Florence is a city by which you measure your life every time you return.
On my first visit, the city made clear the tasks ahead in growing up. Not just becoming an adult, but a citizen of the world, as I so deeply wanted to be. And it sent me on my way with a parting kiss, a small souvenir of what was yet to come.
Returning to Florence, this time with a friend who had known me as a teenager and has remained with me as a friend through adulthood, we visited many of the sites I had seen before. But I saw everything anew.
15 years later, the city was as beautiful as I remembered it, and more. But it meant so much more this time. The works of art at the Uffizi, the food, the winding alleyways, the architecture. Since then, I had learned about Renaissance Europe, its artistic and intellectual progress, the Medici family, the religious wars, the expansion of European geography and minds. I returned this time trilingual and married, having visited nearly forty countries, pretty confident now in my ability to find my way through whatever situation I find myself in.
But why did it mean more now? The first time I went to Florence, I showed up with just the clothes on my back. The second time I went, I arrived in style, carrying with me trunks of knowledge, connections, ideas, and tastes that I had no way of having before. But rather than being encumbered by this baggage, I was freed by it.
On this return trip, I couldn’t stop thinking about that young Italian who blew me a kiss, and how much I have changed since then. I have never forgotten this gesture, which surely would have meant much less, or at least something so very different to me at 29-going-on-30. Now, I might even be annoyed with such a display. After a decade and a half being a woman, that kind of unsolicited male attention can be a bother, if not something more sinister. But the first time it happens, it’s just sweet.
I returned to that square, and yes, that gelato place was still there. I didn’t explain to my friend why, but I insisted we go there.
Knowing what I know about traveling now, I would have never actually choose to get ice cream there. Given its location, there was no way it wasn’t not overpriced, and the quality surely wouldn’t rise above average. (This is almost always true for restaurants and bars adjacent to spectacular sites. They aren’t good because they don’t have to be. Germans even have a good name for it: Fressmeile, the feeding mile.) But I went back anyways and I ordered a 6€ cup of gelato.
The girl behind the counter wasn’t Italian and she was totally bored, staging slow-motion protest the way only teenagers can. I smiled at the girl, knowing her pain, and I told her that I came here 15 years ago, and I’m returning now. I suppose it was an overly American thing to do – sharing personal information with strangers working in service – and I didn’t really know why I was saying it. This place doesn’t mean the same thing to her as it does to me.
Eyeing her boss, she mustered a smile of acknowledgement, rang us up, thrust the change in my hand, and sent us on our way.
As I walked out this time, the gelato didn’t taste nearly as good last time, imbued as it was with that stranger’s sweetness. But I savored it all the same, knowing that the kiss swept me onto a fanciful path that led me to pursue an education, find love, and discover many more beautiful corners of this world. At 29-going-on-30, I left this time, gelato in hand, knowing that any adolescent preoccupations about my naiveté or inexperience were no longer justified.
Maybe what so captivates about Florence is that it is the best possible outcome of Europe’s curious, trying, and dangerous but ultimately successful adolescence. It teaches you that a life, too, can be built following the virtues so adoringly displayed throughout the city’s streets.
This is what I mean when I say that Florence is a city by which you can measure your life. By remembering who you were when you last stood in this square, you see more clearly who you have become. Each trip to Florence is a chance to relive your own Renaissance, and embark on a new one.