My archaeological excavation experience joins the ranks of "jobs" abroad I did not get paid to do, yet had very little expenses for either. My round trip flight to Athens was not only covered by a grant, but it was direct, a luxury I couldn't afford on my first trip to Greece a year and a half earlier. Since I had some extra time to kill and my primary travel cost was covered, I figured I would fly out early and hop on a cheap flight to Italy before meeting everyone at Elefthérios Venizélos airport for the beginning of excavation season.
My University ran a summer study abroad program in Florence, so I happened to have a couple of friends in the city. Without doing much research, I stowed the bulk of my baggage in Athens, flew into Rome, and hopped on a train to Firenze, armed only with a map and a vague set of directions to the hostel where I would meet the friend who was to be my guide for the week.
I got in and crashed, as I am not very good at sleeping on overnight flights (yet I sleep like a baby if it is the middle of the day and the lights are on) and had just spent over 15 hours flying and train-ing, not including airport time. Though I had not made any official plans, I had been thinking about spending the end of of my Italia trip in Rome, but after one of my epic four-hour naps and only four full days ahead of me (at least one of which would be spent in Cinque Terre), I came to my senses and decided to enjoy my short time in Tuscany and return to Rome when I could give it due diligence. I still have not been to Rome, which may seem like a "rich white girl" lament, but as a classics major, it upsets me that I have yet to visit one of the two cities that I studied extensively in college.
Not only had he been living and studying in Florence for nearly a month already, but my friend's Italian heritage, proficiency in the language, and Catholicism made him the perfect guide. I spent a lot of time on my own while he was in class meandering the enchanting well-preserved streets of the Renaissance city and eating more than my fair share of gelato. When he joined me, I would get a historical narrative of Firenze, as he would delve into the legacy of the Medici family, laugh at tourists taking photographs of the replica doors on the Duomo, explain the significance of the Ponte Vecchio, and describe the religious art inside famous churches like the Santa Maria Novella. At night, we would enjoy to-die-for fresh Italian food (my mouth is watering and pants shrinking just thinking about it) paired with wine that cost as much as water and tasted better than anything purchased at several times the same rate in the States. We'd go out and he'd practice his Italian on the locals and they'd work on their English with me. Though at that moment I was certainly closer to the source than ever, the fact remains that I studied a dead language for way too many years and was still an awful conversationalist in anything but my native English, something that I am quite ashamed of and working to correct.
With no concrete plans for my time in Florence, I relished the fact that I was leisurely taking in the essence of this stunning city without the pressure to squeeze it all in over the course of a few days. Traveling without a guidebook or definitive plans can be extremely liberating, though playing it by ear is certainly a lot easier when you are meeting up with someone in an already very manageable city like Florence. And sometimes it does pay to do at least a minimal amount of investigation. For instance, had I done my research, I would have known that the infamous Ufizzi gallery is closed on Mondays, which is problematic when you discover this fact on a Sunday night and your flight is on a Tuesday morning. The art, however, has already survived five centuries, so it can probably wait another few years, or even decades, for my return. Sometimes a winning combination of captivating architecture, heavenly food, and the right company is more than enough for a successful trip.
clockwise from top left: the simple grandeur of Tuscan architecture; cappuccinos for two; the Florence Cathedral (Duomo) as seen from a hilltop overlooking the city; statue in the Boboli gardens; the Arno River; the Bacchino (one of my favorite things in Florence for obvious reasons: court dwarf playing "Bacchus" + turtle); the magestic facade of the Duomo