A Friend Like Florence

Angie Peng

Caption for the photo: A visitor to Florence pauses to admire the tourist fare lined along a street near the Arno River during a nighttime stroll.

FLORENCE, Italy—Maybe it’s the gelato talking, but I think I’m in love—in love with the city of Florence.

“Do people actually live here?” one of my friends asks the first afternoon we spend in the city once ruled by the Medici family. I understand her meaning; the city is so beautiful and charming and convenient that it seems like a city made for tourism. There aren’t any of the high-rise apartments here, like the ones in Rome, or the abundance of people dressed in suits on their way to work, like in Paris. or any markers of day-to-day inhabitance, such as schools, playgrounds, hospitals, and other things of the sort.

Florence is a place that seems to be made for tourists yet doesn’t go out of its way to make one feel particularly like a tourist. The best way I can describe this feeling is as if you paid somebody to be your friend, but the paid friend was so good at his or her job that you forgot that you had paid them to be your friend.

And oh, what a friend Florence is.

Birthplace of the Renaissance, Tuscan capital, referred to as “Firenze” by the Italians, her cobblestone paths are charming and welcoming, with a gelato store on every corner. (Side note: There is not enough adequate warning about the dangers of gelato for potential visitors to the city. After performing some careful calculations, I’ve determined that gelato accounted for 1/3 of my budget while in Europe and 100 percent of my weight gain.)

One night, after crossing the Ponte Vecchio, or “old bridge,” to get across the glimmering Arno River, we slowly meander past the small, colorful shops, which line the bridge and have been closed for hours already. After our fifth gelato stop of the day, we find ourselves in a small alley with few people. There is nothing spectacular about this narrow street, and walking behind two of my friends chatting away about nonsensical things, it almost feels like I live here despite having only arrived this afternoon. It is a crazy sentiment not felt very often in many of the other places I have visited and never after so short a period of time.

However, we soon come to a display of Florentine paintings meant for tourists, bright, colorful, and factory-line mass-produced, that I had seen lined along almost every street and in front of every vendor’s stand. It struck me then, just as I was about to lay claim to Florence and her friendship, that I was still just a tourist and this city—no matter how convincing—was catering to my whims.

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