There is something to be said about all the diversity within Florence — I see almost as many different ethnic groups here as I do at Knox. That being said, no matter their appearance or heritage, Italian people are a group unto themselves.
Personal space is often rare, and cheek kisses are a completely acceptable platonic greeting regardless of gender. When you walk through the markets of San Lorenzo, vendors will heckle you regardless of your level of interest in their products, occasionally going so far as to call after you until you are out of earshot.
There are some positive cultural differences, too. Here, if you don’t have exact change or you’re short a few euro, sometimes you’ll get a discount. If you’re a remotely attractive female (read: you’re alive and clearly female-identified), you can expect regular discounts and the occasional free drink. But I’ve been through this before: touristy women are targeted by both single men and vendors and often plied with compliments. It’s just an Italian social phenomenon.
On another note, I feel compelled to mention something odd about Florence: this city was not made to cater to physically handicapped or out of shape people. Escalators and elevators are rare, and on a typical day I climb at least 16 floors’ worth of stairs in addition to race-walking from anywhere from four to eight hours. There are no ramps, and most streets are paved with something like cobblestone. In short: get in shape before you get here, or deal with various joint problems.
A lot of this column may come across as negative and I would like to make something else clear: no matter how many faults it has, Italy is an amazing place. I’m grateful to be here and have never been so consistently happy to be somewhere before. To live in the center of Florence is to be surrounded by timeless beauty at all times. I pass by the Duomo every day and never get used to the intricately adorned walls. Cathedrals and churches are usually my landmarks, and I relish every minute over my walks to various classes all over the city.
This is the kind of place that makes me appreciate Christianity as a tradition and not just as one of many well-principled religions that I don’t practice. In a nutshell, Florence makes me interested in all the things I rarely study: history, renaissance art, sculpture, monotheistic religions, fashion: everything.