How to Meet People Abroad: Florence, Italy

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florence1“Where is your favorite place to travel?” It’s a question I am asked every so often by family and friends, whenever we get in those modes of wanderlust and nostalgia, feeling antsy and anxious and needing to travel again. After two decades of exploration, I answer confidently each time: Florence.

I prefer to refer to the city as the Italians do: Firenze. It’s more fiery, and yet somehow still romantic. Lively and soft at the same time, the way the city is. It’s the birthplace of the Renaissance and one of a handful of places that has totally captured my heart. From its more famous sights like the Duomo and David, to its more impressive natural sights throughout the hills of Tuscany, it’s a place worth knowing to the core. And luckily for people like me, who just aren’t quite fluent in Italian, the local people are heartwarmingly friendly. Here are my tips on how you can get to know them.

1)  Just say “Ciao!” I have done a fair bit of travel throughout Italy, and I found the locals in Florence to be the most receptive to my admittedly rocky attempts at speaking Italian. In larger tourist hubs like Rome, English is spoken daily, by almost everyone. In the busy city, then, a foreigner trying to speak the local language comes across as more of a nuisance than a charming gesture. However, in Florence, I never received a comment about my not-so-spot-on Italian accent, and local people seemed genuinely happy that I was making the effort to speak to them in their mother tongue. When you’re feeling pretty confident about your Italian, join a group like ToscanaIN, which arranges monthly professional networking events. There are plenty of social meetup and language exchange groups as well.

2)  Shop around. Seek out the marketplaces. It is here that you will encounter the most warm-hearted people who live their passion every day. Enoteca Lombardi is a huge indoor market in San Lorenzo, the heart of Florence. You’ll find it bursting with local merchants

Strings of garlic and fresh produce abound in the Enoteca Lombardi.
Strings of garlic and fresh produce abound in the Enoteca Lombardi.

selling everything from the traditional wine, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar of the region to salami and cheese made from Tuscan families who have lived in the region for over 500 years. Every corner is packed with fresh fish and meat, colorful homemade pasta in interesting shapes, and piles of dried fruit so sweet and succulent that I went through mini-withdrawals when I had finished my little bag. Men and women call out in their bright, sing-song Italian, so clearly proud of the products they have to share, and just waiting for a chance to tell you about how they got from farm to table. It’s the perfect place to engage in conversation about the region’s tradition and culture. People are brought together with food throughout the city, but this place is like a regular little village amongst it all.

3)  Play in the piazza. It’s no secret that Italians love their soccer, and Florence has a handful of wide open squares where locals congregate to people-watch and kick around a ball. The Piazza Santa Croce, named after the beautiful Basilica that stands in the square, is one you’ll want to frequent. Locals know the piazza for the infamous Calcio Fiorentino (or “historic football” matches) that are played every June. This isn’t the soccer you’re used to watching, though – it’s played on sand and players are allowed to use their hands and feet to pass the ball. Most notably, Calcio Fiorentino is violent. Wrestling and sucker punches are both allowed and expected. Just check out a few seconds of this year’s game and you’ll see what I mean. If you want to see some rowdy sport and pumped up Florentines, you won’t be disappointed here!

4)  “Mangia, mangia!” No post about Italy should exist without mentioning food, least of all a post about the incredible region of Tuscany. Food, cooking, and sharing meals are integral parts of the Italian culture, but the Florentines aren’t haughty about their meals. Venture along the narrow city roads, down alleyways, and head into that restaurant that seems like a

My travel buddy Kathleen in front of the hidden trattoria we found. This is exactly where you want to seek out an authentic  meal.
My travel buddy Kathleen in front of the hidden trattoria we found. This is exactly where you want to seek out an authentic meal.

hole in the wall. Look for the small, family-owned places. You won’t have much trouble. Trattoria da Mario has been open for over 60 years, tucked away behind the Mercato Centrale. It’s a family-run place only open at lunch, with a menu that changes every day. It always offers Tuscan classics and family recipes passed down for generations, like bollito misto, a stew of boiled beef and tongue. My travel buddies and I found ourselves in a trattoria with no other patrons to speak of, and indulged in creamy, fresh mozzarella di bufala, prosciutto and pasta made on the premises. We washed it down with Chianti from the region’s grapes. Florentines take pride in their cooking, and you’ll learn a lot about the food and the people by engaging in conversation about the meal in front of you.

5)  Opt for a homestay. A quick search will turn up hundreds of hotels, hostels, and even villas you can rent during your stay in Florence. Resist the temptation to live like royalty in the hilly Tuscan countryside, and don’t bother with a mid-city hotel – if you want to understand the people, seek out a homestay. I found a very kind Florentine man who rented out his extra apartment to my travel buddies and me, and it was the best decision we could have made. He didn’t speak any English (and I was so proud when he understood my Italian without a hint of difficulty), and provided us the most authentic living experience we could have imagined. After shopping at the local marketplaces, we cooked in his kitchen, drank wine out on his stone patio, and listened to the routine sounds of neighbors and families winding down for the evening. The apartments in the city are so close together – it’s impossible not to strike up a conversation with the woman hanging clothes at the edge of your wall.

6)  Get off the beaten path. While I don’t think you should leaving Florence without taking in the breathtaking artwork and architecture, marveling at the statue of David in the Accademia and soaking up the view from the top of the Duomo, I highly recommend getting out of the

After a tough bike ride through the Tuscan hillside, I took a much-needed rest to soak up the view.
After a tough bike ride through the Tuscan hillside, I took a much-needed rest to soak up the view.

city and getting into nature. There are bike tours through the rolling (read: steep!) hills of Tuscany, away from the more touristy destinations. Here, locals work in vineyards and villas, producing aromatic olive oil and the best Chianti you’ve ever tasted. Chianti is actually any wine that is made from the Sangiovese grapes in the Chianti region, right there in central Tuscany. The local flavor is here, in the Tuscan people and their food. It’s hard to resist the allure of it all – even our tour guide was an American ex-pat who visited Florence once and just…never left. She was seduced by the city, the countryside, the culture, the cuisine, just as much as I was. She continued her studies and even met her husband in Florence, quickly becoming fluent in Italian and spending her days giving tours through Tuscany.

There’s an inescapable pull to it all, and the people know it. It’s not a place where you need to “warm up” to the locals, or they need to acclimate to you. The culture is family-driven, comforting, and the people are genuine, kind, and open. Even after leaving, you have a sense that you’ll always have a home in Firenze.

SarahCottonAbout the Author:  Sarah Cotton is the newest marketing bee for Melibee Global, passionate about education, travel, and new media. Sarah studied Journalism and Education at the University of New Hampshire and Regents College in London, and has traveled throughout 14 countries and counting. She loves learning about foreign languages and cultures and plans to earn her masters degree in international education. In her spare time, you can find her bouncing around with her nose in a book, a camera in her hand, or a yoga mat under her arm….sometimes simultaneously!  You can read more about her here.