From Florence with love… no?

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Aspiring opera singer experiences culture shock in Italy

As you’re reading the third summer installment of Roots and Culture, ask yourself this…do we take our calm, civilized lives here in Canada for granted?

Many of us have had dreams of travelling abroad, to experience cultures that we may have only read about. But sometimes reality does not live up to our expectations.

When this month’s guest writer, Katy Worden, agreed to share her thoughts with us, she made a statement that spoke volumes. She said that she didn’t realize just how Canadian she was until she went to live somewhere else. 

—B.D.—

By Katy Worden

Ahh, the sights and sounds of Florence, Italy. Its art galleries, architecture and incredibly rich history are enough to make you swoon. The Arno river, the Ponte Vecchio, the food, the gorgeous people, the food! Five minutes in Florence and you will be enchanted. Actually, five weeks in Florence, and you’ll be enchanted some more. Five months in Florence, and, well, that’s another story entirely.

My first visit there was at the young and impressionable age of seventeen, when the romantic villas and apparent abundance of culture made a veritable dent in my perspective of life. I vowed that someday I would be part of the whole fantasy, that I would come back and live in Florence, learn Italian, and marry one of the many incredibly good looking guys I saw there. I thought my dream had come true when I met Leonardo, a Florentine exchange student and really great guy, here at Ryerson and married him.

I wanted to go to opera school and so when he had to go home, I decided to come with him to Italy and do my schooling there. I couldn’t believe it! I was living my dream! 

On my initial visit back to Florence last summer, it was exactly how I had remembered it. I did the swooning bit again, went off with Leo and his family to their apartment in Elba island, drove around the legendary Tuscan countryside, and swooned some more. I nearly broke my legs, I swooned so much.

I had to go home at the end of the summer, but when I returned in November for a permanent stay, something had changed in Florence.

The beautiful, glamorous people seemed closed and snotty. A visit to the grocery store, with its teeny aisles and unorganized shelves, would sometimes have me near tears as the rushing mothers and harried businessmen crashed into my cart to get me to move if I was too slow, steal stuff from my cart if I wasn’t looking, butt in line and other general nastiness.

Traffic, too, was another source of grief. Italian traffic is legendary, and in Naples, people call the red lights “pink,” and drive right through them. 

Florence seemed to be a tad more orderly at first. But upon examination, the people displayed the same grocery stores nastiness on the road. Cutting you off if your car’s a cheaper make, racing others to be one car ahead at the lights or in the line-up at the gas station, various petty crimes against human nature that are just not done in Toronto. After three months or so, I had a sturdy enough grasp of the Italian language, and tried to make some girlfriends of my own. Then I figured out what Florentine women my age (twenty-two) were concerned with: money, themselves, men, cellulite, cars, money, clothes, make-up, money, their hair, going to clubs, money and men. I began to understand why Leo married me, a Canadian, and not one of the many Florentine club-clones. Women who actually think for themselves are there, but fairly rare.

As life progressed, I began to realize that Florentines and Torontonians, though similarly reserved, are polar opposites. The polite respect for others that one takes for granted here is sorely missed over there. 

Toronto’s obeisance to the unwritten rules about lining up, for movie tickets, for the bus, in the check-out at the store, is matched only by Florence’s disregard for them; if you want to get tickets to a popular film on a Sunday evening, be prepared to fight through a crowd of twenty for them. 

Toronto’s laid back, usually understated and always original clothing style is trounced upon by the Florentines. Lots of gold, trendy shoes, the neo-preppie look for the men, and for the women, whatever Armani dictates. And of course, the ubiquitous cellular phone, taken everywhere, even when totally redundant. When one well-known airhead at the gym brought hers to her workout, she placed it in the middle of the gym. Someone accidentally dropped a 5-kilogram weight on it. It didn’t break, but she didn’t bring it back, either. 

So basically, you could say that my wonderful fantasy crashed and burned. The romance, the enchantment, it was all just a monumental scam.

But once I had reconciled that fact with myself, I began to realize that Florence had a middle ground between the highs of the resplendent old city hall and the lows of the rudeness and shallowness of some of its people.

By the time I had finished fighting with the Florentine city hall and got my residence, I began to toughen up and not take everything so personally. I realized that if I relaxed and let all the little iodices of daily life wash over me, I could once again appreciate all the things that cause me to be enchanted in the first place.

I found out the hard way that the permanent vacation just does not work; living in Florence was completely different from just visiting the place. But with a conscious effort I learned to swoon again. 

Katy Worden is a former Ryerson journalism student and plans to return to Italy, warts and all.

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