Drunk and on my way home from my friend’s house in Oltrarno to my house in Santa Croce, I stopped to sit on the bridge and look at the Ponte Vecchio while I FaceTimed my friend. A man on a bike rode by and we greeted each other and then he stopped. I hung up with my friend and this man and I ended up chatting on the bridge for probably upwards of two hours. We talked in a mix of Italian and English (I tried to practice my Italian but when it failed me his English saved our conversation).
He was very intrigued about my love of Italy and I was very interested to know if he felt as lucky to live in Florence as I did, him having grown up there. We discussed cultural differences and he said something that really stuck with me: “you are not like other American girls; you are not scared.” He went on to talk about how you can always tell who are the study abroad students because they always walk quickly and with their heads down which is true! My friends and I during my semester abroad would play a game we called “Italian or American,” where we’d sit in the piazza and guess if the groups passing by were (you got it) Italian or American. By far, the Italians walked slower, more purposefully, with more layers of clothing and spoke louder. The Americans always wore tall heels, no coats and walked with their heads down silently.
Then, he asked if he could walk me home. My American upbringing — being raised in a suburbia an hour and a half from Manhattan — started kicking in. It was 5 in the morning, in a country whose official language I am not fluent in, a man who rides his bike 7+ miles to work each day who I met on a BRIDGE(?!) was offering to walk me home. If I said no would I wind up in the river? If I said yes would he force his way into my apartment? Oops!
I said yes and decided I would tell him I was okay to go alone from the Conad near me and if he insisted, I would go to my old apartment (in the same neighborhood), have a “faulty key” and knock on the door until he got bored or one of my “roommates” let me in and hopefully understood the sitch and saved me. A stupid plan? Yes. Necessary? No. We got to the Conad and exchanged numbers and returned to our perspective houses.
Later on I thought more about what he said about other American girls. I kind of always do weird stuff like that, talk to new people, really put myself out there. But I started to think about other things I have done abroad that I wouldn’t necessarily do at home.
One time in Italy Caryn and I were in a small town and trying to go to a slightly larger town but it was on the weekend and the buses weren’t running (I’m again seeing my issue with buses pop up…). We ate breakfast at a small cafe and ended up telling the guys working there our plans for the day. They offered to drive us to Lecce because they happened to be heading there as well! We accepted and they drove us to where we needed to be without incident.
The first time I was ever in Italy I was in a tiny mountainside town in the south. A girl I was studying abroad with was crying on the steps next to a woman’s house and when she opened the door to yell at the young kids screaming and playing soccer, she invited us in. I was only about two weeks into my beginning Italian course and she spoke mostly dialect. But we watched what I think was “Napoli’s Got Talent” and talked about her family and her late husband. I hold this story very close to my heart as an example of the randomness of it all — the intimate bonds that grow between strangers if we remain open.
These situations are a really huge reason I fell in love with Italy. As beautiful as the buildings are, as extensive as the history is and as rich as the food is, the people of this nation really won my heart. Never before have I experienced people so willing to form connections and help out strangers. The people in these situations helped me realize the way to combat the disconnectedness that seems almost inseparable from the digital age: the ability and willingness to be kind and open.
I think it’s fair to say that Americans are typically scared of their fellow neighbor and for good reason: we have a high violent crime rate, mass shootings are something that happens on the reg, we either grew up being scared of serial killers or hearing our parents be scared of serial killers. But I can say without a doubt that my favorite thing about traveling is meeting new people and that I would never meet the people I have if I were not generally a person more open than most. So I challenge you to try to do the same next time you’re somewhere new. (I am definitely not advocating being unsafe or getting in cars with strange men, however. Please don’t take rides from random cafe men like we did.). And the even bigger challenge is trying to find that sweet spot right in the middle (some would probably say I need to get reeled back in a little bit).
Have a fun story about a time you made an unexpected connection? Do you tend to be open to new people or more closed off?