Monthly Archives: February 2012

Chiacchierare

Being in Florence has given me a new perspective on what it means to be Italian and how American Italian is so vastly different than authentic Italian; yet despite all of these differences, there are still some similarities in both the native people and the removed people that remain consistent and prove that culture is incredibly far-reaching. 

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The door handle beckoned “Tirare,” but I knew it wasn’t just telling me to pull. It was telling me to come inside to get cradled by the warmth, get lost inside the plethora of colors, to take in the amazingly sweet smells, and most importantly – let my tongue relish in the multitude of tastes.

Soft, thick folds of creamy white, silky brown, and buttery caramel were sprinkled with light brown morsels of cookies, chocolate drizzles, and cocoa powder. They sat patiently in large shiny metal tins – whispering at me through the thick glass dome protecting them, telling me to take them home. A gray-haired man wearing a chunky knit sweater and a baseball cap appeared behind the counter to distract me from this daydream come true. Silently, I deemed him the sultan of the gorgeous layers of milky confections before me that I couldn’t wait to devour.

His wrinkles insinuated that he was probably around the same age as my grandfather and his smile confirmed it – a comforting smile, a knowing one that comes with time, patience, and a lifetime of experiences.  He stood with his hands behind his back as he watched me painstakingly decide which flavor to try, as if my life depended on such a momentous decision.

I managed to find the words in Italian to ask him if I could try a flavor; the phrase didn’t glide as smoothly as it would a native speaker’s. It falls off my tongue haltingly, incredibly hesitant and awkward. Virtually screaming out that I’m a foreigner.

“Posso avere….. assaggiate…… ‘Biscottino?’”

He smiled and murmured something in response but I was too preoccupied by the miniscule plastic spoon he was dipping into the vat of fluffy goodness to stop and process what he said. After the ‘Biscottino’ had melted in my mouth and had me watering more than one of Pavlov’s dogs, I immediately tried two more flavors. One was called ‘Bacio’ and the other, ‘Arachidi.’ ‘Bacio’ harnessed the uncanny ability to taste exactly like chilled Nutella – with that same familiar bite of hazelnuts wrapped in delectable malleable chocolate. ‘Arachidi’ tasted extraordinarily like I had a spoonful of freshly opened Jiff in my mouth. With my taste buds dancing the Danube Waltz, I realized there was only one thing left to do.

“Tutti,” I said and this time, the old man smiled big and said, “Prego” – a word I had no problem understanding, as he bent down to scoop all three flavors into a cup. Realizing I may spoil my dinner, I asked the man if I could take the cup to go. “Per andare?” I said, feeling a bit more confident with the language barrier – I got the point across before, I could probably do it again… Immediately, the man’s face changed. He mumbled something unintelligible and my confused face in response made him simplify his words – “PORTARE. VUOI GELATO PORTARE.” It took a few seconds to process but I realized that this man simply just wanted me to say the right word – portare, to take, instead of andare, to go. I blushed and apologized, in both English and Italian, but when he didn’t charge me full price, I realized what had just happened. It wasn’t that the old man was angry or annoyed at my mistake – he, like my grandfather, just wanted me to learn a lesson so as to do the one thing that men his age are the best at doing – teach.

Handheld Misery

I’m taking a Food and Life Writing class here in Florence and we get a different idea for a of piece every week. This week, the assignment was: pick something regarding food or table etiquette and write about it. This is what I came up with.

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There’s a flicker of light, an infinitesimal pulsating red dot amongst the chaos of the table. It beckons and keeps its steady rhythm until it gets what it wants. It will slowly keep reappearing, waiting for its chance to be noticed and when it is, the glimmer is silenced and the machine it belongs too sits quiet, still, and blank until it can be thrust into duty once more.

The girl’s shoulders drop as she clicks the Blackberry menu button to see the message that’s just popped up on the main screen. It was received ten minutes ago. She’s frustrated she didn’t notice it sooner – fearful that the sender will think she’s purposefully neglected to answer. Quickly she turns the vibrate setting on and sets it next to her wine glass that’s barely been touched. The boy sitting across from her has one hand resting on his jittery thigh, the other gripping a fork that twirls spaghetti on its four silver prongs, hopelessly.

Tonight was supposed to be better than this. She was supposed to be better than this.

He notices that she’s put the phone down and he relaxes a bit; asking her a few questions, he lets go of some of the initial annoyance to realize she’s potentially interesting. She gets up to take the usual mid-date bathroom run girls like her tend to take and he uses the time to survey the room. It’s a quaint restaurant – brick walls, dimmed lights, cramped tables, wine flowing. It’s so incredibly cozy he has to remind himself he’s not back home in just another Italian restaurant; as if the waiter’s broken English and the unreadable menus weren’t enough…

Each table varies in occupants – a family here, a father-son duet there, a smiling and giggling couple across the room. But despite all the variables, the one constant is that every other duo, trio, quartet, and group in the room lacks that hellish plastic and metal square table fixture that bores through this boy’s self-worth. That beeping, blinking, pulsing contraption that is more of a twenty-first century robotic appendage than a simple means of connecting one individual to another. For everyone else, there’s conversation and awkward pauses – seamless interaction.

Enraged, confused, and slightly heartbroken, the boy leaves money on the table and the girl to return to an empty chair. He leaves with venom coursing through his veins and no knowledge of whether or not that girl’s eyes were blue or green because the only picture of her he’ll ever see is one of her transfixed on that terrible little phone.

Only The Dead Know New York

After writing this little paragraph, I was inspired to develop it into a longer piece. This is what came out of that thought-process.

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To live in New York City is to love and hate your life all at the same time. New York has this ineffable way of giving you these insane highs that make you remember why you came in the first place and then in a flash, you’ve been rained on, you’re flat broke, and the concrete’s never felt colder. The true New Yorker knows this to be the norm and that embracing this fact early is the only way to survive.

Some New Yorkers live “classic” New York lives – they work nine to five jobs making nice corporate sums of money, they know subway lines as if they were old childhood haunts, and they get drinks with friends every Saturday night. They buy expensive clothes, get brunch, and commiserate together, pretending to be Carrie Bradshaw as they cry into their respective Cosmopolitans, knowing full well that they are the quintessence of desperation. They have seemingly dramatic relationships that they dwell on daily in their perfect little mundane cubicles. They read the Times and the Journal and they’re well versed in the most up-to-the-minute politics. They had a stance on Occupy Wall Street that was not particularly favorable because they didn’t like people bothering them during lunch.  They’ve seen all the best plays, eaten at every place highly rated on Zagat, and they can rattle off the works they’ve seen in the Guggenheim, the Met, and MoMa, faster than you can say, “Jeff Koons.” They aren’t New Yorkers.

Real New Yorkers know about those people and they despise their existence. Real New Yorkers work in jobs with obscene hours that make no normal sleep schedule physically possible, they make little money, live in meager apartments, and are constantly kicking to keep their heads above water. They scrounge for money to go out and drink away their problems on the one night a month they have free, they barely make rent so they eat Ramen daily, and their goal in New York is just to “make it,” but no one’s really quite sure what that means. They have idyllic dreams that include large penthouses and luxurious clothing and trips to the opera. They read the weeklies at the newsstand, without paying for them, while they wait for the subway between jobs and going home and pretending to have a social life. They know all about the hottest restaurants that are neglected in the papers, the hottest clubs that even socialites don’t know about, and the most enriching museums that house more than just Jan Van Eyck. They love everything New York has to offer yet there’s never any time or money to take it all in.

The real New Yorker wants with all their might to explore, discover, and frolic in the skyscraper playground of Manhattan and they can’t right now but they have the hopeless confidence that one day, they will. The real New Yorker will want to pack up their things every other day and go somewhere else. But the real New Yorker will never leave because they know there’s just too much to learn.

Learning Italian, Not the Language

So, it’s official – I’ve hit the one-month mark here in Florence. It’s all too terribly cliché and expected for me to say that the four weeks since my arrival have flown by but I can’t say they haven’t. I’ve accomplished a lot thus far in my journey but I’m disheartened to I admit that I wish I’d have done more with my time. With this upset, I’ve made a list of things to accomplish before I leave (more on that later…) as well as a list of things I’ve learned over the past month. You’ll find the latter list below and it touches on culture, social interactions, food, and a few things in between. Let the lessons learned lend their silly selves to you.

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A Mind in Pictures

A way of life.

A proverb.

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