Memoirs of an exchange student: Stranded in Florence

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Happy chaps: me (left), and the two said Aussie friends being cute tourists before said unfortunate events

I have ventured to Florence on four different occasions. The first time was way back in 2008 when I was sixteen on a school trip where we lived with a host family. It was love at first sight. I promised myself I would re-visit this magnificent place.

It would seem that I just couldn’t get enough of the city after visiting it three times more between January and July of 2013. One time I went with the sole purpose of finding the perfect tan leather bag. It was a success. The time after that is the one where things didn’t go so well… getting stranded there overnight with no place to stay.

How could this have happened?! Because Italy. If anyone knows Italy, nothing runs on time, especially when it comes to public transport. While living in the gorgeous city of Bologna for six months last year, I noticed Italians just don’t do punctuality. If you’re looking for regimented schedules, common sense and rules, Italy is not for you. Go home. Or to Germany. Some days in Bologna, the bus just didn’t even come. Whether it was an unannounced strike or a Sunday, some days just weren’t bus days.

Anyway, Florence. Naturally, when one uses the automated ticket machines to buy a train ticket, one would assume that the train times available on the screen were actually available. But nope. My Australian friends were visiting me at the time, and had come to Bologna to visit. One night during their stay, we spontaneously decided we’d visit Florence since they hadn’t been yet. We caught the fast train from Bologna to Florence and had a magical Florentine dinner and city tour. However, when it was time to go home, poof! the magic disappeared. Where the f%^& was the train?! It was about 11pm when we returned to the train station only to find that it was closed. Shut. Chiuso. Cerrado. Geschlossen! (How good is German? So dramatic). Not a person, not a train, nor a gypsy in sight. After 20 or so minutes circulating the station we had come to realise the ugly truth: we were stranded.

Many people may say that Florence is one of the better European cities to be stranded in. And for the most part, this is probably true. But still- no one wanted a bar of us. We sat on some steps in the Piazza of the Duomo and I asked passersby for help or directions to a bar or night club that miraculously never closed. Instead of lending an ear, they huddled past quickly with hands in their pockets and heads down. Despite my Italian being quite good, I was frustrated that I didn’t know how to yell out “No I’m not a crazy hobo, I just want some freaking help!”. Alas, my exposed shoulders and jeans were not suitable attire for midnight, and were really doing me a disservice in the current situation. After befriending a dozen Italians over the years and having a few distant relatives here and there, I have come to realise you are definitely judged by your attire in Italy.

Anyhow, I think that was one of the first times in my life where I felt real and raw despair. We couldn’t hang around the station waiting for it to open because the area wasn’t well-lit and strange men lingered nearby. Maybe this was a sign that there really is a God, because the only place we felt safe was on the steps of the Duomo in the main piazza.

So after about three trips to McDonald’s and a small cheeseburger meal, a McFlurry, some weird mozzarella stick things and five hundred cokes later, the sun rose and we caught the 7am train back to Bologna. Home sweet home! For the first time of my whole trip I was actually grateful to be back at my shitty apartment with the stone-cold walls and cement floors to sleep all day.

Humanity can be pretty ugly, and paired with a language barrier, travelling isn’t always rainbows and sunshine. Sometimes it’s bad takeaway food, freezing your arse off when trains miss you (see what I did there?) and hoping there will be one Good Samaritan to save the day.

No hard feelings Flo, I’ll be back.

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