Baylor study abroad: Meagan Downing in Italy

Meagan Downing, a junior journalism major from Snyder, Texas, took part in the Baylor in Florence study abroad program this past summer. In this post, Meagan shares her impressions of discovering the “gorgeous town” that is often hidden from tourists.

My Florence
By Meagan Downing

Fireworks boom in the distance, showering an array of light on the windows and buildings. Below me, in a courtyard, cheers erupt and the children burst into song, banging their tambourines. A man in the building across from me switches on his lights to see what all the commotion is about. Somewhere nearby I hear tourists oohing and ahhing, wondering what the fireworks are for.

The day of San Giovanni draws to a close. I sit alone in my apartment at my window, taking it all in. I opted not to go out for a better view of the fireworks. Instead, I watch shards of light fly above the rooftops across from me and try to get a good photo of the mood ring sky. By the looks of it, most of my Florentine neighbors chose to do the same. Plus, Italy is playing England in the Euro Cup and no true Italian would dare miss that.

I no longer consider myself a tourist in this gorgeous town of Florence. I know too much. For instance, I can tell you that the kids in the courtyard are there with their rather large family that has big family dinners outside nearly every other night. As for the man who switched on his lights, his wife spends her days in the kitchen with her window open, filling the area between us with delicious smells.

These are the things I want to learn about a place and, thanks to my study abroad program, I am.

These are the things a regular tourist never gets the honor and privilege of experiencing.

The more time you spend in a place, the more connected you feel to it. When you have the amazing chance to live among the people of a foreign city, you quickly lose the sense of just visiting and become engrossed in the local way of life, and Italian life fascinates me.

The regular tourist, for example, doesn’t get to witness the conversation that takes place across the way from my apartment every Sunday evening and occasionally on other days. A woman in one building will be hanging out her laundry and the one below will be working in her kitchen, where she nearly always is. Then, the woman on the top floor will poke her head out and shout to one of them. Someone on the ground level whom I can’t see usually joins in too. Their husbands come and go, joining in on the conversation at times.

I honestly have no idea what they are saying to each other, but I make up fake conversations in my head. Talking about the laundry and whether it will rain tomorrow. How the kids are doing in school and what is for dinner tonight. I am sure some building gossip gets thrown in, too. Then, when the kids start to get restless and the husbands are hungry, they each pull back into their homes like a turtle into his shell and resume their own individual lives.

These moments capture my full attention. I always feel a strong feeling well up inside me to shout across the way and join in on the conversation. I don’t, though. Most of the time I feel like an intruder, some tourist that just got lost on her way to the Duomo, spying on them.

The Duomo, Michelangelo’s David and the “Gold Bridge” fascinate the regular tourists and those things are, without a doubt, remarkable. I pass by the Duomo every day, though, and I have seen it before. Now I am more interested in all the little things I pass on my way to school every day. The ink-covered room with the two massive printers that never seem to be running, the old man who is always bent over a bike, repairing away at his little shop, and the shop around the corner with all the crazy wigs on busts with fake noses. I want to know about the people in these places and the stories behind these businesses.

It is not wanting just to know about these people, but also getting to know them, too. Like the rude, snobby waitress who works around the corner from my apartment where I get my favorite pizza margherita take away after a long day. After my third visit, I finally got a smile and a name. After the fourth, I got a conversation. The people at Astor know me by name and at Mordilatte they always know exactly what I want.

These are the things that will make me want to come back or even live here permanently. I understand and have experienced the way life works here. It’s like I am in the in-crowd now.

The windows shake one more time as the last few fireworks assault the sky. The kids seem to be wearing out, but I still hear cheers letting me know that Italy is doing well. The man across from me has switched on his TV and is focused on the game. Florentine life moves on around me.

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