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Thu 27 Nov 2008 1:00 AM

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


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
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.



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