2/18/14: A tale of two surprising cities

Before the past two weekends, when I considered the names “Florence” and “Amsterdam,” I had some preconceived notions. Major cities, like Paris. Busy. Constant go-go-go. Lots to do, but simultaneous clusters of traffic and tourists obstructing the view.

But I was proven wrong, for the most part, on all but one of those counts. Florence and Amsterdam were the first international excursions on my study abroad agenda, and they were definitely not lacking in choses à faire — but the metropolis-style hustle and bustle were much tempered.

Every small-town girl needs a little calm, and it can be hard to come across a decent calm in Paris.

In Florence, if you get up early enough — as Jenny and I did for a morning run — there might be two, three people in sight at any one time. The bridges are still in a peaceful slumber, barely brushed by the sunlight that is just emerging on the Arno River’s horizon.

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The tourist hordes did show up, eventually. But I was there to play the tourist. Which makes this casual selfie with good ol’ David reasonably appropriate.

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The streets were highly European: generally narrow, framed by beautiful architecture and buildings rising no more than six stories up. Every turn around a corner revealed another centuries-old church or monument. An aroma of leather, one of Florence’s biggest industries, tended to waft its way through the street air, reminding me comfortingly of the barns and equestrian tack rooms in which I spent most of my teenage years.

You can walk virtually everywhere in the center city within about 30 minutes. The vast majority of that area is pedestrian only, and cars are few and far between as is. In other words, my attempt to do the entire city in a day actually worked.

We probably walked a good five miles during the day, plus the several hundred steps to the Piazzale Michelangelo. It was beyond worth the hike.

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And that effort, along with two art museums and half a dozen other activities, gave us both an excuse to consume entire delicious 3.90-euro calzones in one sitting without batting an eyelash. No shame whatsoever.

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Later that night we joined a passionate throng of sports fans for a professional Italian football (yeah, yeah, soccer) match between Fiorentina (the home squad) and Atalanta. Ended in a 2-0 shutout for Fiorentina.

It was a real treat to see the pros’ footwork — some of the best forwards in the country skillfully navigating a brick wall of stubborn defense to come up with a score. Plus the constant choirs of fight songs ringing among the tens of thousands in the stadium…for a sports nut, it was way cool. There might need to be another European football game (or three) added to my calendar.

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And then Amsterdam.

For those of you who are UNC students, you might understand this. When I first stepped into the city of Chapel Hill, I fell unconditionally in love with the place. Instantly. For no specific reason. It was one of those (go ahead, roll your eyes) incredibly cliché moments you can’t explain. There were visits to other colleges, but UNC was the only campus where I felt that rush of happiness, of welcoming, of love.

Chapel Hill is still number one in my heart, no doubt. But Amsterdam is the first European city this semester where I’ve felt a sensation that I could call similar. (I love Paris, of course — but this was different. It was more of a wow-I-really-belong-here kind of thing.)

It’s metropolitan, sure. But, as one volume I was glancing through in a local bookstore put it, Amsterdam is a metropolitan village.

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Where I was staying with a group from my university, next to Vondelpark, I immediately noticed the lack of traffic congestion, the slower pace, the canals that sprawled for miles in all directions and boats gliding silently across the water’s glassy surface, the classically romantic metal-accented pedestrian bridges across them— it was breathtaking.

We only did three so-called tourist-y activities: the “I Amsterdam” sign, the Van Gogh museum and a stroll through the somewhat infamous Red Light district. The Anne Frank house is also a must-see, but the three-hour line was sadly not in the cards for such a short trip.

Most of our time was spent on casual and aimless exploring — a choice that was gloriously free of charge and gloriously just fine.

That architecture. Love, love, love.

And I mean no offense by saying this, but the Dutch language written out has got some lol-worthy vowel arrangements. I had to laugh. Just a little.

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All of us had several too-close-for-comfort encounters with oncoming speedy bikers (a word to the wise: Every flat surface, unless otherwise indicated, is a bike path). But given my newfound love for biking (I bike almost everywhere in Paris, for those who don’t know), I’m quite keen to return in a warmer month and do nothing but rent a bike and roll for a few days.

In short, it’s not all about the cannabis in Amsterdam. Definitely not.

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