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I fell in love in the hills of Assisi.

Every city is said to have its own color in Italy depending on the natural resources nearby. Florence, for one, is hued in saffron and beige, its buildings made of crackly stucco and rough pietra forte. Pulling into sleepy, drizzly Assisi in a bus full of classmates, I was immediately enamored with the serene, sandy bricks that cover the town. That was until we turned the corner to see what Assisi overlooks.

I think that the landscape, too, changes colors from city to city. In my family’s little village settled on a mountain, the surrounding Alps are a tranquil gray. Down the street from my apartment in Florence, the mountains in the distance fade to misty blue. But from the cluster of buildings that make up Assisi, the mountains steep down into rich green hills. Though we were perched on the cliff of February, the peaceful little town was verdant. Hold your breath in stillness of the air, and maybe you can hear new roots pushing up from the soil. Assisi is lush in the most quiet of ways.

Travel

day trip to assisi

Gallery
In the City

italy-syncrasies

Because I’ve been to Italy before, I thought that I was prepped for the everyday differences between here and home. There are different electrical outlets; the showers are smaller and you flush the toilet with a button on the wall; you’ll always feel frumpy in comparison to the chic everyday style here; the works. But the immersion of actually living here for more than a few days has made me find a lot more that isn’t exactly what I’m used to at home in the United States. Some of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make, new customs I’ve tried to adopt, and miscellaneous oddities I’ve found in Florence and Italy over the last two weeks:

1. Pinocchio is HUGE in Florence. Every libreria has a table full of the illustrated tales near its entrance; every toy shop has an assortment of the puppet dolls propped up in its window. I think Pinocchio is the patron saint of this city.

2. You push doors when entering (spingere) and pull them when exiting (tirare). I had no idea how disorienting this would be until I was living here. Two weeks into being in this city, I’m still yanking on glass doors in confusion while the people inside stare at me.

3. For the most part, it’s rude to eat or drink in the street. Italians go to coffee bars to have a quick, strong shot of caffè and sometimes a small pastry while standing at the counter. There’s no carrying around your token Starbucks cup here (or any token Starbucks cup at all…Starbucks hasn’t made its way to Italy, probably because it’s coffee-flavored water compared to what Italians drink).

4. And following that, it’s really impolite to carry around a bottle of wine (/other alcohol, though more rare) in the street. If you really need to have a drink outside, you should only be carrying a glass for yourself. The implication, I’m told, is that you’re having “just this one” versus planning to drink a whole bottle yourself. Overindulgence with alcohol is pretty frowned upon in Italy.

5. Ground floor and first floor? Two different things. La terra is the ground floor; the first floor is upstairs.

6. You eat dinner here hours later than in the U.S. — eight or nine o’clock is standard. It’s also typical to have two courses of entrees (primi e secondi piatti).

7. People are much kinder in Florence than in a city like New York, but they’re definitely more rude by my standards in the streets. It’s not natural to say “Scusa” when passing someone, even if you nearly bump into them. Personal space is much less personal and way more tight. And when crossing an avenue, you walk in front of speeding cars and expect them to stop for you. Yikes.

8. It took me a week to track down all the toiletries I had decided to buy in Italy. I think most people would hope for the conditioner to be next to the shampoo in a pharmacy. And for one of the three or four languages on the bottles to be in English. And to not stop reading the bottles after “fortifica i capelli” / thence buy shampoo that is specially formulated to counteract female hair loss. And not to spend 25 euro on shampoo + the conditioner you track down days later, then find bottles for 2.90 at the mercato. We’ve had a few jams down the road, but I’m getting through so far…without losing any hair over it. *drops the mic*

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Travel

il primo fine di settimana: our day trip to chianti

Had you asked me where in Italy I wanted to visit most before leaving, my answer would be immediate: Chianti, the famous Tuscan countryside known for its hills and hills of grapevines and winding streets lined with olive trees. So when Alessandra told me that she wanted to take Chiara and I — along with her good friend Olivia and the host daughters that live with her — to her house in Greve, Chianti during our first weekend in Italy, I had to actively push back the squeal that jumped up my throat. We weren’t wasting any time. After Olivia picked us up Sunday morning for the quick 45-minute drive out to the country, we arrived at Alessandra’s sprawling property nestled into the side of a mountain. I think the day is better shown in photos: our quick trip into the city’s center and its little shops, a walk through the mountains and hills, and a visit to Vignamaggio, the historical property that once belonged to Alessandra’s family. Gioconda Gherardini, or Monna Lisa (yes, that one!) was born there in the 15th century, and Much Ado About Nothing was filmed in its gardens a few years ago. The whole countryside, really, is like a storybook.

chianti on the way

chianti vignamaggio

chianti backyard

chianti garden entrance

chianti garden2

i'm in chianti!

piazza corridor

alessandra e gina

meat wall

meat shop salami

meat shop salame piccante

vino di chiani

See more photos on my Flickr.

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In the City

la mia famiglia italiana

“Never, please never, walk home by yourself at night. Do not take the bus after nine o’clock. Get into a taxi if you are alone. And if there is an emergency, please, please, call us.”

My host mother, Alessandra, has turned out to be much more of a mother than I thought she would.

“You call, I will be, I am…” My host father pauses dramatically, or maybe he’s grasping for a word. While Alessandra spent five years studying in England, Michele is still working on his English.

Michele seizes the lapels of his stylish button-front shirt and tugs them towards his shoulders.

“Soo-pehr Meetch!” he declares, assuming a heroic pose. The four of us – Mich, Alessandra, my roommate Chiara, and I – melt into squeals of laughter over our gnocchi pomodoro at the tiny yellow kitchen table.

What a few DAYS it has been. One diverted arrival from Zurich (into Bologna rather than Firenze), two bus rides between airports, four hauls of my overstuffed luggage in and out of truck beds and hotel rooms and storage compartments, seven orientation meetings to acquaint us with the program and the city, and a final welcome from my new host family later, I am finally sitting in my own Florentine bedroom.

Alessandra and Mich were the mamma e papa italiani of my friend Marcia this past summer, but I hadn’t remembered much that she had said about them. Here’s what I knew: a grown-up daughter in Bologna, two cats, a house in the Tuscan countryside. I could plug in the wi-fi to use in the apartment and wouldn’t have to take a city bus to campus. It seemed enough to me.

But as I entered the classroom where we were supposed to meet our Italian families at 5:00 on Wednesday, a tremor of nausea rolled through me. Among the pairs of married couples, a father with young girls, a brother with a leather jacket and ponytail, somewhere, anywhere, my family sat. I gripped the small gift I had brought them, black and white dish towels wrapped in crumpled paper and squashed flat by that overstuffed baggage. I didn’t know if they’d like the towels. How could I guess if they’d like me?

Names started to be called: first those of a student or pair of students in the SU Florence program, then that of the host family they had been matched with. I had to smile as the Johnsons and Goldbergs were introduced to the Rossis, the Caponigros, the Buonotempos. Cheeks bumped as students awkwardly leaned in to kiss hello; bags rumbled as they rolled out the door. At least I was a little prepared, I remember thinking to myself. I could kiss hello and throw in a “piacere” (“nice to meet you”) on the side. I could speak some Italian after two years of study. I had been to Florence before. But I had never lived with a family other than my own, Italian or not.

My roommate was suddenly standing up.

“Riccardi, Gabriela,” said the woman at the front of the room, the r’s in my name vibrating through the empty chairs. “E famiglia Sanminiatelli.”

Hoisting my bag on my shoulder, I made my way down the center aisle to the couple who had stood up: a woman with ash-blonde hair gathered in a white scrunchie, a man with thick black glasses, both my parents’ age. I kissed them hello and quietly handed my gift to Mich. “Ho un regalino per Lei.”

He looked down at the sadly smashed wrapping paper, smiled widely, and reached out to squeeze my shoulder. “Grazie mille. It’s wonderful.”

I’ve settled into the little apartment crammed with bright rooms so quickly already. Alessandra’s already given me my own bedroom and a bathroom to share with Chiara, an invitation to raid the refrigerator at any time, and a promise to show me the best places in the neighborhood. “I want you to feel like this is your home,” she tells us. “You are my girls.”

Mich touches our heads affectionately when he passes us in the hall. Alessandra pats my cheek when she asks how I slept. From our first dinner seated around the tiny yellow kitchen table, we’ve laughed and laughed. There’s nothing more I could ask for in a family.

I was attached to the idea of Florence before I even arrived. Now with a family to claim as my own, I have two real reasons to love this city. Their names are Alessandra and Super Mich.

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Travel

the first layover

I’m sitting in a gray Zurich airport. I’ve always wanted to see Switzerland – just over the border from my grandfather’s Italian village, the other side of the Alps – but this isn’t the Switzerland I was hoping to look out at through the airport window. It’s not just the hazed-over sky and the water drops on the window that render Zurich utterly colorless this morning. The airport is monochrome. The geometric ceiling, speckled tile floors, the steel beams and metal railways and silver screens are all set in shades of charcoal, so glossy that they look wet to touch.

It’s 5:30 a.m. at home, an hour that straddles between when I usually get into bed at night and when I get up in the morning. I’d be in my deepest sleep right now, my body lulled into tranquility by the hours behind me and not to be disturbed for hours ahead. But today I’m here in this gray Zurich airport, resolutely awake.

Plenty of the other students are chattering around me, buzzing with friends or classmates or new acquaintances met through the group flight I’m on. It’s hard to guess how many of us there are: seventy-five, maybe? More?  I’ve recognized some faces, said hi to a few, but mostly stayed off to myself over the last twelve or so hours that I’ve been in and out of airports for. I’m completely incapable of holding a conversation beyond a few words right now. I’m too focused on getting on this plane, the last plane, and stepping into my new home this afternoon. Florence, I’ve waited for you for so long! I don’t think I’m going to believe you’re mine until I arrive.

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