months this time—I was just a visitor passing through. Was that why I was finding it all so romantic?

The next day as the train pulled out of the station, I knew I’d had my fill of Florence for a very long time. Somehow in just over 24 hours, I’d managed to do more in the city than I had in four months of living there. I’d retraced my steps. I’d revisited old memories. And I’d made new ones—better ones to replace some of the negativity I’d packed in my suitcase and carried home with me.

Florence is a strange place. I’ve read a lot about it since I returned home from my study abroad, and somehow it always seems to be a hotly-contested destination. It has a way of yanking on people’s heartstrings. You either love it or you hate it. But for me—I feel very passionately persuaded in both directions.

I hate this city that pushed me out of my comfort zone and held me captive. I love this city for exactly the same reasons. I hate this city for its nonstop activity, pushy vendors, and labyrinth of streets. I love it for its energy, passionate people, and for the way you can get wonderfully lost in back alleyways and stumble upon something beautiful. I hate that this city is the most significant place I’ve ever been. But I love it because it changed me, opening my eyes and my heart to the world.

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I don’t know when I’ll make it back to Florence, but I know it will forever be a huge part of my life. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to this city I once called home. It forced me to grow up. It gave me my first taste of the unfamiliar. It persuaded me to see more. Over these last five years, I’ve learned that a bit of time and perspective changes everything. I’m so glad I got to see this city again through new eyes.

And I know I’ll be wonderfully conflicted with Florence for a very long time.

Going Back to Europe Five Years Later

Florence as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo.
Florence as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the journey I embarked upon five years ago today would change my life forever. After hugging my family goodbye, and waiting anxiously to board a plane for the very first time, I settled into my seat and gazed out over the ocean—wondering what the heck I had just done.

Two days before my 21st birthday, two friends and I left for our study abroad in Florence, Italy. It was my first true travel experience. Sure, I’d taken a road trip or two back in the states, but no one in my family was much of a traveler, so it was never a big part of my life. I was so hesitant to go. It was my last semester of college, and I either needed a 12-credit internship stateside to graduate, or a study abroad. My roommates were going to Italy, and talked me into it, as well. I owe them both one enormous debt of gratitude.

I won’t pretend like it was the easiest four months of my life—it certainly wasn’t. It was filled with a lot of homesickness, drama between friends, and anxiety that comes with being 4,000 miles away from your mom for the first time. But it was a time filled with great adventure. It’s the single period in my life that I look back on with the fondest of memories. It was a time marked by courage and self-discovery—and it set something in motion that can never be undone. It was during this trip that I became hopelessly—eternally—addicted to travel.

And I’m SOOO excited to be going back!

I was thinking the other day that with as much traveling as I’ve done throughout Europe, I’ve technically only been there once. Let’s be real, I know I haven’t even scratched the surface yet, but 10 countries in 16 weeks was still a lot of ground to cover.

So, where are we going for this epic 3rd-anniversary trip?

The first stop will be Rome. It’s a city that I didn’t particularly like the first time around. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful place, but sometimes it’s hard to look beyond the hordes of tourists. I am desperately going to try this time. Kyle hasn’t been there yet, so I’m curious to see if I end up liking Rome through his eyes. I have a few very distinct memories I want to relive—the awesome gelato near the Trevi Fountain, standing in front of the Colosseum at night, and dining near a large building with a hole in the roof—and we wondered how they kept the floor dry when it rains. Naturally we later found out it was the Pantheon. College students at their very finest, folks.

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Next, we board the Celebrity Reflection bound for Greece and Turkey. I have been dreaming about the white-washed cityscape of Santorini for the last year. We debated spending most of our vacation on Santorini alone, but we knew we wanted to see more places—and a cruise seemed like the only realistic way to do that with limited vacation time. We’ll also get to explore Mykonos and Athens.

Photo: Maggie Meng

I am so excited to be heading to Istanbul on this cruise, too! It’s a city Kyle has wanted to see for a long time. It was never that high on my lengthy bucket list, but now that we’re headed there, I’m thrilled! Hopefully Kyle will be able to pry me away from Christmas shopping at the Grand Bazaar long enough to appreciate the beauty of the ancient sites.

Photo: Moyan Brenn

We are also stopping in Ephesus, Turkey, and Naples, Italy, before heading back to Rome. Kyle is so excited to see Pompeii (although I desperately wanted to return to Capri, but I’m letting him have this one!) He convinced me to go there by saying that studying these ancient ruins was what made him first want to be an archaeologist. That worked out well for him.

Vesuvius seen from Pomepii.

Vesuvius seen from Pomepii.

Once the ship docks back near Rome, we immediately hop a train bound for Firenze. It’ll be a whirlwind as we only have one night to spend there, but I didn’t want to be that close and not go to the city that changed my life. I look back and realize how little I appreciated it. Hate is a strong word, but I really didn’t like Florence. It was the place I had to go back to every Sunday. It was the place where I did homework and boiled pasta. It was the place I got stuck in tourist groups and was harassed by gypsies and vendors on the way to school. It was dirty. It was loud. It was home. And you never truly appreciate where you live. Nothing has taught me that more than working in tourism for my home region these last five years. I am excited to return to this city with a fresh perspective. I’m more than ready to begin my love affair with what is often called the greatest city in the world.

Florence after four months.

Florence after four months.

After Florence, it’s back to Rome for one night before saying goodbye to Kyle for a couple of days while I head to France for work. Each year, we take a hot glass stage over to Domaine de Boisbuchet, a design workshop in southern France, and I’m so excited to see this in action. I’ve heard so much about the laid-back vibe and inspiring collaborations. I won’t even be there for 48 hours, but it will be a great experience. Then it’s on to Paris for one night of some whirlwind exploration before hopping on a plane to Rome early the next morning to catch another flight back to New York.

Paris circa 2010.

Paris circa 2010.

It’ll be an amazing couple of weeks. Make sure to follow along on social media! I’ll be sharing lots of beautiful pictures on Instagram @bytesizetravel.

How My Study Abroad Changed My Life

Cinque Terre
Enjoying a Cinque Terre sunset and writing about my day.

It’s a funny thing, looking back on your travels past – especially when you’ve written them all down! In preparation to officially launch this website, we imported my posts from the WordPress site I had when I studied abroad in Florence, Italy, nearly five years ago. I’ve been working on editing them – fixing the typos and removing any of the information you really wouldn’t care about – like mundane days where I complained about Italian class, and such. You know, those blogs that delighted my parents to no end, since a post proved I was still alive without having to spend obscene amounts of money to call home. I didn’t intend for those posts to be a travel blog, per say. It was more of an online diary to document my thoughts, feelings, and ultimately, my adventures.

What amazes me, though, is that my outlook on travel was so incredibly different before I studied abroad. Sure, I went on plenty of road trips with my college friends, and my boyfriend (now husband). But that was my first travel experience that lasted longer than eight days. I’d never even set foot on a plane! I was terrified, and having some serious doubts about whether I’d made the right decision in going on this trip. I was sheltered, immature, and frankly ungrateful. And it pains me to read through those blogs knowing how I feel about travel now. I wish I could slap my 21-year-old self and say, “You’ll remember this as the single greatest time of your life. Stop complaining about how hot it is, and soak up every moment!”

I had always been hesitant about it. Two of my college roommates decided they wanted to study abroad, and convinced me to go with them. I was in a college program that required a 12-credit internship or a study abroad, so I figured for my very last semester, why not go to Italy and study art history and Italian cooking? Sounded perfect.

I don’t think I started to process it – really – until my first full week in Italy. The day after I got there, I turned 21, and wrote a post about how I could have never imagined spending my birthday so far from home. The posts that follow are about going to a charming Italian town called Lucca, and visiting the Cinque Terre, during which time, I had a “freak-out session,” wondering what the heck I was doing there!?

It’s so shocking to me now, that I could have been in Vernazza, one of the most stunningly beautiful places on this planet and be missing home. It’s exactly the opposite of what I do now. Here I sit at home, dreaming about Italy. But hindsight is always 20/20, and I’m just glad I started to enjoy my travels through Europe more as the weeks passed.

I didn’t realize what a big impact that trip had on my life until I started working in tourism marketing when I got home. I host a lot of travel writers in the Finger Lakes, and more often than not, I get to pick their brains about their chosen careers, and hear their stories about the incredible places they visit. It made me realize how passionate I am about making sure I have the same experiences.

If you choose to read through my study abroad blogs, you’ll learn about my adventures in all kinds of places. I was lucky enough to travel not only throughout Italy, but Scotland, Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, and Croatia. I visited Paris, London, and Barcelona. Kyle and I even got engaged in Venice!

My study abroad truly shaped me into the person I am today, probably more than any other experience in my life. I won’t say it was always perfect – and you’ll sense my uncertainty and homesickness in some of my posts. But looking back on it, the experience made me a strong person, and a confident traveler. I get asked rather frequently if I’d recommend studying abroad, and I rarely let people finish the question before I give a wholehearted, “YES!”

I wish I had known at the beginning of my Italy trip that it would be the experience I looked back on as the single best period in my life. Maybe I would have stopped worrying so much, and appreciated each moment more. I can only hope that’s a lesson I need to learn just once, and can go into the round-the-world trip we ultimately plan to take with an open mind and the willingness to live every day to the fullest. And that I’ll always appreciate how blessed I am to be able to see the world.

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