Since being in Italy I have visited both Pisa and Lucca twice. They are such an easy day trip from Florence, just a short train ride away, and both can be seen well enough in just one day. Upon first arriving in Pisa, you would think that there isn’t a lot to see and do, but if you’re into Art history, you can easily spend an entire morning in the Piazza Di Miracoli. To get to the piazza I recommend taking a bus from the central train station, the walk is quite far! When you first enter the Piazza the first thing that catches your eye of course is the Leaning Tower, as it should. Crowds of tourists fill the street leading up to the tower, all of them leaning over the fence to get the famous picture of them pushing or leaning or touching or kicking the tower. Recently restored (there was a structural scare in recent years, which began a long process of brainstorming how to save the tower, on idea even included building another tower leaning the opposite direction and tying them together so they would balance each other out!), it is now possible to climb to the top of the tower. It does cost 18 Euros, so it is up to your budget to decide if that is the once-in-a lifetime experience for you. Entrances to the other structures in the Piazza also cost an entrance fee, but are worth the cost. Inside the Romanesque Pisa Baptistery which was built in 12th century, you can see beautiful stained glass windows as well as the pulpit made by Nicola Pisano. An important piece in gothic sculpture, this beautifully sculpted pulpit draws inspiration from classical sarcophagi and also features the first heroic male nude in sculpture in Tuscany. So it is an important stepping stone on the path to the renaissance in Italy. You can also hear a demonstration of the baptistery’s perfect acoustics. The cone-shaped dome on the inside of the Baptistery was built specifically to create perfect acoustics. It is hauntingly beautiful to listen to, as the demonstrators singing fills the building and echoes back down to all of the people below. When the demonstration is being a given, you get a little picture of what baptismal ceremonies must have been like when the building was still in use, it must have been a very mystical experience. Finally, check out the Cathedral, in the heart of the Piazza. Done in a Pisan Romanesque style, it is covered in colored marbles and spoils from war, representing Pisa’s great power at influence at the time of the cathedral’s construction. A lot of the outer decoration has intricate patterning that reminds of Moorish and Muslim influence, probably from textiles that Pisans traded as they were also the naval power at the time. Inside, there is an impressive mosaic located in the apse; however it is currently undergoing restoration. The coffered ceiling is equally beautiful, with the gilded edges catching the natural light from the windows and illuminating the deep blue coves. The real masterpiece to see however is another pulpit, sculpted by Giovanni Pisano, the son of Nicola Pisano. It shows 9 scenes from the life of Christ and also draws inspiration from classical sculpture, with the upper panels resembling ancient sarcophagi. After Pisa, Lucca is just a short train away. Probably one of my most favorite towns in all of Italy, this adorable Tuscan town is still surrounded by medieval walls, that in modern times they have expanded and planted trees on. It is possible to walk the entire 4 kilometers around the town on the walls. It is even better and very affordable to rent a bike and take a ride around the town. The trees are reminiscent of beautiful Parisian parks and the views of the town make great snapshots of quiet Italian life. Inside the walls of Lucca there is a nice change of pace from the tourist craze in Pisa and Florence. You can feel the difference almost immediately. Lucca is quiet but still full of life. The tiny streets are cozy and adorable, and so Italian. They are full of local restaurants, wine bars, and fancy, unique boutiques, all with at least ten perfect and stylish bikes parked outside. Every Italian we passed was fabulous of course, wearing outfits us inferior Americans could only dream of pulling off. Tucked in between Romanesque churches there are dozens of piazzas that paint little snapshots of local life in Lucca. My favorite being the Piazza di Libri, or the Square of Book in English, that is quite literally overflowing with book markets. We happened upon it accidentally, and were met with the most wonderful smell of old books.
In my vision of myself abroad, I saw what everybody tells you to see. I saw a girl who had it all. One who quickly made this new, strange continent her home, who jet off on glamorous and ambitious weekend trips with her camera and a great wardrobe, and who would be deeply moved by the people, places, and beauty she saw. That my apartment would be perfect, in the perfect location, right near to everything I needed, and my roommates would have been a home away from home. That I would have made the best of friends quickly, and we would laugh loudly and freely as we stumbled on the cobblestone streets, huddled together whispering the secrets of shared adventures. I imagined that I would have a favorite coffee shop, one where I knew the owners and could speak with them in perfect, unbroken Italian. One of those cozy places to study with good pastries to fill up on. They would give me free chai on cold days just because. That upon embarking on this adventure alone, I would have the ultimate journey of self discovery. But they don’t have chai in Italy, at least not the sweet and spicy creamy chai that has brought me comfort for so many years. And cafés aren't exactly study friendly the way they are in the states. All that I have found in the infinite cluster of Florentine cafés is a mumbling, very broken Italian that is answered in English. As it always goes, my expectations that had grown over the last year were very different than the reality I was currently facing. My roommate situation was not as warm as I had hoped it to be. What I had hoped would be bright evenings filled with shared pasta dinners, and bottles of wine that disappeared far too quickly, were really cold kitchen floors trying to fraction spaghetti out of the package in the appropriate proportion for one, drinking to an empty room. Many students are spread out around the city, and thus friendships came slowly. I found myself longing for the familiarity of home and the comforts of my best friends and family. I wanted people who understood me, who the shy version of me could speak to freely about my experiences. I felt alone, realizing that at 6,000 miles away I was actually completely by myself. And contrary to my hopes, I had no idea what I was doing. I was filled with guilt whenever I longed for home.
"Push it out of your mind." I would tell myself. "Focus on the good, not the loneliness."So I thought about the good. Florence is really beautiful. I have found inspiration here. The city is brimming with secrets, centuries old stories hidden in every wall and crack of cobblestone. They beg to confide in you as you stroll by, to touch you the way they have been touched by dukes and beggars alike; to them you are no different. My classes only emphasize the intrigue of the heap of old buildings. From the on-site visits to museums and famous landmarks, to the field trips around Italy that allow me to fully feel the power of Renaissance Italy. They force me to take the time to understand, process, and appreciate, instead of checking things off a list. Learning the works of the masters and distinguishing their techniques and applying it to my own work. I feel joy from learning about all of the humanity that has happened here. It is a beautiful thing.
"But when am I going to start finding myself?" I would ask. "It's not fair that everyone else gets to study abroad with people they know from school." I feel guilty when everyday isn't some incredible adventure out of an artsy YouTube video.But I have my afternoon walks around the city that reveal a more modern Florence in all of its golden glow. Tourists crowd and choke the streets, sprinkled in with the dings of locals' bike bells as they try to navigate them. Vespas fly by instead, not even trying to dodge the foot traffic. Get out of the way, or get run over. At least with the horse drawn carriages you hear clomping hooves on the cobblestone coming from miles away. Fabulous ladies young and old strut around in outfits I can only dream of wearing, their little dogs the perfect accessory. You can’t walk a block without inhaling a lung-full of cigarette smoke, and the occasional smell of sewage, contrasted with the smell of fresh pastries and slow-cooking meats. Stores and restaurants fill every block, from high end to low end, tacky to classic. Some displaying the great and historic crafts of Florence, and other knock offs for tourists' pleasure, but somehow it all works. No matter the day, all winding streets I seem to walk down lead me to the Arno. There is something mesmerizing about the Arno, and the small patches of greenery towards the end of the city, if you can find them. Territories of stillness, where one can feel their own breath, transported in an instant worlds away from the crowded, smokey stone and marble. They keep their own rhythm apart from the city, a slower, steadier beat. It’s a place where it is still enough to process that city around you, to feel its soft tugs on your heartstrings. A place to think "Perhaps I am alone sometimes, but my heart is full." Perhaps expectations should never be lived up to and plans never fully executed. There is beauty in piecing things together.