Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A shadow will follow you

We can't escape the stereotype of the ugly Americans.
Florentines are thankful for the goodness of tourism and what it does for their economy. But deep down, they don't really like to be invaded day in and day out, especially by loud, inconsiderate visitors.
I have seen several American tourists expecting the Italians to speak English or to bring you a glass of water as soon as you sit down in a restaurant. We are in a different country, a different culture.
Unfortunately we can't escape the image we have worked on for years. We are loud even when entering a church. Underage US teens are eager to consume alcohol. We like it when Italians hit on us for a quickie. Loud, drunk, promiscuous. I know, it's unfair. Not all of us do that but some of us do.

A matter of real estate

I got stopped by tourists today and asked for directions. “I am not from here but I can help you. Where are you going”?
“To la stazione,” one of the four fair-skinned women said with a British accent.
“Do you have a map?” I asked.
They smiled while keeping their distance. Then I realized they were not as close as Italians get to you.
Everything is so close together in Florence—the city of flowers—where you hardly see flowers or trees, at least in the historical center, mostly covered by stone, cement, marble and metal. People walk with determination but not as if they were in a hurry to get anywhere. I see an array of expressions on the faces of the locals; there are not just smiles. I can observe contemplation, parsimony, peace and a touch of boredom, probably because of the daily routine.
Bodies, faces, cars, bicycles, armpit odor, breaths are in constant contact with you. A smell of urine at the corner of Piazza della Anunziata crosses my path. It doesn’t particularly bother me but it is definitely different from the space notion we have in the American Midwest. However, a person needs to be much more aware of the surroundings. Sometimes I think we need a second set of eyes on the back of our heads. Everything from a car, a bike, a scooter, a pedestrian or even a “little Gypsy thief” —as the carabinieri (police) said— can come out of nowhere.
Streets are narrow and sidewalks even narrower. I think about a Hummer trying to get through one of these streets at the same time thousands of tourists roam around the city in search of Michelangelo, Raffaello, Brunelleschi and Botticelli while carrying their cameras and water bottles.

Cappuccino, the morning drink

In the United States we love to have a cappuccino, that foamy coffee and milk hot drink, sprinkled with cocoa powder. We have it anytime during the day and I have seen a lot of people asking for one during their afternoon breaks and even after dinner.
Last weekend while visiting the Corriere della Sera offices (the main Italian newspaper) in Milan, my host, design editor Bruno Delfino and foreign affairs editor Paolo Lepri took me to the cafeteria of the famous paper to have an espresso, in order to “wake” up.
“What about a cappuccino?” I asked mischeviously. Paolo smiled and said: “If you ask for a cappuccino after 12 [noon] we know you are a tourist.”

One, little two, little three, little dishes

Antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, dolci and caffè would be the food order in Italy.
It seems like a lot of food, but remember that they come in small portions.
On a daily routine, Italians have a primo that it's usually pasta and a secondo which is some kind of protein: beef, chicken, fish or cheese. The contorno or side-dish comes separate, so get prepared to pay for it additionally when you go to a restaurant. Everything comes on a different plate.
This order can be a little confusing for other westerners. To have a salad not as a first dish but after the secondo? To have cheese after the pasta?
Well, I have learned to follow the host country habits because it makes for a more authentic cultural experience. I would rather not be singled-out or laughed at because of my ignorance. Before coming to Italy I did some research about the culture.
I would recommend not to even think about asking for chicken cacciatore or Chicago pizza. You can always go to McDonald's (if you get really desperate) which has become quite popular.

Your clothes say who you are

I was talking to an American student about how to blend with the Italians in Florence and realized it is not an easy task.
That so-called “European look” seems to be true. Tighter and more stylish clothes, a supposedly casual hairstyle that does not exaggerate in its preciseness and a smooth and confident walk could describe some of the Italian characteristics. Also, the Italians I have observed are thinner and some of their clothing accessories can be flashier.
Despite this flashiness, women tend to cover up a little more than we do in the U.S. Their sexiness comes more from their attitude than from their uncovered flesh.
If you are trying to blend in, avoid wide t-shirts and sweat pants. Leave your jewelry for your piercings at home, and cover your tattoos.
Men wear long pants even in the oppressive heat of summer. Light jackets seem to be the compliment to the pants. I just can’t be an Italian in the summer… no jackets for me.

I want to ride my bicycle

During the first two weeks of class I walked to the school. It took me 20 minutes to navigate through people, vendors, dogs and different kinds or means of transportation in those diagonal, zig-zaggy, narrow Florence streets.
All that walking really kept the weight off from all those cheeses, pastas and delicious breads.
Last Friday I decided to ride the bike my landlady had loaned me. Somehow scared about the traffic I decided to give it a try. All of a sudden I identified more with the city.
Florentines walk and ride their bikes everywhere: school, work, the supermarket. You can see people from all ages moving on two wheels, day and night.
“Just look for a post and lock the bike,” Marta, the landlady told me. “It won’t be stolen; it’s an old bike,” she added.
Now I go to the school and the supermarket by bike. There is a little problem though: to find parking, I mean a post, since there are bikes everywhere.

Time after time

In Italy, time is a malleable concept. 9 a.m. could turn into 9:10 or 5 p.m. could increase by 15 minutes.
No big deal.
Nevertheless, you will probably get a text message saying that your companion will be delayed.
So don’t get too anal about punctuality when you are not in class. Remember, this is not the United States where people arrive at least 10 minutes prior to the time agreed. That pisses Italians off.
On the other hand, don’t expect waiters to give you the bill in the middle of your dining experience and say: “whenever you are ready.” That is rude. The beauty of an Italian dining experience is not just eating savory food but spend time talking and talking. Conversation becomes the main course.

1 dollar to pee

Getting a bathroom in Florence is not as easy as we are used to in the United States. Of course you can always ask the ristorante or trattoria to let you use their facilities, but it’s up to them whether they allow you or not.
However, there are a few public restrooms around the city but you gotta pay.
After arriving to the Milano Centrale train station I felt the urge. I walked around without being able to find a bathroom. Didn’t see any information office so I approached a money exchange kiosk and asked for directions. “Alla destra,” (to the right) I was told.
When I saw the universal bathroom icons I smiled. Then I faced reality. 70 Euro cents to get in, which is a little bit over one dollar.
In Venice, your waste gets more expensive: 1 Euro.

Pigeons aren’t flying rats

You’ll find pigeons everywhere in Florence. Pensive marble statues, intricate wrought iron fences, elaborate building cornices become places where they land, rest, court and copulate.
Florentines seem to cohabitate with them in a peaceful way, at least more democratically than we do it in the U.S. They don’t try to chase them away. Pigeons seem to add some charm to the old city. They have become more used to human presence and do not shy away from us. Tourists feed them with crumbs when we stop to rest under the shade, and get some water to hydrate our sweaty and tired bodies.
These birds frolic peacefully in the water of fountains and fly close to us looking for anything we can offer them, maybe in exchange of allowing us to visit their ancient city.

Caffè, coffee anyone?

I was raised with coffee. I think my mom mixed coffee with the milk in my bottle when I was a toddler.
So Florence is a paradise to me; coffee shops everywhere.
When I came to grad school in the US my coffee experience kind of sucked. Back in the early 90s coffee was weak and bitter. My Mexican friend used to call it “sock water.” I am very glad for the Starbucks revolution.
But there is a difference in Florence, well, in Italy. People drink a lot of coffee but in small —and strong— amounts. Don’t look for the tall, grande or venti versions. I haven’t been able to find them.
Coffee, call it espresso, macchiato, corto, lungo, cappuccino, ristretto, caffè latte, come in small cups, and if you have it sitting down at a coffee bar, at more expensive prices. Yes, sitting down in a café costs more money. I guess you are using the little space they have available in this old city.
Taking a rest during one of these tiring days walking around the city looking for unusual images I had an espresso at a coffee bar in Piazza di Santo Spirito, on the Oltrarno (the other side of the Arno river.) 2.50 Euro. Do the math. $4.25 dollars for a shot of coffee. If you go to the famous Caffè Gilli in Piazza della Repubblica you would be paying 4 euro. Ouch.
So, I have my “venti” caffe latte at home every morning, much cheaper and fulfilling. Or in moments of “need” for that extra oomph, I pay 30 Euro cents for a macchiato, from a coffee machine at the Lorenzo de’ Medici school.
Don’t cringe. The coffee is decent despite coming in a plastic cup.