Florence’s reputation as a beautiful city is well-deserved. It’s also a city that’s almost completely overrun with tourists, at least in the center.
When I first arrived, I followed the directions given me by Stefania, a researcher at the EUI I’m visiting with, which had me catch a bus from the train station out to the northwest section of town in the Le Cure district. I was supposed to find the post office in Le Cure and then call her so she could come find me. Finding the post office was easy enough, with helpful instructions from some of the other bus passengers. The second step turned out to be rather more difficult. My Dutch SIM card was out of credit (and despite multiple emails I never figured out a way to ‘top up’ from outside of the Netherlands). I had been counting on finding a payphone, but as the bus headed further into residential neighborhoods, my hopes diminished. Then, salvation! In front of the post office, a payphone! Tragically, it turned out to be the type of payphone which doesn’t take coins, but only cards, either credit cards or “chipcards”
The dreaded chipcard
A brief aside to American readers regarding “chip cards”. These are almost exactly like debit cards, in that they tend to be tied to a bank account and used for small purchases. They also come in prepaid varieties, the photo above is a prepaid one I purchased in the Netherlands. Nearly all European credit cards feature this chip system as well. This is endlessly irritating because you will continually encounter locations which claim to accept cards, but have only chip-readers, no magnetic-strip readers. Compounding the irritation is the fact that, as far as I can tell, the “chip” offers exactly zero added functionality or convenience over the magnetic strip. I suppose it’s not prone to demagnetization, so that’s a mark in its favor. Basically, I don’t care which system card-makers use, all I’m asking, begging even: Visa, Mastercard, AmEx, please pick one system and stick with it. If these chips are really so great, why don’t we have them in the USA? If they’re so great, why do all European credit cards have mag-stripes as well?
In any case, I shoved every card I had into that payphone, debit cards, credit cars, my prepaid chip card, my Pomona college ID. No dice, “Invalid card type” every time. Finally I gave up on the payphone and set about to borrow a phone from somebody. Unfortunately, it was about 11 pm on a Sunday night and Le Cure was DEAD. The first people I found were two winos sitting by the river. I asked them for a phone, because hey, in 2008, even winos have cell phones. One did, but he was out of credit too. They were quite kind about sharing their carton (yes, carton) of wine with me, though.
Walking further down along the river, I finally found two teenage girls sitting and smoking. They claimed to be 19 and 20, but I think a more accurate guess would put them at about 16. They were both excited and overly impressed with my being from the USA/Los Angeles/Chicago. I called Stefania and we did an entirely inadequate job of agreeing on a rendezvous point.
Her: “Are you by a little old bridge?”
Me: “Yes, like a pedestrian one?”
Her: “I know where you are. I’ll meet you there.”
Twenty minutes and three little, old pedestrian bridges later we finally met up.
Stefania’s place is super awesome. It’s the top flat in a four-story building, so it has a nice balcony and skylights. All of her roommates are Ph.D. researchers at EUI as well: another Italian, a Dutch economist (“I’m not an economist, I study economics, but I’m not an economist”), and a Frenchman who works on “the digital divide”. So it’s a very intellectual, international place, and it was a really cool place to stay for a few days. The only major problem is that they don’t have internet at their house, having decided to avoid it on philosophical grounds, “we don’t want to waste all our time online,” which I could sympathize with, if not endorse.
If the wind and tides are just right, you can pick up open wireless in one corner of the balcony with your laptop perched precariously on the railing, tempting the fates with a four-storey drop. So that was fun.