Beautiful view of Florence, Italy

Traveling alone, and other Italian things you should know

So, you’re going to Italy. Whether it’s on a vacation or to live, here are a few things you should know:

  • Laundry takes 3 hours—at it’s fastest. Other options include a 9-hour cycle and a 12-hour cycle. Most Italian homes don’t have dryers, so don’t plan on washing something and wearing it out the same night. Plan ahead.
  • Living in a foreign country can be stressful, and you may find yourself stress eating. The only difference is that here, you’re bombarded with beautifully crafted pizzas to binge on during those times. A curse and a blessing, I say.
  • Uh, paper. It’s not 8.5×11 in Italy. It’s longer and doesn’t fit in little American folders. Quite annoying for schoolwork, but if you plan ahead I’d recommend not bringing school supplies. Better yet, don’t go to school while you’re abroad. Go exploring.
  • One of the cutest things I saw in Florence happened in the early morning: parents holding their children’s hands and walking them to school. Imagine brick-lined streets, kids playing in puddles, and the locals being the only ones crowding the streets. Innocent beauty. Untainted. I don’t have words. Get up early during the school year and see for yourself.
  • Locals love giving Americans free stuff to get them to come back. This may be dishonest depending on your situation, but always tell them you’re on a long vacation—at least for a month or two. Your first time in they want to hook you, so expect free bread, wine, and/or limoncello.
  • When shops close up in the afternoons, somewhere between 2-6PM, the streets do a 180. With the garage-style doors pulled down, the magic of Florence is full of tin walls, graffiti, and sketchy meanderers. (During prime tourist season, starting around April, you may not notice this as much because streets will be so crowded. Good luck to you, I say. Good luck with the tiny sidewalks.)
  • American music is a big thing in bars. That’s all.
  • Italians are fricken loud. In my apartment, the neighbors upstairs fought all the time. And not like the windows were open and we happened to hear them raise their voices. NO, I wish. It was more like a fight between two tigers that no walls could hope to contain. Yikes. (I hope they’re doing all right.)
  • Soo, traveling alone… do it if you can. Yes, it might make loved ones back home uncomfortable, and you should definitely check the safety of the area you’re going, but it is so worth it to discover something on your own.

A final thought to leave with: traveling—especially alone—has made me love and hate people. For every person willing to take a later stop on the train to help, there’s another waiting to take advantage of American ignorance. At the end of the day—whether speaking German, Czech, Italian, Spanish, or English—we all laugh in the same language.

Art in Italy; Historical; Painting

Florence Fiction Friday (10)

Alissa and I went for a run the next morning. The constant carbs were detrimental to the jeans we packed, and we decided to finally do something about it. Alissa was a good companion: friendly enough and not too nosy. When we stopped my the Duomo for tea at the American coffee shop, I was drenched in sweat and embarrassed to be around so many attractive Italians with their Gucci handbags and Prada shoes.

Tea in my hand, laughing at something Alissa said, I didn’t notice a figure step in front of me.

Fred.

With one of the guys we saw outside our apartment.

Alissa stopped in her tracks. I dropped my tea, heart thudding from the irresistible attraction and intrigue I felt for Fred, but terrified all the same. Fred hit on American women; he knew exactly how to talk to me to make me fall for him. He knew how to make me forget what they did.

I glanced around. The Italian guards in berets did their rounds, walking slowly about the plaza. They paid us only the briefest attention.

“Hi, Fred,” I said.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” He smiled. He put a hand on the small of my back and started walking, giving me no choice but to follow his steps. Slowly, his friend did the same to Alissa. We locked eyes, glanced at the guards.

“What are you guys up to?”

“Nothing anyone needs to ever find out about.”

“I see.” I tried to get more from him. “Nothing illegal though, I’m sure?”

I moved closer to the Duomo, where the guards and most civilians were. Surely he couldn’t kill us in front of all of them?

I felt Fred’s hand on my back, felt his breath on my neck. I bit my lip so hard it hurt; I had to stop visions of our kiss from coming back. I longed to turn around and steal another, but I fought the idiotic urge and inched closer to the nearest guard.

The guard locked eyes and smiled at me. They never smiled. Like, ever—I was pretty sure that their guard training involved always looking angry. That fact that Fred let me get so close warned me:

“Impossible, you’re in on this too? Is no one safe?” I exclaimed.

“Hmm?” he asked, paying full attention to me now.

Fred yanked on my arm. I fell back into him and reached towards the guard. “Please, help us. These men are trying to hurt us.”

Fred’s laugh vibrated my body. “Hurt? Oh, my dear. That’s a little dramatic. I just wanted to take you somewhere to eat.”

“Leave Alissa out of this, then!”

“Who is Alissa?” the guard asked. I thanked God he spoke English.

I whipped around.

Alissa was gone.

I glanced through the plaza, looking for her electric yellow running tank. “There!” I turned to the guard. “Please, please help me. That man is taking my friend.”

With a sharp kick behind me, while Fred was distracted with the guard, I broke free and chased after them.

Duomo Florence
Two weeks later, Fred and his group were convicted of murder. Apparently there’d been multiple that year and they found 15 more linked to them. Italy called Alissa and I heroes. I called myself a naïve study abroad student. 

To take my mind off of things, I went to Scotland for a week. I found myself in Edinburgh. I stopped crying in the shower. I started living.

Florence Fiction Friday (9)

From making new friends in classes to Fred, I finally felt like myself. Greg even commented one week that I had a certain glow about me.

“I just showered,” I answered.

“Nah, that’s not it.”

Matt came in from a run. His athletic body didn’t interest me at all anymore. “What’s up,” he said rather than asked. 

“Eh.” Greg took another swig of his beer.

Alissa perked up from the couch behind us. “You know it’s ten in the morning, right?”

“You know it’s Friday, right? Want one?”

Alissa shrugged and accepted. “Lauren, are you coming to the soccer game with us tonight?”

“I was going to hang out with Fred, but let me ask him.”

I pulled out my phone but Alissa was over in seconds to swat it from my hands. “What are you doing? You’re lucky enough to have your guy right across the street. Leave the texting for long-distance.”

I ran my fingers through my short hair and marched out the door, heart thrumming at the idea of seeing Fred in his apron that somehow made him look even hotter. I glanced inside the bakery, seeing that darn apron and loving how it complemented his tan skin and dark hair.

Seconds before I shoved the door open, I heard American girls—you can always hear them, we’re so loud and obvious—approach  from behind me. Something one of them said halted me in my tracks: “Fred told me to visit him.”

I didn’t turn around, didn’t want to see them or acknowledge how much it hurt my heart. Yet I couldn’t stop listening.

“You’re obsessed with this dude.”

“Whatever, look at him. He’s so hot. What would you do if the perfect Italian asked you out?”

Invisible as usual, they didn’t notice me as they pushed into the store. Fred looked up and locked eyes on the girl, not even seeing me.

I should’ve known, no one ever chose the quiet girl, the awkward one. I’d been fooling myself.

I couldn’t get home fast enough.

I whipped open the door and hit something: Matt. The last person I wanted to see. He’d wrapped a towel around himself and had that all-American boy look about him. The type of guy I’d never get back home, but would also never want.

His light eyes met mine and almost softened when he saw me. Was my pain that obvious? Matt moved out of the way and welcomed me into the apartment. With that, he walked away.

I ignored Alissa and rushed to the shower where I could ugly cry and sulk for thirty minutes. The shower water piled under my feet and I sat in my own filth, not even noticing the water raining on my head from above.

Fred tricked me. Been nice to keep me quiet about what I saw weeks before.

How had I fallen for that?

Florence Fiction Friday (8)

After noticing the man in the Loggia, I decided that toughening up was my only option. If I was going to make it here, I couldn’t look like the type of person one took advantage of. I could remain myself while making some improvements.

People littered the streets. Whereas I once would’ve grinned and stepped out of the way, I pushed past anyone in my path. I paid no mind to them, which is why I didn’t notice when I shoved Fred out of the way.

“Having a bad day?” he asked, eyebrows furled.

“Nice has no place here,” I retorted.

“Come, let’s cheer you up.”

“You just assume I’m free to hang out with you?”

“Well, you think you’re integrating into our culture so wonderfully. Prove it by being spontaneous with me. Ignore your responsibilities.”

I met his eyes. Last weekend, he’d waited for me to return from Paris. And when I returned, Florence finally felt like home. For some reason, I felt less afraid of him and more mystified. I knew nothing about him… his personality ranged from moody to cheery and I had yet to locate an in-between.

When he grabbed my hand, I let him lead me. The night approached and the carousel lit up the plaza as we grew nearer.

“Have you been?” he asked.

“Once, it was too short though.”

Fred paid four euros for us, said something to the man working, and chivalrously helped me onto a horse. He stood next to me, arm around the saddle of the horse.

“Saddle up,” I told him.

“I like being next to you.”

“It’s your lucky day, there’s a horse right next to me.”

He grinned and pulled my face down to kiss me. It was light, innocent, and unexpectedly perfect. When the ride started moving, I was in a daze. It took me a few minutes to realize how long the caurosal had been going. We were the only people on it.

“Crap, did I forget to get off?” I asked. 

“No, the guy in the booth in a buddy of mine. He’s letting us stay on for the hour.”

I commanded my heart to calm down. I commanded myself to maintain calm as Fred dismounted his horse and came over to me. I tried to remind myself that I didn’t really know him.

In the end, none of it mattered. I hopped off my horse. Fred drew closer until my lower back was pushed against the base of the horse. His mouth found mine again. This time, nothing about it was short or sweet or innocent. His tongue probed mine and made it hard to stand. When we stopped, I couldn’t tell if the kiss or the ride made me dizzy.

I grinned like an idiot the entire way home and hated myself for it.

Florence Fiction (7)

“Do you like your donut?”

The baker’s eyes pierced me, and I didn’t know if he meant anything sinister by his question. Then he smiled, but not the normal smile: this one only used half of his face and didn’t come close to reaching his eyes. Since I said nothing, he raised his hands over his head and yawned while he stretched.

I scanned the room, worried this action was a sign to his Italian mob. Just the lady behind the counter and a woman browsing the croissants. And the baker, who’s shirt inched up a little—before you assume I was excited to see the skin under his shirt, think again. Something metal in the waistband of his jeans reflected off the light.

I choked.

“That bad, huh?” he laughed easily. “I haven’t told you my name! Federico. I suppose the Americans would say Fred.”

I stared at his outstretched hand. Suddenly, the walls of the bakery closed in. The woman behind the counter watched me. Was she a sister, lover, or someone dangerous? I tried to find somewhere else to place my eyes, but they kept returning to the deepness of Fred’s. Warm and inviting, mysterious and terrifying and harsh.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” he said.

“What?” I finally spoke.

“Of my hand. It’s clean, I wash them a lot when I’m working. Otherwise, not so much.” Fred winked at the end.

I wondered if he knew how close to fainting I was.

“Hah.”

“You’re shy, aren’t you?”

“You’re forward, aren’t you?”

A light chuckle. “Haven’t you just figured me out.” Fred reached over and I almost screamed, but one of his strong fingers tapped my forehead. “I think you think too much.”

My mind flashed to them below my window, the carelessness that lead to a murder. “I think some people don’t think enough.”

“I like you.”

“Excuse me?”

“Molta bella.”

“Yeah, I’m not very far in my Italian lessons but thanks I guess.”

“I said you’re very beautiful.”

One of his hands reached up to stroke my hair. I flinched, hating how affectionate and open Italian men were. Well, okay, maybe I wouldn’t have hated it so much if I didn’t suspect I was being held captive in this conversation. Or think he had the capacity to kill.

Fred smiled, seemingly genuine this time. “Don’t be so uptight. You’re studying abroad in my country. Perhaps you should learn more about where you’re staying.”

More about why you killed that man? More about Italian violence? “What do you mean?”

“I mean, go out with me tonight.”

“Uh.”

“Here’s my number.”

Fred’s easy smile and dark coloring made every part of me want to say yes, but I promised him nothing. He was dangerous, which sent a thrill through my body, and I didn’t want him to have access to contacting me.

“Give me yours,” he prompted.

Is that a threat? Do I have an option?

“I have to get to work, call me okay?”

I ran out the door as soon as he turned his back. This time, my feet were not stuck to the cement. I booked it to the Loggia and plopped down on the stairs. Behind me sat so many timeless pieces of art, reminders of why I chose Florence. A few men walked by and said things to me in Italian, but I ignored them. In America, I never got this much attention, it made me feel impossibly more awkward and uncertain of the world around me.

I needed to toughen up, not be frightened of everything, but that went against who I was. I wanted to grow as a person but not change myself.

A flash went off to my right. Knowing it’d be a tourist, I paid no attention. But when I casually turned my head a few minutes later, I saw a shadow around the corner, watching me.

Florence Fiction Friday (6)

“We witnessed a murder,” Alissa whispered. We’d returned from Prague a few hours ago, and my iPhone said it was past 3 AM.

“We think we did,” I reminded her.

“Do you think the guys are asleep?”

“Matt is,” I said. Silence. Sheets rustling. Her restlessness made me restless. She clearly needed comfort, but how could I give her that when I needed it just as much? I asked her if she wanted to sit on our porch outside—that’s the only way I could think to describe it, a room on the outside of our cramped apartment that was lodged in-between us and the apartment on our left. She accepted the invitation.

We sat out there, the night chill bringing some sanity into our lives. Being enclosed outdoors brought a feeling of safety, no matter how much of an illusion it might’ve been. 

(If the baker worked across the street and met with those guys outside our apartment, it stood to reason that he lived nearby. I shuddered to think he was our neighbor, watching through the windows above.)

Alissa tapped her nails on the plastic table between us. I felt like I should say something, but I was forever at a loss of words. I hoped Florence would help me grow, to articulate and be comfortable in my own skin, but I’d yet to feel any amazing transformations like they promised in literature.

Alissa pulled out her phone and blood pumped through me. I wanted to get to know this girl, to connect with her in some way, but I couldn’t figure out how.

She grunted at something in her phone, smiling. Wanting some happiness, I asked her what she was looking at. Alissa showed me a video of a boy falling off his bike—that sounds bad, but it was a hilarious video trending on Facebook. We scrolled through videos and let the night pass us by.

In the morning, I thought I’d never feel awake again. We’d stayed up all night doing nothing. I loved it, but the thought of facing an entire day made me want to shrivel up. I bundled up in a sweater and coat, still chilled from the night before, and left for class without thinking. Out of instinct, watching the world around me, I glanced into the bakery.

I cursed myself.

He waved.

I’d wondered if he was on the run while we were in Prague, or if he’d ever existed at all. For some reason, seeing him so calm behind the counter rattled me to the core. I heard a door slam and cheery footsteps behind me. I wanted to run but felt like cement was holding my feet back. A hand grabbed me from behind.

I screamed.

“Whoa, there,” the baker said. I turned to find him smiling at me, waving off the onlookers and saying something in Italian. Oh, how I wished I knew Italian. If this guy had connections all over the city, no one would question it if he killed me in the middle of the street.

I glared at the hand resting on my arm. “I’m not a horse, I don’t need to be calmed.”

His smile reached his eyes and I hated that my stomach did flips. I hated that I wanted to talk to him. “What’s wrong? You were walking pretty fast.”

“Just galloping along.” Really Lauren? If you act mental, he’ll think you’re an easier target. “You know, you’re not in the bakery right now. I’m not going to buy anything. You don’t have to be friendly.”

“Where’s that smiley American I saw a few weeks back?”

“I’m learning to behave like a local.”

“Harsh. Will you let me buy you a donut?”

“No, I have class.”

“It’ll only be a minute.”

I didn’t know if that was somehow a threat, or if I should sprint away, but it seemed wise to sort out his mystery and be done with the whole thing. Besides, he led me into the shop and didn’t give me a chance to respond. Two people waited in line, and another woman served them behind the counter. The baker pulled up two bar stools. 

I could see the street outside, the normal lives of everyday people, and prayed I’d be joining them soon.

Special Edition: Prague Pub (Florence Fiction, 5)


Thankfully, our flight to the Czech Republic left at six in the morning, and the bakery across the street wouldn’t be open until at least seven. I’d successfully dodged the baker for three days in a row since the incident.

I knew next to nothing about Prague, but the escape from Florence was greatly needed. We all tried to pretend that wasn’t what it was though. We pretended a fun vacation loomed ahead of us and cheerily walked to the bus that’d take us to the airport.

 “There’s the Prague Castle,” Alissa said.

 On the plane now, we frantically threw together an itinerary before takeoff.

“And the Lego museum.” When Matt spoke, I never knew how to react. Was there a nerd hiding underneath that athletic body or did he have the terrible sort of sarcasm that no one understood?

“Pilsner was created there,” Greg said.

“At the Lego museum?” I asked.

“No, at a beer place, probably.”

“A brewery, dude,” Matt said.

“I’ll pass,” Alissa said. “We have to see the Charles Bridge though!”

Pointless conversations abounded, but I loved it. The more we talked, the less we could think. The rest of the previous week, we’d played board games, drinking games, watched movies, and went on group hikes. Our conversations were superficial and light, something that would ordinarily drive me insane.

Oddly enough, these people I barely knew kept me sane.

After a full day of exploring the ancient beauty of Prague, it started pouring. Alissa complained about some fancy shoes she didn’t want to ruin, and Greg held his umbrella over her feet. It made me laugh, Matt roll his eyes, and Alissa shut up. Everyone won. In ten minutes though, completely lost with only one of our international phone plans working, we just needed a place to stop. A hole-in-the-wall restaurant caught our eye.

“How much?” Greg asked once we got inside.

“Ugh, I’ll handle this: Quanta costa?” Alissa asked.

Matt sighed. “Guys, they speak Czech here.”

“Twelve,” the man replied with a smile. I took in his outfit finally, and then the rest of the establishment. Other than the entrance, the place was almost dark save a few candles on each of the tables—real candles, not that fake light kind. Wooden tables, woven baskets, and peasant clothes surrounded us. The workers were easy to pick out, talking in fancy old accents and waving us here and there. At our tables, we got round slabs of wood for plates, and clay mugs which were filled with mulled wine. After a while, I realized we wouldn’t get silverware for our food.

“My phone’s not working,” Alissa said.

“That’s fine, you don’t need it,” I said.

We slurped our soup and ate chicken with our hands.

“No, I mean, what if we time traveled and now all of our stuff doesn’t work?”

“Dude, all the other people here look like us.” I waved at the customers through the candlelight. Ordinary people.

The magic of this place hit me when someone began playing the bagpipes and an old drum. The female workers hopped up and gathered in a circle, doing dances I’d only seen in shows or read about in books. They grabbed a few random customers to dance with them. To my great amusement, a woman waltzed over to Matt and held out her hand.

“Ah, no. Thanks.” He waved her away.

She put her hands on her hips, pouting, and said something in Czech. In minutes, the woman whisked Matt away. Watching his body, one I assumed would be coordinated, flutter around to the music brought me the most sincere joy I’d experienced in a long time.

Two songs went by, I could tell Matt had no clue what was going on, but he loosened up and actually smiled a couple times. I saw a brief glimpse of what he must’ve been like as a child: happy and carefree before frat life hit. Greg clapped, mocking him, but the music was too loud for his voice to carry and I was glad for that. Somehow, this medieval pub in the middle of Prague was were Matt belonged.

He came back to the table, glowing with a bit of sweat and light in his eyes. I knew I needed to burn that into my memory before Greg ruined the moment.

Sure enough, he did. “Next year, we’ll have to dress you up as a maiden for Halloween.”