My first week in Florence is complete! In the past seven days, I’ve moved in with my host family and roommate, walked 60 miles, navigated with a paper map and managed to only get (semi) lost once, made my own pizza in a restaurant kitchen, almost bought body wash because it looked like shampoo and all labels were completely in Italian, explored the city and learned some history of the magnificent buildings, churches and sculptures we get to live right down the street from, as well as discovered five new gelato places.
I am soaking up every bit of culture I can while staying in Italy and have successfully balanced the first week of school, learning a new city and planning trips over the next few months to other destinations scattered across Europe.
We were shuttled from Pietrasanta, the seaside town our orientation was in, to Florence and I was immediately taken off the bus and shoved into a taxi to my host residence with a driver who only spoke Italian. As he whipped through streets that did not even look wide enough to fit his car, he turned on a beeper to alert pedestrians they better move quickly. We drove down one of the busiest shopping streets in Florence, weaved between the crowd and he dropped me off on a side street at the entrance of my new home.
On the drive, I was the most overwhelmed I had been so far in Italy. I was all alone, being whipped through the city streets and dropped off at a foreign location with a door that I just couldn’t seem to figure out how to open. I could hear the lock clicking open, so I kept twisting and pulling on the knob smack in the middle of the door. I must’ve rang the doorbell buzzer one too many times because I heard shouting from above. When I looked up, my host mom was leaning out her third-floor window yelling, “PUSH. PUSH DOOR!”
After I carried my book-bag and 50-pound suitcase up three flights of stairs, I met my amazing host family and settled in for the semester feeling comforted by their hospitality and my roommate from California who I go to school with.
Italy is different from America for so many reasons. I’ve been keeping track of some helpful tips for beginner travelers that I hope may help anyone who is thinking about or planning a trip overseas:
1. Everything has a place.
This was a tip passed on from a friend at home who traveled around Italy at the beginning of this summer: put everything back where you get it from. Once unpacked, it is easy to get comfortable and plop your purse or keys down on a table and forget about them — only until a few hours later when you need to be somewhere and can’t find your purse or keys. Keep your money, credit cards, passport and other important documents in places that you will always be able to go back to quickly rather than rooting through all your belongings to find something.
2. It’s all about the money.
The exchange rate of American USD to Euro is not that great, so I only carry American cash during travel in case of an emergency. I watched a friend exchange $385 American dollars for only 237 Euros this week, so unless it is an emergency (like this case was), try to avoid bringing mass amounts of American money to exchange or leave sitting around for the duration of your trip.
I suggest securing at least one credit card without foreign transaction fees and set up contactless payment if your card has that feature. A ton of places in Europe accept contactless payment — plus it gets you through the line quicker and easier!
3. Watch what you pack.
I have some friends on this trip who paid $200 to bring an overweight suitcase! For most international airlines, you can check one 50-pound bag, a carry on and a person item for the standard price. Some people were smart and checked a second bag for $35 – $50 but did not pack a lot in it. This bag can be used to bring a few more items across the ocean, but also can be filled mostly with souvenirs collected throughout the semester to bring back cheaper than paying for one overweight checked bag.
4. The time difference will get you.
Most flights across the Atlantic to Europe are overnight. The best way to beat jet lag is to drink some caffeine and force yourself to stay up the entire first day and go to bed at a normal time. I slept as much as I could on the plane, stayed up my entire first day in Europe, had a great night’s sleep and did not have to think about the time difference after that!