Dear Florence,

Dear Florence,

It’s been over a year since we first met. Tell me, what’s your secret? I am still dazed by our time together, and I wander through my memories of you often, for want of that feeling again.

It makes me sad that some memories have slipped from my mind, like the name of the restaurant with the great truffle pasta menu (Trattoria Za Za) and the little pizzeria where my then-new housemates and I ate the day we moved in (il Pizzaiuolo). It feels like a disservice to you to forget even the smallest details. But then, I guess it’s ok to forget the names, so long as I remember the moments.

Four months of wandering through narrow cobbled streets, open sunlit piazzas and Renaissance basilicas and palazzos later, I know the streets of Florence better than I know the streets of San Francisco, my hometown. I can close my eyes now, walk down four flights of dark stone steps, push open the tall wooden door with my entire body weight, step out into Via Colonna, turn right and embark on my daily 25-minute walk to class. By the end of four months, I felt a bit melancholy because I was no longer seeing you through the same gold-tinted glasses I had once worn. You were no longer new and exciting to me. I soon realized though, that when someplace is no longer new, that simply means it has become a home. 

This is an ode to the small joys of my stay in Florence. Big new things that fascinated me that turned into small things of everyday life, like ordering a cappuccino and crossing the Lung’Arno every day. Tuscan rituals. They’re what I bring myself back to most often when my mind wanders back. 

Pizza. A few weeks ago, a dear friend and I had pizza at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in Hollywood. Almost a year ago, she and I were devouring pizza with our friends at the da Michele in Florence. That time, I made the mistake of not ordering the Margherita. This time, I did. da Michele’s pizza, despite being made thousands of miles away from Italy, took my soul back to Florence. I ate in a trance because it had been so long since I’d had authentic Italian pizza, with crust in the middle so thin it droops with the weight of tomatoes and mozzarella, and crust on the edges so bouncy and gluten-y, it is incomparable to typical American pizza crust. Still, nothing will compare to the six-euro pizzas from Gustapizza, eaten on the stone steps of Basilica di Santo Spirito, an arm’s length away from little Italian men bumbling by on red Vespas and the quiet Brunelleschian masterpiece of a church. I will always be a snob about true Italian pizza, and I will forever complain about how pizza costs $20 here.

Coffee. Coffee in Italy is transactional in the best kind of way. Uno cappuccino, per favore, was one of the first phrases I became comfortable with, and truly that was all I needed in any cafe. No add-ons, no list of five milk alternatives, no secret menu or blended iced drinks. In fact, no menu at all in most places. Coffee was an easy decision, served over the counter, traded for a euro or two. Then, a swift grazie a mille, ciao! to the barista, before assuredly bouncing out the doorway, pleased at my own mastery of this basic Italian routine. I never thought I’d be an espresso person, but here I am.

The view of the Duomo from my apartment. I wish I could build a Narnian wardrobe that opens right up to our apartment patio and that view. In the early days of my trip, when sleep was hard to fall into and easy to fall out of, my housemates and I would be up at 6:30, 7am, journaling together on this little patio. We’d crank down the green-and-white striped awning, bring out our plates of eggs or maybe yogurt, and sit in quiet awe. The red-tiled rooftops would slowly grow warmer and warmer, baked by the rising golden sunlight. There is something about the sun over Italy that is special, and you won’t know it until you visit. The Duomo, small and steadfast in the distance, gave me the sense that the view I was enjoying, of the clouds, the dome, the apartments, was etched into history, recurring every morning for hundreds, thousands of years. You know, like when you see Half Dome at Yosemite or the Redwoods and how you feel with absolute certainty that those trees and mountains will outlast human life, and that you are nothing but a pinprick of a being, nothing but a witness to something everlasting. It’s a lovely, humbling feeling.

My Renaissance art class. When I think back to this class, I picture ducklings trailing behind a mother duck. That’s very much what my class looked like as we followed our professor, Cecilia Martelli, through the streets of Florence, into Renaissance palaces and museums. Allora, ragazzi she would say, as we trickled into the Baptistry of Santa Maria Novella, giddy from the sugar high of La Strega Nocciola’s pistachio gelato that Cecilia recommended during a class detour, dizzy from craning our necks to take in the gold-flaked interior dome and the religious glory of a mosaic-ed Last Judgement. We marveled at Michelangelo’s towering marble David, wandered through the Medici family’s enormous palace and infinite art collection, compared many a crucifixion, and learned about countless other pieces. Sometimes, when pointing out a detail in a painting to us, perhaps the chiaroscuro or the gold-foiled accents, Cecilia would wave her hand so close to the canvas that the motion sensors would blare, and she’d apologize to the security guards, only to do it again. I loved that she dared to, and I loved that she brushed off her daringness as if it were the job of an art history professor. The magical thing about this class was that it forced us to imagine what it would have been like to live in the 12th century and to literally witness the creation of a new dimension – the third dimension – on canvas. What a revelation.

Aperitivo. It is an utter tragedy that the United States has no thing that is reminiscent of aperitivo. I think aperitivo is one of the keys to happiness. It’s essentially a late-afternoon break, during which restaurants and bars serve a buffet-style meal plus a drink, all for eight to twelve euros. Basically, refillable Italian tapas, with friends and an aperol spritz. The first aperitivo I went to was at i Ghibellini, a neighborhood cafe/restaurant, and my friend and I were ecstatic at the sight of platters of pasta and cheese and salumi. We piled our plates high and ate in the dining area in the open piazza, reveling in this new meal construct amongst chattering Italian couples and friends, wondering how many times it was appropriate to return for seconds. Aperitivo holds a special guarantee of good conversation, of time passing unnoticed, of full bellies and warm hearts. I miss it dearly.

To return from Florence is to return from living in a golden era. I say era because Florence is the preservation of another time. I meandered through the same alleyways, walked past the same Duomo, strolled down the same Lung’Arno that Florentines thousands of years ago did. I feel immeasurably lucky that I was able to live such a rich experience and that my timing worked out – had I gone abroad a quarter later, COVID would have put a swift end to a dream. I feel even more lucky that my family provided me with the means to travel abroad. It is because of them that I was able to indulge in the selectively beautiful parts of living in Italy and bring just those parts back with me. These days, I think more and more often about the escape that privilege grants, and the critical pessimist in me scoffs at the things that seeped in most during my time abroad – a greater appreciation of beauty and of simplicity, of fresh food and of history. Wasn’t I supposed to learn more from living abroad? Is beauty too trivial a thing to learn about? I wonder though, if we would be better off, and if our planet would be better off, if we all understood and appreciated what makes the Italian lifestyle so beautiful.

Dear Florence, I know this is selfish of me, but I hope you never change. Much of your architecture won’t, but it’s the cafes and bakeries and bookstores I haunted that I want to remain until I am able to return. I’ll come back, visit my favorite gelaterias and pizzerias, and pause as I feel the presence of my younger self lingering there. I’ll think, how much I’ve grown. Until then, I’ll continue to indulge in the sweet, timeless decadence of my memories with you, reliving the rituals that made you a second home.

Yours,

Sophia

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