The minute I stepped out of the train station I knew something wasn’t right. Let’s be honest, I knew before that, I was just seriously hoping my intuition was wrong. I turned my head to the right. The street was dark and quiet, with the exception of a couple softly glowing windows. They looked warm and inviting, but they weren’t where I was supposed to be. I turned to the left. The street was darker and narrower with only a single streetlamp providing any light. The crowd was starting to thin. Straight ahead. That looked more promising. The street was wider and well lit by rows of streetlamps, with light seeping out from a handful of shops that were still open for business.
I was spending a week touring through Italy by myself. A senior in college, this was my first solo trip, and my parents thought I was crazy. Heck, part of me thought I was crazy too. But I was meeting friends along the way, so I figured I wasn’t going to be completely alone. I spent two glorious days in Verona, enjoying all the decadent food and soaking in the quiet romance. A friend told me that the best way to travel between cities was to simply go to the train station the day of your departure and tell the attendant where you wanted to go. She did it all the time and swore it was the cheapest and least confusing option for an American who doesn’t speak Italian. Sounded good to me.
I arrived at the Verona train station in the early evening. As I joined the long queue, I started to get a little nervous. What if I missed the one train to Florence for the night? What if I had the wrong address? I pulled out the piece of paper that I had meticulously written all my travel details on. No it’s fine, I told myself, you did your homework, you know where you’re going. When I reached the ticket counter I was happy to see a middle-aged man sitting behind the glass window. Great, I thought, he’ll be friendly and understanding of a young, clueless girl. Nope.
I pushed the piece of paper that I had been clutching, almost desperately, under the glass. “Santa Maria Novella”, I said the name of the station I had researched and rehearsed, “In Florence. Uh, I mean Firenze.” “Porta Al Prato,” he replied matter of fact, not even looking up at me. “Umm, no. I want to go to Santa Maria Novella,” I replied, a little unsure this time. Our exchange continued like this for another minute or two. By the third time he had almost convinced me that I was crazy. That could just be another name for the station. I mean, a rose by any other name, right? Plus he knows what he’s talking about. He’s the one sitting behind the glass, not me. Finally I nodded, paid the surprisingly expensive fare, and took my ticket. As I walked to the platform I kept reading the name over and over. Porta Al Prato. Porta Al Prato? Well surely he wouldn’t send me to the wrong place, I convinced myself. It’s fine. I’m going to Florence. And with that I shoved the ticket into my purse.
A few hours later, there I stood, knowing something was wrong. Straight ahead, I decided. The further I walked the more I realized that what looked promising was an illusion. Most of the shops were already closed for the night, the remaining light coming from behind the locked gates. Finally, I found one shop with a gate that was only partially lowered. I ducked into the entryway. “Excuse me,” I said feebly, “English? Do you speak English?” The four words of Italian that I knew would be of no help to me right now. The shopkeeper and the other man inside were older. They both gave me confused looks. “No, no,” they said, understanding the word English but little else about why I was standing here in their shop mumbling nonsense while they were trying to close up for the night. “Grazie,” I said, dejected, and stepped back onto the increasingly deserted street.
“Okay, deep breath,” I said out loud to myself, “you can figure this out.” I’m not sure which was racing faster, my heart or my mind. The street was darkening as shop lights were being turned off left and right. The area was becoming quieter as people turned in for the night. This neighborhood was clearing out and I was quickly losing options of people to ask for help. “Who would speak English?” I muttered under my breath. A young person! I needed to find a teen or young adult. They may have learned English in school. That’s when I saw her, a young lady, not much older than me at the time. “Excuse me!” I almost shouted, “Oops, I mean mi scusi. Mi scusi!” She turned. “Do you speak English?” I asked, desperately. It was only she and I on the street now and if she said no I was out of luck. “Yes,” she replied. Thank God! I told her where I was trying to go. She didn’t know the exact address, but she told me which bus I needed to catch to get to the right side of town. Well that explains a lot, I thought, silently cursing the man at the train depot. I followed her directions to the bus stop and stood there praying the bus came soon.
I stepped off the bus into a busy plaza center. This looked more like it. The plaza was bustling with tourists and residents alike. I followed the kind stranger’s directions down the first street to the left. That was as far as her directions went. Now I was on my own again. Okay…who would know how to speak English here? I thought. I had more options this time, but asking the right person was important. A hotel. They would have English speakers at the front desk of a hotel. Someone needs to be able to talk to the tourists, right? Ooh and they would have maps!
I almost ran to the first hotel I could find. I entered the well-lit lobby and spotted a small woman behind a grand desk. “Do you speak English?” I asked eagerly, hopeful my hypothesis was correct. “Yes. How may I help you?” she replied. I exhaled, a wave of relief washing over me. “I need help, directions,” I explained. I unfolded that precious piece of paper with my travel information on it, the one that hadn’t proven terribly helpful so far. But she knew the address. She pulled out a map of the city. Again, I breathed a, probably very loud, sigh of relief. She drew the directions for me. The hostel I was looking for wasn’t on the map, but she showed me approximately where it should be. Things were really looking up. I thanked her profusely, in both English and Italian, and stepped back onto the street, armed with my map and some restored confidence.
That disappeared very quickly. I know she said two lefts, I thought as I searched and searched for the hostel sign. Online it said the sign was neon and easy to spot from the street. Either I needed to have my eyesight checked or this wasn’t the right place. I had reached the end of the road, quite literally. The street had dissolved into another busy plaza. Well this clearly isn’t it, I thought, frustrated, and swung back around. I must have missed it, that’s all. I retraced my steps, keeping my eyes peeled. After a few minutes I found myself back at the intersection where I’d started. She said left, then left, I was sure of it. Plus I had the map clutched in my hand to prove it. Okay…let’s try this again. Down the street for a third time. Third time’s the charm, right? Wrong.
I was getting tired. My little bag dragging behind me across the uneven cobblestone was beginning to feel like 500 pounds at this point. The streets on this side of town were much busier, so as I walked past the still open shops and cafes for the fourth time I was sure that the locals thought I was insane. I tried not to make eye contact with the men sitting outside of one of the storefronts who were staring at me and muttering things in Italian to one another. Yes, yes it’s me again, I thought, the strange black American girl who has no idea where she’s going. I didn’t want to have to ask for help again, but I was losing my resolve. There I stood, back at the intersection where I’d started, overwhelmed. I looked at my map. Well, she said left…but at this point it couldn’t hurt to take a right.
This side of the street was slightly quieter, the shops interrupted by apartments and small business that were already closed for the night. I kept walking and walking, my little bag and unexpected adventure weighing me down. What do I do if this isn’t it either? I started to wonder. That’s when I looked up and saw it. I’ve never been so happy to see an ugly neon sign in my life. It took everything in me not to sprint to the hostel doors. I found it! I’m here! Thank God! Thank God! I know I looked like a crazy person as I hobbled up to the front desk, simultaneously exhausted and exuberant. They checked me in and told me everything I needed to know about the place. I only caught fragments, the most important portion being that dinner was about to end.
I dropped my bag in the room and went to the dining hall, where I grabbed a tray of food and sat down at a long table by myself. That’s when I lost it. I’d heard of having an adrenaline dump once you’ve made it through a dangerous or scary situation, your body and mind finally catching up with one another, but that was my first time experiencing it. So there I was, sobbing over my plate of lukewarm spaghetti in a crowded room full of strangers from all over the world. I couldn’t contain the tears though. I knew I was safe and everything had turned out magnificently, given situation. But my body was taking over, and at this point I had no energy left to fight it.
I had been alone, lost, and absolutely confused in an unfamiliar city in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. But you know what? I’m thankful. Would I have liked things to have been easier? You bet! Especially the next day when I discovered that Santa Maria Novella was four blocks from my hostel. Four blocks. But, as cheesy as it may sound, that night was the beginning of a series of experiences that fashioned me the independent traveler (and person) I am today. It made me realize that I’m stronger than I give myself credit for. Plus, I figure that if I can manage to take care of myself in a situation as complicated as that, than I can face a lot of things. So yes, I’m strangely thankful for the time I was floundering in Florence.