I am grateful to be staying in a friend’s apartment near the San Lorenzo market in Florence. At dusk, the vendors’ carts are put to bed in the garages that line the street below. At dawn, they will reverse the process and wheel the carts back to the market in order to supply the tourists with scarves, Pinocchios, belts, purses and other trinkets.
Suddenly, there is a commotion inside my building coming from my neighbor’s flat, one flight down. I hear loud voices in the stairway. Was there another earthquake that I somehow missed? Are they preparing to evacuate? The ruckus continues, but I can’t make out what they are saying. Then it hits me. They are merely saying goodnight.
The dinner guests are beginning to leave. It seems that Italians hate to say goodbye. They draw the process out for as long as possible. It becomes a battle of wills: who will make the first move to depart? Who will fall asleep at the dinner table? (Usually it’s me.) There is a contest between host and guest with invisible rules I am only beginning to understand.
When I am a houseguest in an Italian home, I often cook for a large group of friends. They seem to like my different style of cooking and my grandmother’s potato kugel is a big hit, requested repeatedly. I have added carrots and zucchini to the basic potato and onion recipe. Sometimes I make a French Daube, marinating the beef in brandy and juniper before adding orange peel.
After the dessert, grappa and coffee are served and we sit around the table taking in each other’s measure. Who will be the first one to suggest leaving? Whose head will slowly rest on the wooden table? Conversations continue, but are punctuated by long pauses. I busy myself stacking and clearing dishes, an activity that often works across the Atlantic, one step towards rudeness, but not as bad as dousing the lights. But here in Italy this does not hasten any guest’s departure.
I consider going up to my bedroom, changing into pajamas and returning to the table, but even I cannot be that crass. I am a guest here after all. Something is happening that I cannot begin to understand.
An hour passes. Guests are slumped at the table, feet up on vacant chairs. When suddenly, as if by some secret signal, everyone is on their feet. There will be a mass exodus. But not so fast. This exit has rules, standing and very slowly edging towards the door, goodbyes not quite said, merely hinted at.
The entire party moves outside to the cars and more parting words are exchanged. The process, from the mass rising to car doors slamming, takes 30 minutes minimum to 45 minutes maximum.
I have been aware of this phenomenon ever since I first started socializing with Italians eight years ago. I realize now that my neighbors downstairs are not in crisis; they are merely beginning the dance of saying goodbye.
Maybe it will take me eight more years to understand the reasons. In the meantime I will clear the dishes, put out the cat, continue to observe—and think of new recipes my Italian friends might enjoy.