Florence can be a daunting place upon a tourist’s first arrival. I was definitely overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending green shutters rushing past my taxi windows between the airport and my apartment nestled on the corner of Borgo Pinti. The streets are lined on either side with towering buildings, making each cobblestone walkway look like the next, so much so that it is easy to get lost in the tangle of alleyways and winding roads. Then there is the language barrier, which, for someone who grew up learning Spanish in my foreign language classes rather than Italian, was even more confusing than I was anticipating.
When I arrived, I was set adrift in a sea of unfamiliarity, and I was missing a grounding force, a place where I felt comfortable and welcomed, despite my American roots. I found this sliver of familiarity in a Tabaccheria situated right below my apartment, hidden away from the hoards of tourists and a home base for locals looking for a steaming espresso and cheerful conversation. It was here that I first met Antonio.
Antonio is not what I pictured my best friend here in Florence to be. He is an old, traditionally Italian man with a twisted mustache that lines his upper lip and gray unkempt hair tousled above his eyebrows. However, despite his age, his soul is still young. He whistles and sings as he pulls espresso shots and chats with the customers about their day like they are his own sons and daughters.
The first time I visited this cafe, it was the first time it had rained since I moved to Italy, and I was craving coffee. Up until this point, I had avoided the small coffee shop below my apartment out of fear. Typically, local places like these are run by Italians who don’t cater to the tourist, aka, they don’t speak English. And it wasn’t just that I was scared that he wouldn’t understand me, but also I was embarrassed that I moved to a different country and then just expected them to speak my language. I was nervous that I would be judged by the locals for my lack of Italian.
Thankfully, I overcame my hesitations on this cold and damp day and ducked into the quint bar right outside my own door. I was instantly greeted by a boisterous “Buongiorno!” from none other than Antonio himself. I was correct in my assumption that he wouldn’t speak very much English, but through many more interactions across the three months I’ve known him, that has never stunted our blossoming friendship. He has taught me numerous Italian phrases, played me Italian songs, explained to me the history of traditional Italian drinks and coffee favorites, and even memorized all of my roommates’ names. In Antonio’s bar, I no longer feel like an out-of-place foreigner, but a friend.
Antonio’s kindness and love were exactly what I needed those first few weeks of my time abroad in order to find my footing and develop a sense of confidence as a newcomer in Florence. He gave me something to grasp onto when everything felt so new and confusing. And while I am thankful for the American friends I have made through FUA and my study abroad provider, I am equally thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to connect with generous locals like Antonio who offer to hold my hand as I take baby steps toward discovering what it truly means to live like an Italian.
Maria is a Spring 2022 Florence student from Belmont University.