Tales from abroad: Florence

Pictured above is a façade of the Basilica di Santa Croce, the principle Franciscan church in Florence, Italy. (credit: Courtesy of Laura Thoren) Pictured above is a façade of the Basilica di Santa Croce, the principle Franciscan church in Florence, Italy. (credit: Courtesy of Laura Thoren)

I am usually a complete wreck when it comes to flying. Yet any fear brought on by the intense turbulence as the plane landed at the Florence Airport was mitigated by the stunning view out of the window: the Tuscan sun pouring onto the green checkered landscape, and the hillsides peppered with the brick red roofs of the Florentine houses.

Perhaps this bumpy landing serves as a microcosm for my first month here studying abroad, as well as the country as a whole. Italy is disorganized, rather imprudent, and more foreign than the tourist guidebooks make it out to be. Yet, all this ugliness is completely forgotten, or rather masked, by the utter beauty of the fashion, food, art, and landscape.

It is impossible as a woman to walk down the street without being propositioned by the men standing like vultures outside of the cafés and tabacchis, or tobacco shops. As Tobias Jones noted in his book, The Dark Heart of Italy: “Italy is the country that feminism forgot.” The female anchors on Italian news channels wear stylish suits sans any undershirt, with cleavage fully exposed as they speak in rapid Italian about world events. Italy’s version of The Late Show with David Letterman always commences with two Italian dancers dressed in thong bikini bathing suits, as the host stands, mouth agape. After their performance, he often gives them a complimentary slap on the bottom. These programs come on the television when I’m at the dinner table having supper with my home stay Italian “parents.” At times, I’ve shoveled pasta into my mouth just to avoid making eye contact with my Italian father, “Babbo,” as the camera zooms in on various parts of the dancers’ bodies.

And yet after many a night with the TV blaring, I began to realize that sex is just another part of the beauty of Italy. The cries of “Ciao, bella!” from men on the streets, as well as the image of scantily dressed anchors delivering news of Barack Obama’s inauguration, are just as much a part of the beauty and aesthetic of Italy as is Brunelleschi’s Duomo dome or the marbled façade of the Basilica di Santa Croce.

Even the disorganization of everyday life here has some beauty hidden within. In the middle of the afternoon, when most Italians take their version of a siesta, the cafés, called bars here, become busy with the clinking cups of waiters serving cappuccinos and “caffé correttos,” an espresso “corrected” with a bit of alcohol, to the waiting patrons. There is no orderly line like at Starbucks, no barista who writes your name on the side of your paper cup and makes your drink in the correct order in which you were received. Rather, after pushing your way through the crowd, as Italians do not believe in lines, you are handed a coffee the size of a shot glass to drink at the crowded bar. Although it is possible to sit, most of the time people take their coffee standing up, for sitting at a table means paying an additional fee for service. At first, this congestion — and constant standing — made me miss the American way of a coffee break: Why couldn’t I resign myself to an afternoon hanging out in a warm place with a gigantic latte, sitting in a big comfy arm chair for four hours and using wireless internet, a la Kiva Han on Craig Street? But, slowly, I began to realize that the beauty behind the shops and restaurants here is that they are meeting places just for coffee or lunch; a place for one to truly enjoy every sip of their thimbleful of a hot beverage, and to talk with friends. “Hanging out” is done at home.

Because the home is where Italians spend most of their time, I have begun to embrace my home stay family as my parents-away-from-home. The stereotype that Italian mothers are overprotective has not been reversed in my experience. Although I have yet to be reprimanded by my Italian mama, my roommate with whom I share a loft has been asked to put on a longer coat at night for purposes of discretion, as well as to dry her hair before sitting down to dinner — Italians are afraid of the cold, yet they keep their apartments at a frigid temperature. I have not been a perfect child myself. Upon using an American blow dryer with an Italian converter, I managed to blow out the fuse for the entire apartment, forcing my “parents” to walk down and up the six flights of stairs to the basement of the no-elevator building to reset the circuit box. It turns out that no two major electronic devices can be used at once in Italian homes to preserve electricity. I had been blow-drying my hair at the same time the microwave was on.

As I am living with an Italian family about half an hour outside of the city center of Florence, I have begun to feel much less like a tourist and more like a local. My experience sleeping, eating, and living with a family that speaks no English has forced me to embrace not only the language, but also the culture of Italy: the good with the bad. While Frommer’s travel guide may have forgotten to tell me that the disorganized national airline, Alitalia, would lose my baggage for two days, and no one would answer the telephone at baggage claim at the airport, the beauty of the place where I am currently living erases all pessimism from my mind. Italia, in all of its beautiful chaos, is my home away from home.