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first night abroad: Florence 2018

Updated: May 9

When I touched down for my layover in Frankfurt, Germany, I didn’t yet know where I’d be sleeping for my first night abroad. Imagine it: I was 20 years old, a first-time solo backpacker, fresh off the thrill of her first-ever passport stamp and righteous independence. The 10-plus hour flight and my lack of experience did little to curb my buzzing anticipation. I was fueled only by adventure and spontaneity and daydreams. There was no plan. No bed was booked. Just a one-way plane ticket to Europe and a taxi to pick me up from Aeroporto di Firenze-Peretola in Florence, Italy.

During my layover, I booked a hostel recommended by a friend from home. My taxi, however, had been scheduled months in advance to ensure safe passage to Florence’s city center, per the request of my parents. While my daydreams flirted with an idealistic imagination, their minds replayed the Hostel storyline as they sent their baby abroad.

The plane touched down in Florence just before midnight in late summer. My eager eyes scanned the landscape of my new home (for the next four months) and immediately caught sight of a bright, familiar yellow. IKEA, it screamed in the dark night. At least it wasn’t McDonald’s.

The airport is a blur in my memory but the taxi ride left me with a distinct first impression of Italy’s soul.

Italy: the country of my Etruscan ancestors, of my favorite foods, of the language I was elementary in at best. I was drawn to the motherland by way of marinara, my surname, wine, the promise of romance and adventure.

My idiosyncratic Italian driver weaved us through Italian cars on Italian highways, into an Italian city center. We were quite the duo. Him, worldless and eccentric, dancing expressively to rapid Italian disco, and me, city-struck, wide-eyed, staring out the window and having a main-character moment in a coming-of-age movie. The streets shifted from asphalt to cobblestone and the curtains rolled back for opening night. Florence showed herself, illuminated by city lights and stars above, and I, a mere spectator of their dance.

It was midnight in Florence, and I had arrived.

My hostel was in the Santa Croce district of Florence, not too far from Il Duomo and Michelangelo’s David. I parted from my taxi driver with a tentative ciao and buona sera and gathered myself, my bags, and bundled nerves of excitement on the doorstep of my hostel’s building.

The doors in Italy leave a lasting impression. Like little puzzles, they demand a moment of contemplation and admiration. Works of art, some of them; others knobless and seemingly impenetrable. I stood in front of a brown door. It was formidable, not from the height or the rustic wood or brass-bar handles, but because just beyond that door was an unknown world. Hostels held stigma, dirty bathrooms, creepy guests, bedbugs; I couldn’t wait to break it.

There was a directory on the side. I slid my finger over the list of names, not wondering until now, as I write this separated by many miles and years, about each of the unique lives and stories behind all those names.

I pressed the button for ‘Santa Croce Tourist House’ and realized I was nervous. There was a pause and then a voice, welcoming me in with a buzz. They were expecting me, not only because I was the little American girl who arrived at midnight and booked a solo suite hours before. But also because the friend of mine who recommended the hostel was also a friend of theirs. Our mutuals’ name is Mitch, and Mitch was spending the summer in Florence, studying the Italian language and way of life. He conveniently took residence in a building across the street from the hostel and after a couple of months, formed a community including Santa Croce’s owners, Emma and Christian.

It was Christian who came to the door, opening it wide to reveal a large lobby and long staircase. We exchanged pleasantries, touching on conversation about Mitch and my flight. He bustled me in from the Italian night, into the warm glow of the building’s ascending, elevator-less lobby. I took in the scene: the few flights of stairs, my 50-pound luggage, and the rugged, muscular man who, at that moment, was thinking exactly what I was thinking. I smiled sheepishly. And so, we began our ascent step by step. Me, with my backpack and words of encouragement, and Christian, bearing the weight of all that I deemed necessary for my adventure abroad.

My luggage was embarrassing; it weighed me down with insecurities of inexperience and over-packing and looking like a touristy fool. To prepare for backpacking and study abroad I had watched hours of YouTubers explaining the significance of packing light and packing smart. My backpack was perfect - a carry-on 40L Osprey suitable for weekend trips during the semester or a couple of weeks of backpacking. My luggage, however, had to carry three months’ worth of stuff - enough clothes for seasons’ change, toiletries to last, shoes for all occasions, a curling iron that wasn’t even compatible with European wattage.

But here I was, my first night abroad ever, delving into a European hostel with experienced, world-traveling backpackers. Looking back, I deem the self-consciousness adorable and the expectations inevitable. The preconceptions I had for this trip, for backpacking, for being abroad, all went out the window. Self-consciousness surrendered to consciousness, expectations gave way to experience. I learned as I went, and I also had a great guide.

Mitch was conveniently staying across the street from Santa Croce. If I was up for it, he proposed, we would explore after I settled my things into the hostel. No chance in Dante’s hell I’d say no. I freshened up and met Mitch on the street between our accommodations. He was sitting on the steps when I opened the door and there we were: two kids from Arizona who happened to travel halfway across the globe to the same city in the same summer. We were doing something most people just talked about, just daydreamed of. It sparked again, that sense of adventure and spontaneity and something new, too: synchronicity.

Mitch wore green and said it was nice to see someone from home. We fawned over the craziness of it all, and then we took off down the street. Two months in Italy and Mitch led us through Florence with 70 percent conviction. The other 30 percent was wine, hash, and bullshit. Still, I had all the faith. The grin never left my face.

As we strolled, I welcomed the sensations of Florence. Her streets right after midnight are magical. Intoxicating aromas of midnight pasticceri and pizzarias, cigarette smoke and vino. It was warm and you couldn't see any stars, but the buildings were unlike anything I had ever seen. Colorful, creative, and captivating. Compared to the stucco suburbs of Phoenix, these were ancient buildings, brimming with historical influence and Renaissance character. I wonder about all that these walls have seen, the stories they’d tell if they could talk, the personalities they’d take on. Think about all that’s happened on these streets since each stone’s been laid; all the soles that have walked upon them, all the souls that have wandered through.

You could hear people everywhere. The nighttime adventures. The late-night workers. As we crossed a bridge, a group of people dressed in scrubs beckoned us over, invoking the spirit of adventure as they laughed and cheered, drunkenly celebrating life. We were tempted, but Mitch yelled something back in broken Italian. Santo Spirito awaits.

You could hear the mingling before you could see it. A charge of excitement in the air, a buzz of youth and enjoyment. When we entered the piazzale, I was taken back to my freshman year Italian class where my professor would explain Italy’s social scene to us.

An Italian bar is different from an American one: il bar is similar to a coffee shop. The clubs are called discoteca. Since Italy was open-carry, people were often found hanging out, drinking, and smoking in courtyards, called piazzales. I would spend a lot of my time the next few months mingling at midnight on the courtyard steps of bisilicas, or sipping espresso after class at my favorite bar, or, my favorite, dancing at the discoteca. Maybe hitting and aperitivi in place of an American happy hour.

Santo Spirito was my first taste of social life in Italy and it was electrifying. So was the prospect of my first drink abroad. I was a 20-year-old American and naturally had no clue what or how to order a drink. I was accustomed to pulls from communal Fleishman bottles at dirty frat houses. What was this classy, free-roaming night out? Mitch, my seasoned guide, got us two GnT’s, promising that I’d soon try a negroni.

Back in the piazzale, drink in hand, we met up with Mitch’s roommate, Ben. Ben had an interesting accent: New Zealander mixed with some time spent in the UK. He had just matched with a Brazilian girl on Tinder, he explained, and was planning a midnight meetup in the piazzale. A boy from New Zealand, a girl from Brazil, meeting online in the birthplace of the Renaissance. It was a modern-day, multinational (short-lived) love story.

As I sat on the steps, celebrating my first night abroad, I turned my head to the sky. Took some deep breaths in, some deep breaths out, and I can still feel how I felt in that moment. Like crying and laughing all at once, I felt like I had just met myself. This girl, who before that day had never been on a plane by herself, was free and independent and young and lucky. She had a lifetime full of adventures in front of her but in this moment, in a little piazzale in Italy, this was the first. It was after midnight in Florence and it was just the beginning.

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