By: Jessica Harris
The Italian Journey
After flying ten hours, running through two very large airports and sleeping less than 2 hours total, a foreign country (and the promise of a bed) is a lot more dreamlike than you can imagine. Rachel and I landed safely in Florence, Italy around 9:30am with heavy eyes and an ecstatic heart. Walking through “customs”, which in Florence is basically just a set of double doors, we spotted Charlie, our host professor, standing with a hand scribbled sign that read “WMU”. He was funny and welcoming right off the bat, directing us on how to exchange money and get a taxi to our hotel for the first night. We learned two things relatively quickly:
First, if you are going to exchange cash or withdraw euros, avoid the airport cash kiosk or the cash stations in the city. Not only is the exchange rate relatively high for Americans, they also add large percentage fees to your withdrawal, simply for the service. Your bank may also charge you every time they have to make the conversion when you use a credit or debit card. Your best bet to withdrawal the most money with the least amount of charges is to look for a Bancomat, an ATM located in a local bank. They charge you nothing for the service, you just have the exchange rate and whatever fees your bank has laid aside. I exchanged about $60 cash in the airport upon arrival and got half of that back in euros after all of the fees. That was a hard lesson to learn. It might even be more worth it to order euros from home before you leave if you know you’ll need cash right away for a taxi or hostel but that was research I didn’t do ahead of time.
Second, there are few rules of the road in Italy. Taxi drivers are intense, there is a lot of honking and most people just walk everywhere. It is almost not worth it to have a car in Florence. Most locals either have bicycles, mopeds or very tiny cars. Otherwise, everyone is on foot! Melania, our second host professor, confessed that she had a car but shrugged at it, admitting she rarely drives it. After a very intense taxi ride to our hotel and later after we had moved into our Florence apartment, we found that everything we needed or wanted was within walking distance anyway. The school was only a couple blocks away, as was the grocery store, the bancomat, the Duomo, most restaurants and even the Uffizi Museum! When we started traveling outside of the city, the train station was only a twenty-minute walk away and was a quick and direct way to travel to the highlights of the country.
I wasn’t worried about communication back home when I was preparing to leave for Italy. Unfortunately, the day we arrived, it took us the entire day to figure out how to connect to Wi-Fi or that our hotel didn’t offer free Wi-Fi. By the time I had finally connected that evening, I had many frantic messages from my worried mother, including some Facebook statuses, and messages from other half worried people because I hadn’t been able to contact anyone when we arrived. Only my boyfriend, who had been to Italy before, understood how hard it might have been to find wifi when we were less than established and tried to keep everyone at home calm. I spent time letting everyone know we were safe and simply disconnected immediately! After that, I communicated with friends and family through Facebook, Google Hangouts, FaceTime and Skype! Besides a sometimes-spotty connection and the six-hour time difference, communication was never again a problem.
Believe it or not, our first meal was pizza (how original and adventurous of us) and we were shocked to find out that Italian pizza tasted better than any pizza we had ever had. We were even more shocked to find that even though the tap water in Florence was safe to drink, you had to buy your water and oh, you want ice? Unheard of. You could assume that pigeons were the country’s glorified bird, so much so that they simply blended in with architecture and statues on the cobblestone streets. There were plenty of venders in the crowded streets selling anything from selfies sticks to jerseys to ornate fans. I personally loved the buskers, playing absolutely beautiful songs in the piazza and you took care to avoid the floral clad gypsies with their paper cups on your heels. There was even a seemingly shy girl spreading the Free Hugs movement the first night we were there, a sweet sight to view. It was all intimidating and incredibly magical. The first couple of days were hilarious, we were like day old deer stumbling around, our eyes wide and full of wonder at all we didn’t know. I can say this much though, we did learn fast… almost as fast as we fell in love with the city itself.