This year I started writing a book. I am taking an online course that provides structure and feedback around this and recently my instructor suggested I share this excerpt as a short story. I hope you enjoy it and would appreciate hearing your feedback.
The book is a memoir and will be about my experiences in Italy as well as the things that drove my decision to move here permanently. Buona lettura!
The day started like most of my other days. I was lazy in the morning, working on my blog, drinking espresso, and occasionally taking a break to look out the window at the passing tourists. The rain had stopped and it was definitely Spring. I was enjoying these lazy days and knew that my time was limited once my Italian language classes started. The warm breeze from the open window brought the scent of freshly brewed espresso, newly baked bread, and a cacophony of languages from the tour guides traveling down via Torta. They pointed out the curve in the street where the buildings had been built over the top of an amphitheater in the exact shape, preserving a little bit of history. Their voices and footsteps echoed in the stone walls and streets.
The heavy garage doors that covered the shops in the evening where being raised and made loud, garish abrasive sounds, and the motorbikes raced by. Always the motorbikes echoing off the stone walls and streets. Finally bored and anxious to get out into the sunshine, I closed my computer and tidied up the table where I ate and worked. A quick shower, a little make up and I was out the door without a care in the world. Today, I felt pretty. Maybe a month of being in Italy and dozens of “Ciao Bella’s” per day had done it or maybe I had an extra dose of pheromones working today. I had a spring in my step and a smile on my face as I descended the 82 steps onto the street.
I opened the door and the warm sun hit my face, I raised it like a sunflower to absorb the rays. “Ciao Bella”, said Marko my neighbor as he lifted the door to his shop.
“Ciao Bello” I replied and smiled.
“How are you settling in?” he asked
“Very well, thanks! I love it here!”
“When do you start school?”
“Next month. I can’t wait!”
“Why are you getting bored?”
“No! But I am anxious to start learning the language. “
“AHHHH. It won’t take you long. It’s easy.
“Oh well thanks for the encouraging words, but it might not be as easy for me as you think, but I hope so.”
“Well, I must get to work. Che bella oggi! (How beautiful you look today!)”
I laughed, “Why thank you. Buon lavoro. Ciao” and I turned briskly in the direction of Piazza della Signoria, always the first place I ventured to in the mornings. It would be filled with tour groups standing open mouthed in front of Perseus, cameras flashing in front of the replica of David, and huddled around the medallion marking where Savaranola was hanged and burned. I liked to sit in the loggia and soak it all in. I watched as dozens and dozens of people took photos of the statues and wished I had a nickel for each time over the hundreds of years that had happened. I took photos myself of some of the same things every day, marveling at their beauty and trying to capture it through my point and shoot but always falling miserably short. I walked among the statues on the loggia and caught a wink from Fabbio, the older man who did voluntary security at the loggia during the morning hours and worked at the house wares shop later in the day. “Che bella!” he exclaimed.
“Gratzie Signore. How are you?”
“I’m fine. There are already a lot of tourists here this year. Hopefully it will be better than last year.” Italy had already felt the impact of the economic crisis in the USA in the decline of tourism. He walked away to warn someone not to touch the statues and I walked down the stairs and back into the sunlight. The sunlight was warm, but in the shade of the cold, damp stone it was chilly. I sat on the side steps of the loggia and listened to the classical guitar music that the Polish man Piotr played, resonating through the arches of the Uffizi.
I decided to take a walk along the Arno crossing over the Ponte Vecchio and heading east towards San Niccolo. The “Oltrarno” (other side of the Arno) was always less crowded with tourists. The walk along the river was lovely with the view of the Tuscan hills to the East. I stopped in a park outside of a Greek Orthodox church and sat for a few minutes watching two elderly gentlemen feed some pigeons. While I was sitting there, I noticed a man on the street, just outside the hedges of the park with a camera taking my photo. As I glanced at him, he waved, smiled and turned away. “What’s up with me today? I wondered? I felt so light, happy and like I was radiating some of the sunshine that I felt on my face. My heart was so full of joy at being in this place, that I thought I would burst and tears sprang to my eyes. I couldn’t remember ever having been surrounded by so much beauty at one time. It was truly a dream come true to be here. I thanked my lucky stars for my good sense in making the decision to come.
I continued along the river side crossing back over the Ponte alle Gratzie and heading down towards Santa Croce. I had decided to treat myself to a dish of pasta at the terrace restaurant La Finestrae located in the piazza. The church of Santa Croce loomed bright white and blue against the luminous blue sky background. This piazza, the closest to my home, was the warmest in Florence in my opinion. The piazza was wide and the surrounding buildings did not provide much shade. There were no trees. The benches that surrounding the piazza where almost full, but I found a place to sit for a few minutes to gaze at the beautiful façade of the church. A Chinese woman approached selling scarves that hung by the dozens heavy on her arm and blowing slightly in the breeze. I shook my head no and she moved along through the piazza. The sun was warm now and high in the sky as it approached one o’clock. It was almost a respectable time to go to lunch, but I waited until the church bells chimed 1:30 and my nose and cheeks were red from the sun, to approach the terrace for a table. It was crowded, but when Stefano, a waiter who I had met here before saw me he motioned to me and said “Ciao Bella! Ah, your usual table beautiful Signora.” and pulled out the chair for me as he laid down the menu.
“And what has happened today that makes you look so happy and beautiful,” he asked.
“Well, just the usual…I woke up this morning and found myself living in Italy! The most beautiful dream come true.” I smiled at him.
“I will bring the wine, si?”
“Certo!” I replied and he turned quickly towards the door of the restaurant. I watched the other diners, mostly happy tourists perusing the menu, ordering more than they could possibly eat in order to try as many dishes as possible. Bright orange cocktails of Aperol and prosecco with lots of ice and long straws sat on many of the tables, next to plates of sliced salami, prosciutto, and cheeses. It looked lovely, but I stuck to my original plan and ordered the risotto with asparagus, as Stefano sat down my ¼ liter of red wine with a flourish. I poured a glass and started to sip it. A gypsy approached the table, plastic cup in extended hand, a couple of coins in the bottom shaking it at me, “Aiuta, per favor” she whined at me. As I shook my head, Stefano appeared and shoed her away with a “Basta! Vai via!” She scowled and walked back out towards the piazza, her long skirts and dirty hair blowing in the breezes.
I caught some folks glancing at me and obviously wondering what I was doing here alone. Interesting that happened even here. I was used to it from traveling for business and often dining alone. I didn’t mind at all, but for some folks they seemed to find it very odd, as they glanced and whispered, and pondered over what I might be doing dining all alone. I am sure they sometimes felt sorry for me, which was a far cry from how I felt they should be feeling!
The basket of Tuscan bread sat untouched on the table, and Stefano sat down the steaming plate of risotto. “Why do you never eat the bread? Are you afraid of taking weight?” He asked with a worried look on his face.
I laughed, “Well I am always afraid of that, but that’s not the reason I don’t eat the bread. I don’t like Tuscan bread! It has no salt and no flavor!”.
“Oh! He seemed surprised. “You are not used to unsalted bread?”
“No! I have never had it before coming here, and it is a great disappointment.”
“Wait!” he turned and ran back into the restaurant with the bread basket and returned before I could pick up my fork with a new basket. This time filled with glistening schiacciata, the flat foccacia type bread with the thumb prints, drizzled with olive oil.
“Thank you, Stefano! I love that bread!” I reached for a piece and he smiled and turned towards another table who was waving in his direction.
The risotto was thick and the asparagus fresh, tender, but still slightly firm. Parmesan cheese and a touch of butter made is glisten in the sunlight and I ate it like I had not eaten in days. After a month of living here, I had lost 10 pounds. It wasn’t from not eating and drinking everything that I wanted! It was from the constant walking that I did. Fresh air and exercise! Just what the doctor ordered. Not to mention that the food that I did eat was freshly cooked with fresh ingredients from the local markets that I visited each day. Fruits and vegetables tasted like things I had never eaten before. Lacking preservatives and genetic tampering, picked fresh and sent immediately to the local markets or brought by the farmers themselves. I bought the produce often with the fresh green leaves still attached, a testament to just how fresh they were. They needed little in the way of seasoning the flavors were so bright and delicious. A dash of olive oil was all that was required. I was having to adjust to the fact that not every vegetable and fruit was available at all times of the year, only when they were “in season”. I had to learn what season produced which vegetables! It was fun! One of my favorite daily activities, going to the market to see what new things were available and then going home to search the internet for just how to use it.
With the sun at my back, and the wine, risotto and bread, a carb overload heavy on my stomach, I ordered a coffee to offset the drowsiness that was coming over me. Stefano sat the tiny cup of espresso before me. “Dolce?” he asked. (Did I want dessert?)
“No, gratzie!” I shook my head, as he scowled. Italians, even the waiters sometimes got offended if you didn’t eat everything on your plate, or didn’t subscribe to the 3 course meals including dessert that Italians regularly ate.
Mealtime, food, and the enjoyment of the experience were a strong cultural thread, that I loved and feared. I couldn’t imagine eating that much regularly, although it seemed to work for them, as I watched the slim, well dressed women walking briskly by.
“Va bene, va bene! But I have a gift for you.” He turned and ran into the restaurant before I could ask what it was, or protest.
He returned with a small fluted glass of yellow liquid, the glass frosty from the icy thick liquid. “I know what that is!” I exclaimed, my mouth already watering. “Limoncello!”
“Yes! Just the right thing to end a meal for a beautiful lady! My treat for you today because you are more beautiful than always.”
“Why thank you!” I took a sip of the lusciously sweet and sour nectar of the Sorrento area. The 30% alcohol content would go straight to my head in this sun, but I didn’t care and sipped away with delight. I didn’t have to drive and had no place I had to be!! Most of the other people who had been on the terrace when I arrived had gone, eating and drinking quickly to get back to their crammed full days of sightseeing. I sipped and closed my eyes, thinking about how wonderful it was to live here and taking things slowly vs. being a tourist and wanting to see everything that you could possibly see in a weeks time because who knew if you would ever come back here again? Next year it would be off to some other destination where you would buy a t-shirt, take some photos, and chat with your friends about all you had seen and done, never stopping for a minute to take in the real culture or beauty of the place. I knew, I had done it too.
Feeling happy and full, I paid my bill, kissed Stefano on both cheeks and said goodbye, heading off for another long walk to get rid of the sedated feeling that I had. It was a little after 3 and I wanted to go back into Piazza della Signoria to see Grey the Mime perform in the Piazza degli Uffizi. I decided to walk right from Santa Croce to the Duomo and then turn back left to get to there. The long way around that should take 45 minutes or so, and get rid of some of these calories. The beautiful day, combined with Spring Break made the walking crowded. The small sidewalks were filled with tourists shuffling along, eyes looking up, and not where they were walking, mouths gaped wide and sometimes coming to a complete stop. I walked in the street whenever the traffic would allow to make the most of my time.
I arrived at Piazza degli Uffizi in time to watch Grey perform two sets. Laughing while he followed closely behind tourists, adapting his posture, facial expression, and stride to theirs, shamelessly mocking them in his white faced make up, white gloves and striped shirt. The tourists were good natured, turning and laughing when they caught him in the act. He attracted an amazing crowd of people and was exceptionally good at his craft.
When the bells of the Palazzo Vecchio chimed 6 p.m. I was surprised how quickly time had passed, and decided it was time to get home for a bit, think about what to do for dinner, relax a little and change clothes for the evening “passiagata”. I threw some coins in Grey’s hat, said my “arrividerci’s” and started down the right side of Palazzo Vecchio, past the Neptune Fountain towards home. It felt like my laugh lines were deeper and a smile permanently affixed to my face from the glorious day full of good things and a lot of laughter. I was preoccupied in my thoughts and watching my footsteps when I felt a shadow from someone coming towards me. I looked up and stopped in my tracks in front of a man, inches from me. I looked up into his dark brown eyes, and could not help but gasp in surprise at the proximity and the beauty of his chiseled roman nose, spider fringed eyelashes that framed his eyes and ringlets of chocolate hair surrounding his face. He was tall, and he placed his hands on my shoulders, looked searchingly at my face, as if he were hungry and said, “Ciao Bella, si ha fretta?” Not understanding what he said and seeing the apparent confusion on my face, he quickly converted to English…I said “Hello beautiful, are you in a hurry?”
Relieved and not so surprised now, I chuckled and said, “I was just heading home.”
“Oh! “ now he seemed surprised. “You live here?”
“Yes, I do.” I said and couldn’t help the pleasure and pride in my voice.
“Can I kiss you?” looking hungrily at me again.
“I don’t know you” It sounded weak and breathless even to my own ears.
“My name is Marco, I am from Florence, and I work at a restaurant near the Ponte Vecchio. Now can I kiss you?”
Before I could say no again, he was kissing me. Slowly at first, but with growing passion, and surprise, surprise, I was kissing him back without a thought that I didn’t really know him, or that I was in the middle of a crowded street. It was a long, deep, passionate kiss, and I melted into it, lost all sense of place and time, and abandoned myself totally. When I was conscious again, we had pulled apart and he was looking at me and smiling. I smiled back, and he asked, “What is your phone number?”
“No, no” I said, convincingly. “You need to get to work” I was finally conscious of a white apron in his hand and a name tag “Marco” on his uniformed shirt. I laughed and turned away, “Nice meeting you Marco.” I said as I quickly walked down the sidewalk.
“I will find you again!” he chuckled and called as he started to run down the street. “Ciao Bella! A presto!”
I continued my quick pace, pulled my key out of my bag and without looking back didn’t stop until I was inside with the apartment door closed. I leaned my back against the door and smiled, taking it all in.