January 23, 2010

In Florence, Italy: Getting Lost Amid the Familiar

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Florence is a beautiful Tuscan city in central Italy that, for better or worse, is fairly small and largely traversable by foot. My host home is a 20-minute walk from the Syracuse campus villa where I will attend classes for the semester during my time studying abroad, and a 35-minute walk to the duomo, an imperial gothic cathedral in the center of the city.

As my first week of classes has come to a close, my well-trodden routes from home to school and from home to the centro (center of town) have become instinctive at this point. But the first week was somewhat more troublesome. What should have been short and simple walks wound up being circuitous and elongated by my abysmal sense of direction, my uncultivated Italian lingual powers and my inept map reading abilities.

The good thing about getting lost is it gives you a tremendous opportunity to see all parts of the city. The bad thing about getting lost is, well, exactly the same. After turning multiple 20-minute walks into well over hour-long treks, I got well acquainted, too well, with many different parts of the city. So many different street names and buildings and little stores started to look familiar; a serious issue when trying to use familiar landmarks to navigate your way back home.

I walked with one of the students I met on my program down to the center of town. He wanted to check out a gym and possibly sign up for a membership. I thought about doing the same, so I went with him. We didn’t exactly know where we were going, and we eventually wound up taking a route to the gym somewhat off the beaten path. However, we eventually found the gym; he signed up and decided to stay and to get in a work out before heading back to the Syracuse campus.

Upon seeing the 155-euro cost of a three-month membership, I suddenly realized I was both frugal and lazy. So I was left to my own devices to find my way back. Shortly after leaving the gym, I found myself in front of the duomo (the giant cathedral) on a street called Via de Servi. I would later discover that had I just gone straight, I would have made my way back to the campus in 10 minutes. But it was at this time that previously getting lost on the way to the gym wound up wreaking havoc in my attempts to navigate my way back.

I looked down the street to my right, and immediately recognized an alluring yellow building. It called out to me like a siren’s song.

“Ya, this looks familiar,” I thought to myself. So I turned right. Silly me, I didn’t realize that when you get lost and walk around almost the entire centro, pretty much everything looks familiar. So I continued to walk, turning whenever I saw a building or a street name that looked familiar.

As I absentmindedly retraced my previous aimless wanderings, I continued to trust my instincts whenever I saw some sign of familiarity. So I rambled around the centro getting further and further entangled in the maze I had created based on my familiar sightings.

Eventually, as I was unable to locate where I was on the map and I had absolutely no inclination as to where I was, I stepped into the Hotel Donatello to try and ask for directions.

“Scusi, umm, do you speak English?”

Thank some merciful being that the concierge at the front desk was an English speaker. As I took out my map and told him where I was trying to go, he took out a highlighter and marked the exact route I needed to take, explaining to me the street names and all the details that helped me find my way back.

But my lost ramblings around the city of Florence were not to end there. The next night, my roommate and I were trying to find our way back to our host home. We were confident by this time that we, at the very least, knew how to get back to the home we had been staying at for three nights now. No need to take a map with us, right?

Again, befuddled by the familiarity of a, by this time, well-traversed city, we took countless wrong turns falsely believing we had finally gotten ourselves back on track. After abandoning the attempt to use familiar landmarks to find our way home, we discovered newfound hope each time we saw a familiar street name.

I was pretty sure the street we needed ended in a vowel; so we kept walking a little ways and, lo and behold, the next street we came to ended in a vowel. Eureka! We were saved.

Unfortunately, basically every word in Italian, including street names, ends in a vowel. So the magical street that was supposed to bare us back home was a dud. At this point, we were out of ideas of where to go. It was late and we had no idea where we were. Clueless and mapless, we decided to throw in the towel; after electing to save money by walking rather than taking the bus, I had no choice but to give in and call a taxi.

After a 20-euro, two-minute cab ride (apparently we had gotten ourselves pretty close to our host home without even realizing it) and after a night of aimless wandering that took us to the wrong side of the city and back, we had returned to our host home. Never again will I walk around the city without a map, and never again will I give in to the temptation of making an ill-advised turn just because something looks familiar. After all, there’s no way to distinguish between what looks familiar because it’s the right way to go and what looks familiar because it’s something you saw when you were completely lost.

Original Author: Seth Shapiro