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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.