Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Facing My Fears in Florence

by Aimee Elber
Prior to my departure to Italy, I noticed an impending sense of distress and unease. I found myself worried and fearful, but could not pinpoint exactly why. This troubled me some. I had been wanting to travel to Italy for the better part of the last two decades. For me, it had become the trip of a lifetime. Why did I feel so out-of-sorts? Why was I wringing my hands and pacing as I packed for the trip, instead of cheerfully whistling and smiling to myself with anticipation? 

Giving it some thought, I came to the realization that I was nervous about traveling alone to a foreign country. My only experience traveling overseas had been a short trip to Iceland in 2011 with a group of friends. Our flight was direct from Seattle, and almost everyone in the group had traveled before. I felt bolstered by the group’s collective knowledge, and confident that they would take care of me.

Traveling to Italy was an entirely different experience altogether. I was alone and unfamiliar. I flew from Portland, Oregon to Toronto, then on to Frankfurt, and finally Florence. With each leg of the trip, I could feel the familiar comforts of home becoming more and more distant. In Portland, flight attendants delivered pre-flight instructions in English. In Toronto, passengers were greeted first in English and then French. In Frankfurt, the terse staccato of German was first to fill the cabin as we waited for take-off. Following the German, English instructions were given by a man with an Irish accent. Looking about, I became keenly aware that I was in the minority.

Upon landing in Florence, I experienced a snafu. My fears had come true. I had taken the risk and suffered the consequences. I was alone in a foreign place, and somewhere along the transcontinental journey the airline had lost my luggage. I tried to communicate with customer service to no avail. My friends were not there to protect me. I couldn’t speak the language. The air was muggy, and sweat dripped down my back as the reality of the situation sank in. I hadn’t slept in nearly 24 hours. I was scared, tired, alone, hungry, confused, and sweating like a pig mowing the lawn. I caught a glimpse of my haggard reflection in a trash receptacle, and despite my best efforts to maintain composure, hot tears began to form behind my eyelids as I argued incoherently with Florence baggage claim staff.

Eventually, I made my way to my room for the night, rested, and prepared to meet my fellow classmate, Marie. We had both been in the city for a full day, alone to explore and soak in all that Florence had to offer, and agreed to meet at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Il Duomo di Firenze (Florence Cathedral). “I’m wearing an obnoxious while and black polka dot shirt. I’m tall with black hair piled up”, she said.

Running late, I scurried through cobblestone alleyways making my way toward the main piazza before rounding a corner and finding myself in the center of the square. I stopped, feeling a sucker punch to the gut as my breath caught in my throat and the majesty of the Duomo loomed in front of me. People were everywhere. The Duomo was huge. I had never met Marie in person, and our phones could not receive international texts or calls. Once again, my fears had come true. I was alone! Lost! Confused! Navigating unfamiliar territory! Where was my classmate? How could I find her? Where could she be??

Suddenly I noticed a tall, slender woman with beautiful black hair and a bright smile making her way toward me. She wore a black blouse with large, white polka dots, and a look of wonderment and delight in her eyes as she peered up the Duomo with the same reverence and awe I felt earlier. We stopped in our tracks and stared at each other. “Marie?” I asked. “Aimee?” she replied. A wave of relief washed over me. A fellow American! A fellow studentessa! Someone I could speak English with and ask questions to and fell connected by.

We stood in the square and gushed at each other for almost half an hour. “I can’t believe we’re finally here! How was your flight, did you find the hotel okay, is it hot here – it feels hot to me, it’s so wonderful to talk with someone about this experience, look at those sweet children, have you been practicing Italian, are you hungry, what did you do today, can you believe how beautiful this is, we have finally arrived!!”

Meeting Marie taught me the value of connection. While I am very comfortable spending time alone and have a spirit that yearns for solo adventuring, the need for human interaction, especially with others who identify with my culture, is evident. More importantly Marie taught me that even when I feel alone or uncertain, mishaps occur, or I get lost, all will work out in the end.