Thursday, April 14, 2011

Little Italy, part 1

An aerial view of Florence --
could there be anything prettier?

One of my favorite, favorite years EVER was the year I lived in Florence, Italy.  That was the year I learned to love red wine, pasta, and -- need I say it? -- Italian boys.  (And don't worry, this is not going to be some sugary sap like Eat, Pray, Love -- I just had to start somewhere.)  It was my junior year in college, and Florence was the first taste I had of a lifestyle completely different from anything I had ever known before.  Everything was so totally, well, foreign (stating the obvious here), but I drank it up greedily, never fully realizing that it would be a long, long time before I experienced such concentrated sensuality and abandon again.

To begin, I chose to study with the University of Syracuse's program, as my college was too small to have a program in Florence of its own.  For this reason, I knew absolutely no one else, and consequently had a full-on panic attack the night before I left.  I was terrified to leave the confines of my comfortable house in Ojai, or my safe little dorm room, for something so big, so unknown, and so far.  But the moment I stepped off the plane and into the Florentine taxicab, I only felt excitement and wonder -- everything was so old and majestic....and the men were so handsome!  I headed to the Piazza Savonarola, where the school was located, and learned I would be living with the Cera family on Via Cimarosa, 23.  Their apartment was a two-story walk-up and I had my own little entrance and separate wing (thank God!).  My bedroom had eggshell linoleum floors, and a tiny bed in the corner covered with a rust orange bedspread.  Over the bed was a huge and terrifying photograph of a maniacally smiling clown, which I immediately stuffed into the armoire (Really, is there anything worse than a giant clown photograph?  Except, perhaps, a giant clown painting?).  I had a miniature desk and a lamp in the center of the room and that was pretty much it.  It was sparse but sweet, and I actually grew to love the easy simplicity of that little room.

There were four members of the Cera family: the tall, large-bosomed, dark-haired mother, the diminutive and wiry gray-headed father, and the two unfortunate teenage sisters.  Both girls had tragically gotten their mother's largeness combined with their father's shortness, poor things.  One of them had horrible acne all along her cheeks, and the other was terribly prone to fever blisters (like, one a week -- weird).  Can you imagine?  In I walk, this tall American girl, with 25 pairs of shoes and a whole separate suitcase filled with department store face creams (do NOT even ask me why I brought all that shit with me.  I was 19, OK?).  The girls took one look at me and immediately started squawking at each other in shrill Italian screams.  I was flabbergasted.  Of course, my Italian wasn't very good at this point, so I had no earthly idea what they were saying.  I would also soon learn this was a fairly common occurence, as they argued dramatically at least two or three times a day, usually over trifling matters, such as who had shinier hair, or, perhaps, whose turn it was to pick one of the five (yes, five) TV channels. 

And that was just one small part of what I grew to love about Florence -- the simplicity.  There was only one television in the apartment (in the family room, which I tended to stay away from, so as to stay out of the sisters' warpath), one telephone, which was connected to the wall, and no computer.  My days there had an effortless, contented quality to them, loosely tied together by the morning and evening meals I would eat in the Cera's itty-bitty kitchen.  In the morning, I would wake up and my Italian father would prepare me a cappucino, some toast with homemade apricot jam, and a fresh pastry that he would have gotten from the bakery downstairs before I got up.  (I loved those pastries -- every day it was a new surprise!)  While I was sitting there eating my little breakfast, the Cera family would be buzzing around me, getting their coffee, preparing for school (both parents were teachers, and the girls were in what would be the equivalent of junior high), and they would never sit down to eat, as they had their big family meal at lunchtime.  I would then go to classes all day (although, I swear to you, I was having so much fun, that I don't think I retained one single thing from any of those classes), and come home at night to the Cera's brightly lit kitchen, where we would all sit together for dinner.  It is impossible to describe how truly delicious those dinners were: we would start with a pasta course, different every day, followed by tiny little meatballs in red sauce, or homemade pizza, or, one time, wild boar (!), and usually a side of spinach or broccoli drizzled with olive oil and salt, and then unsalted bread and lots of red wine.  One night I came home and the entire kitchen table was covered with assorted bite-sized bruschetti -- alternately tomato, mushroom, and chopped liver (the last one sounds gross, but wasn't) -- not even an ounce of room left for any plates.

And that was what my home life was like there.  Unpretentious and fairly tranquil, with the quiet periodically interrupted by my Italian sisters' piercing screams.  At night (if I wasn't on the town), I would read or write, occasionally study, and look out my one tiny window at the Piazza di San Iacopino below.  Sometimes I would crack that window just enough to sneak a cigarette (the family didn't smoke), and listen to the screech of the buses braking, or the markets shutting down for the day, or the neighbors chatting amiably with each other.  It was mesmerizing.

In Florence I learned to pare down so much from my life, things that I thought I needed, like a suitcase full of face creams or shoes.  I didn't have a phone or a T.V., or certainly not a cell phone or computer.  Life there was about family and friends and meals together, as well as about what Italy itself is known for: art, beauty, and, of course, love.

Now, what I haven't gone into in this post is all the crazy FUN I had while I was in Florence.  Nights out at discotecs (seriously, that's what they call them), lots of dates with lots of boys, weekend train trips, and a jumble of too much wine and breathtaking scenery.  So I will save those adventures for the next post, because there is way, way too much to write about and, really, you all know by now that I hate to edit myself.

And on that note, I am tempted to write "Ciao," which means, "see you later," but I can't bring myself to do it.  I can only go just so far.