Spring is for lovers – and exchange students

Taking it slowly in Piazza Santa Croce

Mikki Bard
May 18, 2006

Walking through a tiny and overpriced grocery on Via dei Neri last Friday, I spotted the perfect basil plant. It sat there, right beside the massive red peppers and fresh pasta, begging to be part of a caprese salad. Studying and living here in Florence has helped me pick up some cooking skills by osmosis. But I didn't pay three euro simply for some basil to throw into a recipe. This slippery, green-leaved plant represented something romantic and exciting: it signified the arrival of spring in Florence. I had an instant surge of cheerfulness. My remaining month would be one of good times with good people in the Tuscan sunshine.


As I walked out of the shop, picturing this symbolic herb on my terrace, everyone seemed to share my mood. They were thinking of springtime, too. I stepped into a Kodak store to pick up some batteries for my digital camera. The man at the desk didn't wear that bored gaze you so often see on pimply teenagers working in photo stores in the U.S. He was at least 65 years old. He and his wife, who was picking lint off of his jacket, owned the store. ‘Buona sera', they warmly greeted me. Noticing the basil, they both started talking at the same time, a shared Italian rant about ‘basilico, primavera, che bello...' I declined the small bag they offered me for my batteries but I was not able to deter them from lovingly placing my popular little plant in a sturdy bag with handles to transport it safely to my terrace.


Immediately after leaving the photo store, I ditched the bag so that my basil could draw more friendly conversations with the Santa Croce locals. I stepped into another grocery, a place where you find great pasta for three euro. This time I wanted some semi-aged pecorino cheese. As I peered into the curved display case, two Italian men moved very close to me. I turned towards them, ready to sneer for invading my personal space (as a true modern American woman would) - my routine response to the ‘ciao bella' men. One of them proceeded to move even closer, sticking his nose into the leaves of the basil: ‘Che bel basilico', he purred in an ambiguously sweet yet seductive way. This comment drew laughter from me and his friend. He had pulled off the perfect compliment - ¬was he after me or my plant?


The sweetness in his voice made me regret my routine meanness to flirtatious Italian men. I heard a certain nostalgia and tone of respect in his voice. It was as if that plant reminded him of wholesome things: nonna's Tuscan herb garden on the terrace; mama's famous pesto at Sunday pranzo; in short, the harbinger of spring and the remembrance of long meals enjoyed with family. Whether or not he was trying to charm me, it definitely worked.


Finally, I peered into Osteria de' Pazzi (Restaurant of the Crazy People) across the street and located my favorite waiter; he was moving platters of raw bistecca around to the hungry locals. Lapo teaches my Tuscan wine course. He is the embodiment of modern Florentine fashion (lots of orange and stripes) and has supreme knowledge of all things Italian. He didn't look too busy so I caught his eye and waved ‘Ciao!' a little shyly through the thick glass window. Lapo broke into a huge smile and waved wildly as a friendly child would atop a tour bus. He rushed out to see me and we exchanged a solid American handshake and then some Italian cheek-kissing. He noticed the big basil plant in my arms: ‘Ah, basilico!' he exclaimed. ‘Do you cook?' His eyes literally sparkled-I had never seen or heard him so enthusiastic.


Yes, I think I have finally integrated a bit into Italian life. I walk so confidently that Italians ask me for directions. I can tell if a wine is ready to drink. I know not to expect cheap San Lorenzo sunglasses to remain intact. I always beat other Standa shoppers to those prized red baskets. Sadly, my Italian grammar is still awful. On the positive side, knowing only present tense conjugations has forced me to stay in the moment - no past regrets or future plans for me in these last weeks. I'm just going to sit up on my terrace with my basil plant, shelling some peanuts and listening to my neighbors share gossip through their kitchen windows. That, my friends, is la dolce vita.



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