Alexandra Korey is a Toronto native who originally moved to Florence for a study-abroad semester while in college. From there, her story followed the classic “studied and stayed” arc.
She later returned to the Tuscan capital to study for her master’s degree, and fell in love with the setting, the culture, and a local. Alexandra now works for a communications agency in the city, but works on her blog, ArtTrav, on the weekends.
We sat down to talk with Alexandra about her experience living in Tuscany.
What originally drew you to Italy, and the Tuscany region in particular?
I was lucky to have the opportunity to travel to Europe as a child. Although my mom loved France most, I was always drawn to Italy. I was also quite young when I discovered my love of art history and, ultimately, chose to study Italian Renaissance art because there was a good summer program in Italy. I was instantly hooked. So, I was initially drawn to Florence, and Italy in general, because of its art. But the many other aspects of this place and its culture are what made me stay.
Does it feel like home to you?
It does, and I still don’t know why. I first came to Florence, alone, as a student in the summer of 1997, and it instantly felt like home to me. My Canadian city was nothing like Florence’s gritty, narrow streets and Italian casino (noise and mess), but something about the architecture made me feel both excited and calm.
How would you describe local life in Tuscany?
I primarily live in Florence, though my husband and I have a modest vacation home in Maremma, a lesser-known and mostly rural area on the southern coast of Tuscany. Our life is good. I don’t know if it is typical of “local life” in Tuscany, but we get to see the best of both city and countryside. Food is cheap and delicious everywhere, which stretches our low salaries a long way and allows us to travel frequently. Having a travel blog has also provided a lot of opportunities for me. Most of our weekends are spent somewhere other than Florence, exploring.
In what ways is Italian culture different than the Canadian culture you were raised in?
I’m not sure how different the culture is, because I think that wherever you go, you are always still you. So, I brought an Anglo-Saxon structure, a strong work ethic, and an occasional annoyance at disorganization to Florence, but since moving here, I’ve learned to go with the flow like other Italians do. In Florence, we get out and explore quite a lot, and that is different than my experience in Toronto, simply because I was raised in a big city with a lot of traffic, so it was harder to get around — not to mention the weather in Florence is much warmer, and driving a Vespa makes it easier to experience the offerings of the city.
What do you think makes the region so special?
If I had to define a formula that describes why Tuscany is special, I’d say it’s the same combination of elements that sets much of Italy apart: beautiful landscapes connected to agriculture, history, urban planning, art, world-renowned food, and authentic people.
Is there a strong expat community where you live? And if so, how do the expat and local cultures mix in your area?
There are a lot of expats in Florence, and we do tend to band together thanks to common experience. I’d say a lot of us are well integrated, though. Most are North American women who came here to study, just as I did, and eventually married an Italian. So we end up integrated, but we always bring our history and experiences along with us, which is why it’s sometimes nice to just get together and share that.
How has being an expat in Italy shaped who you are today?
It has shaped every part of who I am now. I’ve spent my entire adult life here. I’ve become a bit more laid back than I am naturally, I’ve learned to love food — a lot — and I’ve been exposed to more countries and cultures than I ever would have been in North America, simply because Italy is close to so many other places.
Where are your favorite spots in Tuscany?
Although I originally came to Italy for the art, I’ve grown to love Maremma since living here. Maremma is a coastal area of western-central Italy that boasts some of Tuscany’s best beaches, hiking trails, nature reserves, wineries, and sculptural gardens — public places where sculpture is either integrated in nature, or somehow contrasts with it. Florence itself is a fairly touristy city, and the buzz of crowds can get a bit much for me, so I enjoy getting away to take in the vast, beautiful landscapes of nothingness in Maremma.
And lastly, if you had to recommend only one Tuscan dish to someone, what would it be?
This is a tough question. Since I’m a vegetarian and particularly partial to pasta, I’d suggest going to the Mugello area of Tuscany and trying their famous tortelli (mugellani), which are filled with either potatoes or ricotta and spinach. The best part about this dish is that it is served in a casual trattorie on the side of the road — talk about true Tuscan character.