Finding Florence

Cooper Copeland is a student at the University of Southern California and an official API Student Blogger. Cooper is studying abroad with API this summer in Florence, Italy.

Secret bakeries. Why don’t secret bakeries exist in America? Unlike the usual American cravings for Waffle House or Panda Express, Italians find late-night solace in decadent, oozing croissants and focaccia stuffed with glorious goods that make greasy hash browns and stale orange chicken look like vinegar-soaked prunes. I don’t know what those are or if they even exist, but they sound gross. Anyhow, there’s something really satisfying about accepting a warm pastry from an anonymous hand poking out from the crack between two frosted doors. That’s when you know it’s gotta be legit. The no-menu status of the establishment forces you to take a shot in the dark while probably making a fool out of yourself as you botch your favorite pastry in broken Italian (apparently cinnamon buns don’t exist in Italy, whoops.) As if by an unspoken code, the hungry customers vehemently respect the signs on the doors urging to be quiet while they wait, for it seems that tapping toes and twiddling thumbs are the only way to pass the time as you wait for your pocket of golden sunshine to come to you. The moment the door opens, your heart lifts as you chuck the Euro through the crack and bolt for the nearest dark alleyway where you can unabashedly devour your treat without shame. But before I rant too long about baked goods and borderline sketchy businesses, I do declare that it is all in the hopes of making a deeper point about Italy at large.

I’ve come to realize that yes, Florence is a magnificent city, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that a large part of it is riddled with tourists, aggressive venders selling items that I wouldn’t want even for free, and restaurants that serve everything but authentic Italian fare. But that’s where gems like the secret bakeries make everything all better. It seems that in order to do things right in Florence, you gotta go behind closed doors. The first step is to get as far away from the herds of grazing Americans as possible. Yes, they speak your language and won’t lift their eyebrow at you for wearing your favorite Ed Hardy shirt, trucker hat and board shorts, but, without much of a doubt, these regazzi won’t know where to find the truest of Italian experiences. As I sit in the living room of my humble Italian abode, listening to a cover of U2’s “With or Without You” for the fifty-seventh time since being in Florence, it made me realize that most people who visit Florence probably don’t make it past the Ponte Vecchio where the cover band camps out almost every night. Crowds flock, but they rarely venture into the unknown nooks and crannies where fantastic and true Italian culture awaits. Why listen to a cover of “Kiss From a Rose”—this coming from an avid Seal fan—when you can listen to a local singer/songwriter at one of the many cozy Italian hangouts in Oltrarno?

I guess it’s pretty obvious that this notion can be applied to any given space, but I ‘spose my point is that experience lies beyond your front door, lawn, or even your neighborhood. I am absolutely guilty of falling into the traps of fake authenticity while being in Italy. It was only in the past week that I learned that the supposed best gelato shop in Florence I frequented was really just a chain with really good marketing ploys. This may seem trivial to the non-gelato lover (aka the soulless few), but when you see the true gelato artisans at work in their shops, you start to see the huge difference in what Italy the brand wants you to see, and what Italy the country wants you to experience.

I think my best advice is just to get lost; these moments may be uncomfortable at first, but these are also when you become most alert and aware of where you are. I think I can safely say we have become experts of the art of being lost, so if you ever need any suggestions, holler. But really, it’s kinda cool knowing that I can find my way from the Coliseum to the Vatican, or from the Boboli Gardens to the Santa Maria Novella Station. All because I got good and lost. Having just returned from an UH-mazing trip to Lugano, Switzerland, it’s even clearer to me as to why the best treasure is buried. Instead of heading to the mesmerizing lake that lies smack dab in the center of the small (glorious, beautiful, drool-worthy) city, we turned our backs on it and fled uphill into unknown territory. Although I can’t boast that we were brave souls for doing this seeing as Lugano is mostly populated by dizzyingly wealthy retirees, after twists and turns and many confused stares from old Swiss folks, once we reached the last possible cul-de-sac we stumbled upon a view that most visitors never would see. We sighed, gave approving nods to one another, and then stoically looked out over the cascade of mountains and the pristine lake below, all the while suppressing questions of how on friggin earth we would ever find our way back home.

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  1. First of all I want to say great blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing.
    I have had trouble clearing my mind in getting my thoughts
    out. I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10
    to 15 minutes are generally wasted just trying to figure out how to begin.
    Any recommendations or tips? Appreciate it!

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