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Firenze, Italy: Italian Lessons

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True Confessions 1: I spent two weeks in Florence and did not visit the Uffizi, passed by the Duomo once or twice, and did all I could to avoid the Ponte Vecchio. I was not there to travel like the masses, and masses there were. I was going to spend my days as a local.


True Confessions 2: I had a cheat sheet; my sister. Having moved to Florence many years ago, she married a native and had recently given birth to my godson. I was going on the auspices that she needed my older and more experienced advice. But let’s be truthful, she has always been my teacher with her innate wisdom and true north sensibility. I was a on a lark and loving every minute of it.


Before I began my trip, I decided I wanted to stay not in some tourist hotel, charming as many of them are, but in an apartment with a kitchen, a veranda, and most importantly, a view. I found just the place through Rent Villas, an on-line apartment and villa rental organization that services all of Italy.


The beauty of Rent Villas is that you can see the apartment before you go and read reviews of where you will stay. I selected a bright sunny two-bedroom apartment just off of Piazza Santa Croce. By day, the apartment was all I could have hoped for, by night, it was a disaster. Florence University is across the street and below was the William Bar, home to many of the students until 4 am most mornings. After four successive nights of listening to the early morning mating call of the Italian male, I called Rent Villas and begged to be placed elsewhere.


Unfortunately, during high season, they did not have much to choose from. I dragged the mattress from the bedroom and slept soundly on the floor of the living room, which faced the hills behind the Arno. After some negotiation, Rent Villas agreed to provide me with a modest reimbursement for my troubles. Next time I will pay attention when the review says “noisy at night, not good for light sleepers.”


The first day or two I allowed my body to adjust to time change, reading, relaxing and adoring my godson. By the third day, I was ready to explore. We joined my brother-in-law near his department at the University of Florence (not to be confused with Florence University, mind you) for a delicious lunch of Niçoise salad and tilapia carpaccio at the Cebbrio Café on Via de’ Macci near the Piazza Santa Ambroggio.


The owner opened his first restaurant, Cebbrio, based on the cooking ideals of Alice Waters: local produce, fresh simple food, you get what they serve you, all for many Euro. The café was added for those who wanted a larger selection at lower prices.


Across from the Cebbrio Cafe, I discovered the Teatro Del Sale, a club for intellectuals or anyone who wants to step away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. For 5 Euros, you can become a member entitling you to have a meal at their cantina, watch a show in their auditorium, and wile way an afternoon in their library. I spent most mornings at the Teatro Del Sale, writing, reading and making acquaintances. These were some of the most rewarding times of my entire trip.


Shopping is always the highlight of an excursion to any city, plus it affords you a chance to buy off those you have left behind. In my case, I needed to buy off my three children and husband. Most tourists travel Via por Santa Maria directly off of the Ponte Vecchio, perfect for the over-priced item you just must have.


I found La Gazza Ladra on the Piazza G. Salvemini, a colorful jewelry store with affordable, funky and fun items. Isabel, the owner, travels all over to find her pieces. Silver from Argentina, Tibetan rings and Murano glass from Milano.


However, my favorite shopping district was on the Piazza de’Pitti side of the Arno. Via Borgo San Jacopo and Via Maggio have many charming shops with clothing, furniture and jewelry. For fun, step into the San Jacopo Show (66 Borgo San Jacopo, 055-239 69 12), a shop filled with mannequins of every shape and size. They also carry delightful lamps and decorative items.


You can find real Florentines, not just those catering to the tourists, at the Dolce Vita Bar on Piazza Del Carmine. Here adults meet to mingle and socialize. The bar is filled with professionals, artists and craftsmen who gather to relax and see friends. Hint: the cheapest meal in town can be had by ordering one drink and munching on their delectable tapas provided for free.


If you want an unparalleled treat, walk down the street to Club Ristorante Canapone (via Mazzetta 5). The owner, Antonella, opened the restaurant just three years ago after she decided a career in software design was not for her. To eat at the club you must be a member. Not to worry, anyone is a member who pays 5 Euro for the year (notice the trend?).


In Florence, the liquor laws are strict and governed by a small group of insiders who make opening a restaurant as difficult as you can imagine. In order to work around these constraints, Cultural Associations were formed. For a mere 5 Euro, you can eat and drink to your heart’s delight. The polizza do have the right to enter the establishment and ask for your card often held at the front desk of the Cultural Association. If you do not have one, the restaurant faces serious fines.


The food at Canapone is better than many of the finest meals I have had in my hometown of San Francisco. Simple, fresh, heaven in every bite; Antonella is clearly another Alice Waters devotee. Fusion is what she calls her creations but delicious is what they were. I had a fish stew that as so named does not do it justice.


My dessert of cheesecake was light, fluffy with a hint of anise. The “club” is small with room for only 10 or so tables. The walls are watermelon pink and boast creations by local art students. The clientele is a cultural hodgepodge of gay, straight, American, Italian, models and architects; the common link is that they are all in the know.


During my second week in Florence, my sister begged me to join her at her hair salon so that she could have the necessary cut and color while I cared for my occasionally cranky godson. We entered Wave: Active Beauty on Via Dei Banchi (055 265 46 50) to the sound of techno pop, not exactly the best musical choice for a one month old.


Fabio took one look at my sister and declared it had been far too long. Delighted with the baby, he graciously turned down the music, and we spent an entertaining afternoon listening to this Italian David Sederis mock the tourists.


I began to lust for American media or at least anything in English. I learned the horror of an extended time without NPR, as there are no English language radio stations and definitely no Morning Edition. Frankly, I would have been happy to hear the caustic voice of Howard Stern but to no avail.


And unless you have access to cable, which most rental apartments do not, you will only see Italian soap operas and game shows during your visit. I broke down one night and went to see the movie, “World Trade Center,” at the Odeon Cinehall in Piazza Strozzi The movie was a disaster, no pun intended, but the theatre is a delight, plush seats and rococo ornamental detail in the ceiling.


I also found McRae Books (on the Via de’ Neri near the Uffizi), which calls itself the “English Language Bookstore in Florence.” As one who travels with far too many books on any trip, I enjoyed adding to my collection.


This bookstore does not carry the usual sanitized Borders fair. I found many British authors and a wonderful children’s book selection. McRae hosts book readings and other events. It is well worth a visit to the store to learn what programs might be happening while you are in town.


Finally, no trip to Florence would be complete without an excursion outside the city. With friends, my sister and I traveled the much-photographed Tuscan countryside to a town called Radda. Radda is a medieval hamlet balancing on the crest between two silver and smoke valleys laden with olive trees.


Locals gather in the tiny central piazza to play chess, talk and laugh. Children race between the benches after mongrels and pigeons. There are few tourists in this part of Tuscany making the trip out of the city a welcome relief.


The real delight we discovered just outside of Radda: The Chianti Cashmere Company. Thirty odd years ago, its founder, Dr. Nora Desmond Kravis, came to Florence like so many American ex-pats, on a semester abroad. She fell in love with the countryside and a certain gentleman.


She stayed, he moved on, and she built an amazing life for herself in the Italy. With a modest inheritance, she purchased an old ruin of a farmhouse and a few hundred acres of land. She decided to become a goat farmer and has ended up a successful entrepreneur.


Nora, as she prefers to be called, restored the farmhouse and its barn, which she now rents out to guests. She breeds the goats for their uniquely fine cashmere (didn’t know cashmere came from goats…) and their goat’s milk body products including soaps, lotions and creams.


She swears by her nourishing cream for skin conditions such as eczema and diaper rash. We tried it on my nephew for a few days and sure enough, his skin cleared. She has just contracted with a distributor to begin selling her products in the US, but you can order them via her website at www.chianticashmere.com. You can also arrange a stay at her farmhouse via the website.


Tourism is the bane and bounty of Florence. The economy appears to rest largely on its tourist trade. This does not seem to make the Florentines particularly happy or so I am told. Warned of their dismissive attitude, I was pleasantly surprised to find all of my interactions with the locals to be warm, generous and helpful.


It did not hurt that the October weather was soft and cool in the mornings, warm and sunny during the days, and balmy each night. I spent many an evening with a glass of Chianti among new friends who welcomed me into their homes and community. I may not be a local but I certainly did not feel like a tourist.


Nearing the end of my stay, I felt it incumbent upon me to draft a top ten list of things I wished I had known.


Here then are my Italian lessons:


10. Italians charge tourists at least twice the rate of locals for lodging. Rent Villas is a wonderful service for those who want to see their apartment and read reviews before they commit, in short great for the novice. However, there are local real estate agents who can assist you in securing a reduced rate. Check out the classifieds in www.theflorentine.net for agents and apartments.


9. You can’t hail a taxi in Florence. In order to get a taxi you must find a taxi stand, not so easy to do in the center of town. I ended up asking the concierge at a hotel nearby to call one for me when I needed a cab. Although I was not a guest, they always graciously assisted me.


8. Don’t miss your taxi or there will be charge. When a hotel or another establishment calls a taxi for you, the meter starts running. If, for some reason, you miss that taxi, they will be charged a fee of 7 Euros. Out of courtesy, don’t miss your taxi or you will just make it harder for the next tourist who comes to town.


7. Don’t bother with traveler’s checks. The exchange rate at the local cambio (exchange store fronts that can be found all over town) is significantly higher than the actual rate. In addition, they charge an 8 to 20 percent fee for the service of over charging you. Use your ATM card. You will face a nominal fee but you also get the market exchange rate.


6. Don’t be offended when you are nearly run over by the Florentines as they walk or bike. You simply do not exist for them, it is their only coping mechanism for having their city overrun with swarms of people usually following some tour guide holding a flag to keep her group from dispersing into the throng. “Excuse me” is not in their lexicon. You can still be polite. We are their guests you know.


5. Buy the Herald Tribune first thing in the morning or they will be all sold out. With so many tourists flocking to this city, the competition for the daily English language newspaper is fierce. Get in early or you will miss your daily fix.


4. Café Society does not exist in Florence. If you linger too long at a café or restaurant they will ask you to leave. Unlike most cafes in the US where one can wile away the afternoon reading and writing, there just is no leisurely afternoon to be had on the Piazzas of this city. This is why private clubs such as Teatro Del Sale become so valuable. If you want a quiet afternoon cup of tea and the chance to read the newspaper without distraction, this is your only solution.


3. When entering and leaving a store, restaurant or any other establishment, be sure to acknowledge the proprietor with a “hello” and a “thank you,” preferably in Italian. Hospitality is an essential source of cultural pride to Italians. They value the gathering of friends and family above all else. You are being welcome into their “home” when you enter a store or restaurant. Be courteous and respectful; it is the least we can do.


2. If Florentines look tired and grumpy it is because they are. Italians don’t sleep. Their day often starts as early as 6 am in order to get their children off to school by 8 am. In the office by 9 am, they do take a long lunch from 13:00 (1:00 pm) to 15:00 (3:00 pm).


Dinner is not until 21:00 (9:00 pm) and bedtime depends on how late they debate the vagaries of renaissance stone masonry or some other overly intellectualized and usually obtuse subject matter. If you decide to do as the locals do, be prepared to become as tired and grumpy as they are. The good news is that you will fit right in.


1. Be careful, you just might never leave. A small city by most standards, Florence with its medieval, winding, cobblestoned streets manages to pull you in like a puzzle you are eager to solve. Or to use another metaphor, an ex-pat who had come for a trip and stayed for twenty-five years told me that Florence is like quicksand, you step in but can never really pull yourself back out.


There is something about this city and its way of life. The web of students who have come to study abroad bring an electricity that both competes with and is incorporated into the city’s rich history now static after its peak six hundred years ago.


The bustling activity of a city filled with tourists and scooters is balanced by a countryside just minutes away that is as slow as a horse drawn carriage. The tension between the impatient innovation brought by foreigners and the metered complex analysis insisted on by Florentines makes this city deep and yet vibrant at the same time. You may have many conflicting emotions but you will never be bored.


 


By, Lisen Stromberg.

Lisen Stromberg lives in Silicon Valley with her husband and three children. She is an award-winning essayist currently working on her first collection of short stories entitled “Minor Disturbances.” She can be reached via email at lisen@prismwork.com


Photo courtesy of Ben Hester.

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