This is the third installment of a series of #content meant to illuminate the first study abroad trip for UConn student Sten Spinella.
When abroad, the art of your country is supposed to come into focus. That’s why I was glad when one of our greatest contemporary creators – Chance the Rapper – released his new project while I was further away from home than I’d ever been before. I walked through the city in the morning before class and listened to all 58 minutes of it. The wordplay is on point as usual, there’s the religion, which I couldn’t really get down with, a sing-songy inclusiveness, and, of course, Donnie Trumpet. But there was a disconnect when I heard it first that I may not have noticed if I were in Connecticut. How can Chance be this happy when everyone else is sad? Kanye and Kendrick have mastered the practice of being angry, fed up, depressed, and we’ve bought into it, because we’re the same way. Chance, though? He finds life exciting when many of us find it oppressive.
I take my headphones out and sit on a tall staircase nearby the Ponte Vecchio. I hear bells chiming, dogs yelling, different languages, sirens, people kissing. I see ivy on tall walls, roses, speedos, riverbanks, a building like a castle spire towering above statues, dogs, disinterested women, leather, people kissing. I feel a breeze. I feel alone. I taste Birra Moretti. I smell stone and smoke.
Is this place supposed to be a good one to study? To write? It seems better to eat and leer, drink and laugh, walk and kiss. There is no doubt that I’m out of place here, but that is by design. American men are meant to dress differently than European men, to look differently, to be larger. Our hair must be silent, our clothes inconspicuous. American women, on the other hand, wish they looked like Italian women, that is, effortlessly graceful and unapproachable. These are the things I thought about later that afternoon as my roommates and I made our way through the streets of Firenze and bought meat, cheese, wine, beer, sauce, bread.
We are made fun of incessantly, and usually for good reason. It’s karma for how my country treats foreigners, but more importantly, it’s the maintenance of dignity for a town completely overrun by tourists. The tourists provide money and jobs, the locals offer service, and the illegals offer drugs, paintings, trinkets, theft. The language allows the people to preserve their dignity. This town, this impressively-built place, almost divine in its architectural interpretation, cannot survive without the flooding of those who know nothing or have only a cursory knowledge of the area. That’s embarrassing. Never has that been clearer to me than when a horde of us Americans studying abroad departed from Shot Café, a bar, to go to a different bar. Eight Italian boys – and I say boys because none of them could have been older than 19, and they were rather small – surrounded Jeff, a roommate of mine, great kid. They were all pushing him and cussing at him in Italian, so I stepped in. Immediately, four broke off and began shoving me, mean-mugging as if to drive a point home: you are not from here. I just kept repeating “No, no, no, stop, you don’t want to do this,” and they didn’t, because they would have had the puberty and hair gel beaten out of them. Luckily for the offended boys, one of their friends corralled them before any of us decided to retaliate. They stared us down as they backed away and we laughed. When asked what he had done to piss them off, Jeff said that he told them, after they first began interacting with him, that he doesn’t speak German.
When I write fiction again it should be a well-organized tour de force, with side streets that charm and entertain, yet with a solid, gorgeous, intricate in installments, simple as a whole, heart. It should celebrate culture, denigrate narrow-mindedness, and revolve around a heroine. It should be cheap to buy and ethically-dangerous, it should feature a wide current of thought that is only sometimes bridged over by plot. It should be delightful and angry at once. It should be romantic and frantic. It should be Florence.