Studies in Tuscany

by Lauren on April 22, 2013


I imagined that my summer in Tuscany would be spent pouring through Renaissance literature in the classroom, followed by evenings enjoying a dripping cone of gelato in the local piazza.

Instead, the many complex layers of traveling solo revealed themselves. This picture didn’t always include lush cypress trees and jovial strangers. Of course, gelato was eaten frequently. Nocciola (hazelnut), coco (coconut), and stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate shavings) were my personal favorites.

Being 22 years-old and blonde I was the subject of curious advances. One local man, a seemingly nice guy, invited me to have coffee with him. He was relentless: his first two attempts on foot failed. Then one day, as I rode my bicycle downtown, who appeared at my side but my stalker.

Also on his bike.

As much as I like athletic guys, bicycle-stalking was just too much. I pedaled onward without as much as glancing his way.


My host mother outfitted me with a bicycle, as we lived 15 minutes (by bike) from the city center. The dilemma was this: Italian women wore stylish skirts or slacks to work. How was this feasible on a bike? It took some time, but before long I learned the appropriate skirt length that one could get away with while cycling.

I also learned that at railroad crossings, when traffic was stopped, it was perfectly acceptable for cyclists to position themselves at the front of the pack. This made for a chaotic but outrageously fun moment when the gates lifted — cyclists would surge forward, but would be quickly overtaken by businessmen on Vespas and crazy Alfa Romeo drivers.


Surrounded by beautifully preserved medieval walls, Lucca is the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini. There are renowned music festivals that take place in Lucca during the summer, and it was not uncommon to hear a beautiful tenor rehearsing from within his Tuscan apartment along Via Fillungo.

I chose Lucca as the backdrop for my summer abroad. Or perhaps Lucca chose me…

My Italian immersion class included students from all ages, from all parts of the globe. Our Mexican classmate brought us trinkets from Mexico, eager to share part of her heritage with us. Another classmate was from Alto Adige, a region in Northern Italy where German is commonly spoken. Though she was Italian, she wanted to work on her Italian-speaking skills, and did so with a charming German accent.

One teenage classmate let me hitch a ride on the back of his bicycle. Note to self — this is not a good idea on winding, cobblestoned streets.

Vernazza, 2002

With several friends I escaped to the iconic Cinque Terre, a coastal getaway on the Italian Riviera. The following exchange was how we found a place to stay on Vernazza, one of Cinque Terre’s five towns:

Nice Man: “Are you looking for accommodation?”
Us: “Yes!”
Nice Man: “Follow me.” [We follow man on foot, walking steeply uphill for eight minutes. Nice Man stops, gazes upwards towards a three-story residence and shouts], “MARIAAAAAAA!”
Maria: [Elderly woman leans out of window]. “SIIIIIIIIIII!”

[Lively discussion ensues, including a number of hand gestures. Nice Man then smiles, and transitions to English…]

Nice Man: [With sweeping gesture towards Maria], “Here is your accommodation.”

I Ragazzi     Cinque Terre, 2002

My time in Tuscany and La Spezia was not idyllic, but memorable. Expecting a host mother as warm as the woman with whom I once lived in Spain, I was surprised that my host mother didn’t seem to want to communicate. My Austrian “brother,” Michael, and I were instead left to find our own way.

We lived somewhat isolated from Lucca’s center, but we made do. He introduced me to European fashion, and together we visited every single gelateria in Lucca.

We got out there, we struggled to communicate in a language that wasn’t our own, and clumsily ordered risotto ai funghi and pizza by the slice.

I was proud of how my Italian progressed over several short weeks. At a photography store where I had dropped off film to be developed, the curmudgeonly store owner returned the developed film to me with spots on it. “This is not right,” I told him. He emphatically explained that the photos were fine. But I stood my ground, “They are not.”

I am grateful for my imperfect Tuscan experience, of awkwardly learning a beautiful language among quirky classmates, a cold host mother, and strange locals. Independence was learned, and practiced in the photography stores of downtown Lucca.

The curmudgeonly store owner bedgrudgingly redid my photos. And it was a good thing: for 12 years later, I share them with you.

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