by Caitlin Kelly

When you study abroad, often the most important lessons take place outside of the classroom. You spend your first starry-eyed days roaming the city with a big map and wandering eyes, taking in the novelty of European antiquity. You walk as a tourist walks—oblivious to the race, the restricted space and the fact that everyone else is trying to go somewhere useful. But then it happens: a strange sense of everyday awareness overcomes you. Suddenly you find yourself equipped to conquer the town. The secret lies in knowing how to navigate the obstacle course.

There are mopeds to avoid, puddles of who-knows-what to leap over, and hundreds of people through whom you must weave in order to reach your destination. The staccato tapping of high heels echoes off the city walls as women easily traverse the uneven cobblestone streets and narrow sidewalks. Don’t bother bringing your headphones; the city provides its own soundtrack if you’re willing to listen. The voices, bells, sirens and street musicians blend to create a fantastic cacophony unique to Florence. The pace simply refuses to slow. Even when the rain makes the streets slimy and slick, the Italians press on, leaving dawdling tourists in their wake.

In a place where everything and everyone is at least 10 minutes late, why does it always feel like there’s a city-wide marathon that I didn’t know about? The streets are teeming with people who will run you over as soon as look at you. The atmosphere of chaos and hastiness is constant. So what’s the big rush?

Armando, a good-natured shop-keeper in his mid-60s, offered his reasons for participating in the daily dash through downtown Florence: ‘I close down my shop every day at one o’clock so I can go home and have lunch with my wife. This hasn’t changed in 40 years’! he says proudly. Armando admits that he’s no spring chicken, but he can navigate through a crowded Florentine street with more agility than a man half his age. ‘Why should I waste my time on the crowded, stinking streets? There’s no negotiating with me or my stomach. When one o’clock rolls around, God help the man who gets in my way’!

Florentines, young and old, are seasoned professionals when it comes to successfully conquering the obstacles they encounter in their beloved city. They treat the daily commute as a kind of race; and in Armando’s case, the finish line is his wife’s embrace. That’s just the way it has always been, and no amount of cars, mopeds, or tourists will change that fact. The city waits for no man.

It has often been said that in life, the destination is not as important as the journey one takes to get there. Florentines have rejected this philosophy in favor of the opposite. Like a river flowing through rough terrain, the people of Florence are always stubbornly forging new paths for themselves. But maybe they do have the right idea; after all, Florence is not famous for its contribution to the world of miniscule sidewalks or moped-related injuries. Finding a way to overcome the obstacles in life, whether it’s a group of lost tourists or something more serious, leaves more time to be spent enjoying the things that Florence is famous for: beauty, culture, and an outstanding quality of life.

Walking in Florence is a one-of-a-kind experience, to say the least. Those unaccustomed to such a fast-paced, chaotic atmosphere may find themselves left in the dust by people who believe their schedules are more important—and that includes just about everyone. The city is a complicated and trying obstacle course; there’s no way to get around that fact. But the course becomes much more pleasant if you pick up your pace, open your ears, and allow the lively tempo of the city’s soundtrack to guide you to the next destination