When I was approached by the third American tourist in two days (this one asking me which way to ‘Cavour Street'), I decided it was time to venture over to the other, supposedly more residential, side of the Arno.
While I am not complaining about living within blocks of some of the world's most celebrated sculptures and architectural triumphs, Florence's historic center has lately seemed to me to fit New York writer Ann Marlowe's description: ‘a theme park for art history students.' I began to wonder if the reason I could not seem to feel at home here was simply that with more hotels and souvenir stands than grocery stores, nobody felt at home here in this part of town, not even Italians.
Although I cross over to the Oltrarno twice every week for a class, and I have explored the area on foot many times, I
could not say that I had witnessed much ‘everyday' Italian life there. So, one Friday, rather than attending gummy-bear-shot-night or whatever the latest gimmick was at the student clubs, one of my roommates and I decided to go to Dolce Vita in the San Frediano district for aperitivo; the lounge had been recommended to us by our Italian neighbors.
We found the place easily enough, but at 8:00 pm we were two of the five people there. Hesitating awkwardly in the foyer, I realized that neither of us knew how the aperitivo works nor the etiquette involved. I offered out a general ciao to the waitresses standing nearby, hoping that they would give us some indication as to whether we were supposed to order our drinks at the bar, sit at a table, or who knows, just continue to stand around awkwardly. We finally decided to grab a table and see if a server would come by. Many did, though they all threw us bewildered glances, as though we had just casually commenced to have a picnic in the middle of the floor. When we realized no one was going to approach us, we went to the bar and asked for two glasses of wine. The bartender returned with them promptly, informing us to wait for a server at the table next time.
Our drinks secured, I walked up to the small buffet with a smile on my face-I was in fact happy in all this confusion. Coming to Europe, I was anticipating a fair amount of daily disorientation. However, living in a tourist area that makes all aspects of life painfully convenient for Americans eliminates much of that precious culture shock. I believe the study abroad students here would benefit from being confused more often.
The lounge offered a small dinner of pasta, risotto, pizza and a couple unidentifiable seafood dishes. It was reasonably filling and probably worth the cost of the drink. After our first plates we returned to the bar saw that in 15 minutes the place had suddenly come to life and was packed with what had to be close to 100 people, a chic business crowd all sporting painstakingly up-to-date fashions. Soon the tables around us were filled with Italians chatting, laughing, and yelling over the music. If there was another American there, we could not tell.
We began to talk with some people at a nearby table and they invited us to come over and sit with them. We carried on a pleasantly bilingual conversation for a few hours, covering such topics as the best places to travel in Italy, and the difference between Italians and Americans when they dress to go out (for Italians, it is essential to dress elegantly; Americans tend to dress casually). At first I was worried and slightly embarrassed about my marginal Italian language skills, but one our new friends, Mario, assured me that Italians will notice and appreciate the effort, even if the grammar isn't perfect.
We chatted some more before I had to call it an early night because of plans the next day. We were reluctant to leave, but my roommate exchanged phone numbers with our acquaintances and there was talk about meeting up again some time. As we left, I felt that I had finally found my way into Florentine culture-even if only for a night out.