“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.