I remember reading Dan Brown’s Inferno, and trying to imagine the sights of Florence as he’s saving the world again. The Boboli Gardens, Palazzo Vecchio, the Gates of Paradise on the Baptistry of the Cathedral of Florence — it’s all here, and it is beautiful.
Florence — just the name of the city looms large and imposing, with its vast and impressive history, art and architecture. But it would have to wait a day, because we just didn’t have the energy to do much when we arrived that afternoon on the train from Pisa. Sara’s mom had suggested we take a taxi to our room, so after looking in vain for a map/schedule/ANYTHING referring to a bus or local train that would get us close to our room, we went on a hunt for the taxi stand.
The main train station in Florence, Santa Maria Novella, is in the city center, very near the historic district where cars are not allowed. It isn’t huge, but we still had a little trouble finding the taxis. There were 10-20 white Italian taxis waiting in clump, in order of priority known only to the drivers, to pick up fares. We ended up with a friendly and helpful driver who listened to me say the address with my apparently pretty thick English accent, but he knew exactly where to go.
In the days that followed, we walked from our apartment to the train station myriad times, and I’m not quite sure that taxi driver didn’t take us for a little ride to pad the charges a bit. Oh, well, it was our first and only Italian taxi ride, and it was worth ten euros because we were all exhausted. He also looked puzzled when I tried to give him a tip, so I didn’t.
As we ate our way through Italy at various restaurants good and mediocre, I tried to understand the tipping culture in Italy, and I think it is simply this: you don’t have to tip. As far as I could understand, Italians don’t tip as a rule unless the service and food are stellar and you are at a really nice place. One website also encouraged tourists not to tip, because it might become expected, like it is in the States. But once I realized there was a service charge added to each restaurant meal, I didn’t feel so bad about not tipping. If your tipping experience was different, please leave a comment below! It’s a puzzling topic, how to tip when you are abroad.
After we dropped off our luggage, we walked to the closest grocery store and bought some items we could cook in our apartment. The name of the store (a nationwide chain) is Coop, which I can’t help but pronounce co-op…like a co-operative. Italians pronounce it coop, like a chicken coop. The girls pounced on me every time I said, “Let’s go to the Co-op,” but I’m sorry, some things will just sound funny to me for the rest of my life.
There are just a few things to know about grocery shopping in Italy. One, yes, there are large supermarkets like this one, and also smaller grocery stores. There are also fresh air markets, only open in the mornings, and also individual vendors pulling out a traveling display on a street corner. Two, never handle the produce if you are at a market! When you see what you want, ask the vendor to bag it up for you. If you are at a supermarket, use the plastic gloves that are provided before you touch the produce. Three, you can rent a cart for one euro deposit, or you can use the little wheelie baskets for free if you aren’t buying much. Four, Bring Your Own Bags! Even the little plastic bags we take for granted here in the U. S. cost money at the check out lane. We came back to the U.S. with a delightful assortment of canvas grocery bags (which I fully intend to use here at home if I can ever remember to take them with me to the store) because we could never remember to bring the one we bought the last time we shopped.
A long day, starting with the trip to Pisa we took this morning. Tomorrow I am taking a walking tour with our Airbnb host, Christine, who says she is an official Tour Guide of Florence. I can’t wait to see the history of this fascinating city come alive, even more that it did on the pages of a book.