September 5, 1984.
30 years ago, I was 21 and had never been to Europe, much less to Italy. I knew only two words in Italian: ‘pizza’ and ‘spaghetti’. But as soon as I stepped out of the airport at Pisa, I felt “at home”. I’ve never been able to understand the feeling nor really describe in a way that makes sense. I had just completed a journey of more than 24 hours. And yet, despite being tired, disoriented by the babble of a new language, and confused by the new environment, I felt peaceful and free.
I would be studying in Firenze at Florida State University’s satellite program for the fall semester. The total student population was 84 and perhaps 30 or 40 were on the same flight that day. The program director had chartered a bus to transport us on the final leg of our journey, from Pisa to Firenze. I walked to the awaiting bus, plopped down in a seat, and looked out the window at the umbrella pines. They are an unusual shape, very different from the tall, straight pines of North Florida. I studied the quality of the sunshine and the dark hair and dark skin of the people entering and exiting the terminal. (My mind seemed to exclude anyone looking like a tourist as I tried to identify ‘the Italians’).
A bespectacled girl dropped into the seat next to me. “Hi, I’m Lisa. What’s your name and how long will you be in Florence?”
What a stupid question! Of course, FSU’s Florence program lasts one semester. I suppressed an eye roll and introduced myself. I told her the date of my return flight in December, a few days after the semester would end.
“Well, I’m here for the full year. I’ll be leaving in June though, because I want to travel in Europe for a while after spring semester ends.”
I blushed because I had jumped to the conclusion that there was a one-semester limit to attending the FSU program. And my heart leaped as a new door of opportunity flew open. Eight months in Italy…wow! I hadn’t been on the ground an hour and now my future suddenly tumbled out in new and exciting directions.
I was poor, a ‘starving student’ coming to Italy in part because a wonderful adviser helped me obtain supplementary financial aid. But in that moment, money became irrelevant: somehow or other, I was going to “make it work” and remain in Italy until the springtime.
It was early afternoon as the bus arrived in Firenze. In those days, buses, cars, and scooters could drive practically anywhere in the city center. Our driver was able to wind his way to the piazza closest to the Pensione Florentia, where most of us would live. What a jaw-dropping introduction to Firenze was Piazza SS. Annuziata. It is a grand square, with loggie along two sides and two elegant fountains in the center (surrounded at that time by a jumble of parked Fiats.)
As I gathered my suitcases, I looked around me, trying to absorb every sensation and all the beauty. I remember clearly the amazing Italian light, softened by the humidity high above the city. It cast a pale gold glow over the piazza and I sometimes wondered later if I dreamed this moment. (But if so, what happened in ‘real life’?)
There were almost no tourists, nothing to blot out as I surveyed these new people called “Italians”. I don’t recall if there were newspaper stands, fruit vendors, or other businesses at that time in SS. Annuziata nor how many people were walking through the square. I do remember the sensation that I somehow belonged in this foreign land. Even more striking was that I never had a similar feeling in my hometown nor at FSU’s campus in Tallahassee.
I grabbed my suitcases and followed the program director and other students. We wound our way through the narrow streets to the pensione, my ‘home’ for the next eight months. In the days that followed, I learned my way around Firenze and began to acclimate to the school, my fellow students, and to the culture and people of the city. But the first sensations of Piazza SS. Annuziata lingered in me for many days after.