Third night of the trip, and I can start to feel the groove settling in. It starts in little moments, like getting a macchiato entirely in Italian, tossing it back, then standing in the doorway for a moment to put my shades back on before plunging back into the river of people. Or find a cool new street to walk down on the way to the hotel. Or starting to figure out which part of town is which: students here, rich folks there, more Arab-sounding folks somewhere else.
In my case, it’s also getting over a cold, getting into the right sleep rhythm, finding out the group I’m with is fitting together well, and realizing that tomorrow we leave the city for the country. And because I hit a meeting today, the English-speaking group at the American Episcopal Church in a quiet neighborhood west of the tourist area. That’s always grounding, hearing the program in a far-away place, with so many accents but all the familiar phrases and themes. I went for lunch afterwards with Rula, from Finland, and we talked recovery over paninni and acqua gassata while a table of boys next to us flirted with the waitress. Folks are folks, the world over, and I was among mine today.
Florence is an amazing place, of course, with all the history and art. But it’s also a working city. What we see as charming medieval streets, barely wide enough for tacis and buses and scooters to whip through, within inches of pedestrians and bikers, the locals see as their walking route to work or school. Just blocks from pure tourist madness are peaceful parks, libraries, quiet alleys, and of course churches everywhere. It’s the kind of town you could walk around all day, feeling more and more enchanted, then come back together for dinner and hear about all the things you missed: a 700-year-old pharmacy, a traditional leather-working school, a sculpture garden, a great view of the city’s tile roofs at sunset.
Ah, dinner. Can’t go on without getting into that. I am awake right now because my stomach is too full to sleep. I learned that lesson the hard way last night. Silvio, our local guide, has completely hooked us up with the food. Last night we were in a trattoria in the 1,000-year-old crypt of a church. We started with olive oil and Tuscan bread, which is made with no salt because of some strike against the salt tax, probably a few centuries ago. Next came two kinds of bruschetta, one with oil and tomatoes and one with steamed kale and white beans. Then a creamy mushroom soup. Then the pasta, which had a traditional pesto and sliced green beans. All very simple, but fresh and amazing. I had seconds on the pasta and was totally full and satisfied, which would have been fine, but I forgot there was a meat course coming. Two large platters descended upon us, with grilled pork ribs, sausages with quartered cloves of garlic sticking out of them, tender boneless chicken, and perfectly bite-sized lamb chops which I could have eaten 200 of. By this time was after 10 – we got to the place at 7:30 – and yet there was dessert! But first, because the kitchen had gotten slow, they dropped about half a gallon of lemoncello on the table and said to have at it. Then came the little towers of what they called semifredo, which is nearly-warm ice cream, basically frozen in the middle and getting soft on the outside; some were coffee inside and caramel out, others were chocolate inside and mint out. All were ridiculous and consumed eagerly by nearly-dead diners. Eight had just flown in that day, and we didn’t walk out until 11 p.m.
Tonight, by comparison, was a little milder. Walked in at 8 and were gone by 10. We were in another little trattoria, this one near the church Santa Croce (where Michaelangelo and Macchiavelli are buried) a block from the Arno River, and we got to sit in the front room where we could watch the kitchen. I noticed that they put olive oil on everything that came out. They started us with two traditiona Tuscan soups, both cooked with day-old bread to give them texture; one was tomato-based and the other more green, with basil, I think. Before we even got into that there was penne with a very simple tomato sauce: no cream or anything. Fresh cheese on the table, their own wine in big bottles, plenty of water. We knocked that all back, and there was a pause. We weren’t sure what was coming, if anything, and I had the same sense from the night before: I just had an amazing dinner, and I don’t think they’re done with us! Well, they weren’t. It was meat time again. This time it was big, oval-shaped meatballs with a tomato sauce, mashed potatoes that were somewhere beyond light, and a beef stew that even after three times hearing it, we still couldn’t catch the name of it. This time dessert was orange biscotti with vin santo, a sweet wine, for dipping. I had an espresso instead, but I did enjoy the look of pure bliss on the faces of the people dipping the biscotti in the wine. As we walked out, we clapped for the kitchen crew and traded the usual barrage of words when Italians are parting: ciao ciao arrivaderci ciao grazie buono notte ciao arrivaderci ciao!
I’m in love with this culture. They’ve got style, passion, tradition, and community. And they are beautiful people, as well. I know my heritage is Irish, French, and a little Welsh, but walking the streets of Florence I feel a comfort, a groove, that tells me at the very least I was here in a previous life. I also know that my future involves much more time here than just these next 10 days.
So tomorrow we are off to the hills. We will picnic at a castle, explore hilltop villages, hike to a shepherd’s home for hand-made pasta, and then move on. There is a plan, and the group is good, but for tonight it’s enough to have a full stomach, city sounds coming through the open window, something to write about, and a groove to get into.