Duane Reed walks along the Arno River late fall 2020. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers/Ark Republic

Black Italia Series: Buonogiorno Italy

7 mins read

Arriving to Italy in the fall introduces you to an old inner-city in refreshing ways. Here’s what happened when I moved there as a Black American man.

After residing in the enchanting city of Florence for two years, my wife and I  uncovered a facet of ourselves that we affectionately refer to as “Black Italia.” This term carried profound symbolic significance, destined to reveal itself throughout our journey to the unknown. 

The decision to depart from the familiar hometown streets and plunge headfirst into the rich tapestry of Florentine culture forever altered the trajectory of our life. “Black Italia” symbolizes this journey, where one sails away from the lighthouse of familiarity into the uncharted shadows of a foreign land.

In this series, we unfold the moments that defined our two-year odyssey in this captivating country, that mostly took place in Florence.  These moments encompass friendships forged over espresso, the unveiling of the Medici dynasty’s secrets, and the serenity of the Arno River at sunrise, but especially, its sunset. Each day brought a fresh adventure, a new lesson in the art of living.

While this series jumps in time and location, for my first writing, I must start at the beginning. My expedition commenced in Newark, New Jersey, at its  bustling airport.. A lengthy nine-hour flight awaited with Florence, or Firenze as the ultimate destination. So, I braced myself for hours of seated anticipation, all the while, hoping for the possibility of a welcomed upgrade. 

On occasion, sometimes I’ve been bumped up to business class, but on this trip, sadly, I remained in the economy section. However, there was a silver lining. For those seeking an alternative to first-class luxury, empty seats provide the benefit of extended legroom, albeit, without the usual amenities. 

I am a traveling man who has trekked from Peru to riding camels down the Nile River to plane-hopping a stretch of the Samoan islands in the Pacific. One thing that struck me is how the quality of flights have been downgraded. When domestic flights cheapened, those small expectations on planes diminished. Gone are the days of savoring a delectable meal, or a decent snack. However, international coach flights offer a glimpse of a domestic, first-class extravagance. Featuring three-course meals, accompanied by a selection of wine and beer to your heart’s content was also a saving grace. 

All that being said, if you can flip a business class or first class seat, which are thousands of dollars in difference, please do so. The luxury is worth it especially for those who get claustrophobic in confined spaces, or whose knees and joints aren’t as nimble as they used to be. 

Another thing that is important is that you prepare for the airplane’s temperature changes. I always bring a hoodie and wear two shirts to fare sometimes on the coldest flights pumping recirculated air. My other half goes all out. She takes scarves and a blanket to cover up, citing she likes to know where her coverings are washed, and also mitigate the smells that can come from the passengers after a few meals and beer. 

One of the small tricks she does is dab lavender or peppermint oil, a small amount, onto her scarves to breathe in natural aromas that keep her breathing smoothly for long hauls. However, on that trip, she had already settled in Italy for her job and had been detailing to me about the markets she’d visited instead of grocery stores and the breads she sampled at the local bakeries. 

We left at two different times so that I could tie up loose ends. I stayed to finish packing, placing everything in storage, selling off as much as I could, including my barbering business. When I stepped on that plane, I entered into a vortex where I would come out on the other side, in another world, as a man ready to evolve.

                         
Florence, Italy in the fall is picturesque landscape offering a needed reprieve from its hot and humid summer. Photo credit: Ras Jayamaha/Unsplash

As the plane descended towards Florence, I was immediately captivated by the city’s timeless charm. Stepping outside, I was greeted by the crisp, pure early autumn air, and a landscape adorned with palm trees and tropical beauty. 

The climate, characterized by mild temperatures, invites leisurely exploration as opposed to the hot, humid months of the summer. Opting to visit Florence during the more temperate seasons of a late spring or throughout fall and early winter is a wise choice. Nestled in a valley surrounded by majestic mountains, the city enjoys a gentle breeze.

The flight into Firenze’s medium-sized airport was unconventional. Because of its size, airline carriers offer limited, if any direct flights to Aeroporto di Firenze-Peretola. As a result, I passed through customs in Switzerland. This was before the pandemic when all they looked at was my visa stamp. Fairly easy, I was excited to start my journey after watching the picturesque view as the plane descended.

Upon landing, my sole task was to retrieve my luggage and hail a taxi. Kaia, my partner, wisely recommended that I download apps like Google Translate and Duo Lingo to say  “Hi, thank you,” and other simple greetings. Trust me when I emphasize that learning the basic language will get you far, especially when  communicating with taxi drivers.

What we learned is that workers in the service industry—and that is cabbies to grocery store clerks—are required to have a basic command of English. But, there are those who are more fluent than others, so a simple greeting with instructions can ease a lot of barriers that you want to forego when first stepping foot into the country. 

As I settled into the taxi, I uttered the address, “Carducci 16” to the gentleman.  In Italian, street names precede house numbers, a small but noteworthy distinction. With that, we embarked on a winding highway, the engine shifting gears as we maneuvered through traffic.

Florence, often referred to as Firenze, its Italian pronunciation, predominantly centers  a 14th-Century inner city. Enclosed by four arched gates, a testament to its Renaissance heritage, beyond these gates lies the modern city with its towering apartment complexes, bustling with through traffic. We were fortunate to reside within the ancient cobblestone confines of the old city, where walking along the Arno River and biking were the norm. 

In the inner city, only taxis and authorized vehicles were permitted within these narrow streets. If you violate the traffic laws, trust us, you’ll get ticketed because the city is littered with cameras and plain-clothes cops that make money from visitors who are not fully aware of the laws. Expect to do plenty of walking, as public transportation is reliable but not excessively frequent. Tickets can be purchased at select convenience stores, such as the post office.

Finally, I reached a distinctive, tan-colored contemporary high-rise that stood out amidst the old-world structures lining the narrow streets. Such buildings were a rarity and typically housed Italy’s wealthiest residents, featuring elevators for convenience. Most buildings in Florence boasted at least six floors with steep, winding staircases that could rival a StairMaster workout. Combined with extensive walking, biking, and moderate-sized meal portions, it was no wonder that most Italians maintain a fit lifestyle.

Be prepared to walk in Italy. There’s no way around it, thus it’s advisable to bring your most comfortable shoes for navigating unexpected terrains. To my surprise, our building was equipped with a doorman and an elevator, which made our first year in Florence a breeze. An invaluable tip for extended stays in foreign countries is to engage in conversations with those you interact with regularly, whether it’s the doorman, grocery store clerk, or taxi driver. Short story shorter: the American fast city life of not speaking and flying through your day on your phone or in your head is quick social death in Italy. So talk, talk and talk more, it is part of the culture. Plus, this approach accelerates your grasp of the language’s nuances.

Kaia greeted me outside and then guided me to our penthouse apartment. Situated on the whole top floor, this spacious abode split with the owners’ business, a law firm. While they occasionally used it for themselves, it was primarily rented out. The apartment featured a medium sized bedroom, a standard bathroom, a spacious living room, a study, and two splendid terraces.

                         
The great synagogue of Florence. Photo credit: Oscar Campbell/Unsplash

One terrace overlooked the magnificent synagogue of Florence, one of Europe’s largest synagogues. While the other offered panoramic vistas of the rolling tropical hills that enveloped the valley. Mornings were graced by the mesmerizing sight of exotic birds choreographing symphonies in the sky above the trees. 

Going back in time, the apartment’s interior exudes an air of timeless elegance, adorned with antique sofas, rugs, tables, and artworks. Beyond the realm of high-fashion brands like Gucci and Prada, Florence boasted a thriving culture of antique shops, vintage boutiques, and thrift stores. If you have a penchant for aged clothing and furniture, you’re in for a treat, because it is central to the local culture to not waste a stitch of good textiles.

After I settled in, we were off to have my first Italian meal.  The city, with its enduring beauty, welcomed us with open arms as we strolled through its cobblestone streets. Our journey led us to a charming restaurant, where the tantalizing aroma of authentic Italian cuisine filled the air. 

Seated at an outdoor table, we marveled at the art and history that enveloped us from every angle. Florence was not just a city; it was a living, breathing masterpiece where people  revealed the pleasures of life, sipping chianti wine and engaging in animated conversations that some nights you could hear blocks away.

It was my second time in Italy. The first was for our honeymoon years ago where we had a few nights in Roma, or Rome. Tonight was different. My bones were able to rest and internalize the idea that I would be here for two years. With some vino at the table, I embarked on a culinary exploration, savoring a personal-sized tomato and mozzarella pizza adorned with fresh basil. Accompanied by a crisp salad drizzled with olive oil, a bottle of carbonated water,  this 13 euro meal quickly became a cherished ritual whenever we sought to dine and bask in the city’s electric nightlife. 

Duane Reed researches currency and market investments; and dibble dabbles in culture, grooming, news and travel.

My welcoming night was classic, like the old city we walked for months to come. From the streets of New Jersey to the cobblestones of Firenze, stands as a testament to the transformative power of travel and the beauty of embracing the unknown. This is the essence of “Black Italia,” a voyage that transcended borders and boundaries, leaving an indelible mark on our souls.

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