Florence, part 1: Welcome to the City of Narrative

07 July, 2018: Florence! I landed fairly late, and took a taxi to the address of my Airbnb. It was a proper Italian taxi ride, complete with wild acceleration, sudden stops and turns, and the driver gesturing wildly from time to time. He was very nice, but he had a little trouble finding the address — we got fairly close, though, and I had already downloaded the map to my phone so I was happy to walk the rest of the way.

My host lives in Spain, so the process of getting the keys was a little bit worrisome, particularly since I didn’t have cellphone service in Italy when I arrived. I messaged my host from the airport wifi, and told him I was about to hail a taxi. He then called the person who takes care of his apartment, to tell her about when to expect me, and the plan was that I would meet her there.

I arrived at the apartment around 10pm; on a deserted residential street a little outside the city center. I waited a good fifteen minutes with mounting anxiety, but eventually she arrived to let me in and hand over the keys. She didn’t seem terribly pleased to have to do so that late at night, and she also didn’t speak a word of English so our communication was a bit limited. I did my most charming charades, but I don’t think I won her over. In any case, she let me in, turned on the lights, pointed at a card with the wifi password, handed me the keys, and left.

The apartment was charming; four flights up in an older building, full of character, and full of art. It had two big bedrooms, a big living room that looked like a museum, a nice kitchen and bathroom, and little balconies in both the front and back. I loved it immediately.

I unpacked a little and settled in, then went out to find food. There was a pizzeria down the block that was open late, so I went there, without high hopes. I suppose I was thinking about American pizza joints, and forgot where I was for a minute. Pizza in Italy is a whole separate thing; it was absolutely delicious. I sat outside on a big garden patio, full of Italian families having long, leisurely meals, with children running about underfoot and lots of emotional conversations. The atmosphere was perfect.

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The next day I did some exploring, learned the bus system, and picked up some groceries. I also discovered the mosquito situation in Italy in the summer, which is unpleasant to say the least. The apartment had no screens, and also no air conditioning, so opening the windows in the oppressive summer heat was a must. I was able to avoid the worst of the mosquitoes by closing all the windows before dusk, when they’re most active, but since it’s not much cooler at night, it was a difficult decision — cool night breeze and giant kamikaze mosquitoes, or no mosquitoes but a hot, stuffy apartment?

Mosquitoes and summertime heat/humidity aside, Florence was stunning. I was also delighted to be staying in a truly local residential area, well outside the tourist core — because Florence is overrun with tourists. Rightly so, though, as it’s a truly gorgeous city. It positively oozes history and romance, and is overflowing with amazing art. My friend Sashi described Florence as a narrative for the renaissance, and I have to agree. There’s so much art and history here that every corner seems to hold another famous landmark or famous artwork or beautiful building, and it’s impossible to walk around without feeling like you’re a character in a novel or an opera.

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I stopped for a gelato on my way into the center of town, and then I crossed the Arno and had a moment… it’s the third time I’ve been star-struck by a river (after crossing the Mississippi and then the Danube). After singing a heartfelt rendition of “O Mio Babbino Caro” to myself:

Andrei sul Ponte Vecchio,
Ma per buttarmi in Arno!

and admiring the river, I continued on to sort out my local phone plan.

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Italy has the strangest rules around sim cards that I’ve encountered yet — they’re a bit more expensive than in other places in Europe, which, fine, but more annoyingly they don’t activate for about three hours after purchase. Everywhere else has been instant, which is helpful because it lets you be sure it’s working before you leave the store; in Italy you have to wait and hope. It did work as expected after a few hours, though, so that was fine — I made it home in time for work that afternoon, and didn’t need to make an emergency trip back to the store.

Alex arrived that evening, and we started exploring in earnest when we finished work at midnight. I had my heart set on watching the sunrise from a particular park above the city, which gets very crowded during the day but not at dawn, and Alex was into the idea as well. Sunrise is a long way from midnight, though, so we had plenty of time to explore the city by night.

We started with a walk to the center to visit Eby’s, a famous tiny bar where the owner looks like Albert Einstein and makes custom drinks based on your preferred flavors. The custom drink gimmick has been growing more popular lately, and often seems to actually mean “the bartender chooses from the non-printed menu of ten options based on your flavor preference”, but at Eby’s, it seems truly handcrafted in the moment by an artist. When we arrived it was mostly empty, and Einstein greeted us, asked us a few questions about our preferences, and then nodded solemnly and turned away. He spent a few minutes puttering about behind the bar, adding a hint of this, a dash of that, slicing some fresh the other, and then turned back to the counter. He provided us with a plate containing two slices of orange and two slices of peach, sprinkled and drizzled with various spices and sauces, and two carefully layered shots. He covered the shot glasses with coasters and carefully took hold of one in each hand, then instructed us.

First, the orange.

Then, the drink.

Last, the peach.

Ready?!

We nodded, and ate the orange slices. The second we had, he grabbed the shots and slammed them on to the bar to mix them, yelling “VAI!” (GO!). We drank the shots, and followed with the peach slices… and it was amazing. The perfect mix of flavors and textures, and a whole lot of fun.

From Eby’s, we went on a wander to Il Duomo, which was deserted as it was now close to 2am. We walked all around it, admiring the detail and the stone and the incredible carvings and of course the scale. It was incredible, and a world apart from the daytime version when it’s overflowing with tourists and selfie sticks. You can walk right up and touch it! There’s so much history in Florence!

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From there we found ourselves at the Palazzo Vecchio, which we revisited later in the daytime to see inside. At night, though, the outdoor sculpture garden is well-lit, and spectacular. The whole city is just stunning — around every corner there’s more incredible, famous, historic art and gorgeous buildings. There’s an advantage to being the home city of the Medicis, turns out.

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By then it was about 3am, which meant it was time to seek out illicit pastries. It’s an open secret: late at night in Florence, the wholesale bakeries start baking goods for shops and coffee houses to sell during the day. Since it’s very hot, they tend to keep the delivery doors open, which means the smell of fresh pastries permeates the air, and makes it possible to find these bakeries by following your nose. They aren’t licensed to sell to the public, but if you ask politely and don’t make a ruckus to bother the neighbors, the workers will often be happy to trade a baked good fresh from the oven for a Euro. We got two amazing chocolate croissants and ate them in an alleyway and I felt very proud of our accomplishment.

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After that we kept wandering and wound up at a late-night sandwich shop, serving wine, panini and pizza. We ordered a few glasses of wine and a couple sandwiches, and immediately made a new friend — David, who was apparently staying above the shop. (He was the second David we’d met that night: the first being a full-size replica of Michelangelo’s David at the Palazzo Vecchio). He was very friendly and slightly tipsy and I would be shocked if there wasn’t at least a bit of cocaine involved in his night, but he was lots of fun. He recommended an artist’s studio nearby, and kept us entertained for close to an hour.

When we left, the sky was just starting to lighten, so it was time to head across the Arno and up the hill to the Piazzale Michelangelo; the lovely park (featuring another replica of David). We arrived moments before sunrise, and it was absolutely beautiful — hands-down the best way to see Florence as a whole. Sunrise achieved, we made our way home and fell asleep.

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