A Foreigner’s Guide to Surviving Winter in Italy

Like a fart that lingers long after the perpetrator has left the elevator….WE’RE STILL HERE AND WE’RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE.  Your favorite troupe of wandering bloggers formally called C.O.S.I–Crazy Observations by Stranieri in Italy— has adopted a “Winter Theme” to dissect this month. Now before you start having flashbacks of the hideous paper snowflakes decorating your high school Prom night, stop right there. If you’re planning on visiting Italy or are already living here, you might want to heed the wise words of Game of Thrones hottie Jon Snow–WINTER IS COMING.

Lucky for you, I’ve prepared this handy step-by-step guide for foreigners to surviving winters in Italy.

Step 1: Get some Wine.

This is obviously the easiest and most effective strategy for staying warm in Italy during the winter. There’s a reason that the wine harvest happens in November, people. Stock up now–If you are worried about storage (a valid concern here, considering the shoebox size of many Italian abodes), may I suggest storing it in handy places such as the insides of shoes?

I never throw shoes away, even the ugliest ones have their uses…

Step 2: Adopt a four-legged friend to cuddle during the cold winter months.

This is a really good strategy for beating both the freezing cold and seasonal depression all rolled up in one. I recommend adopting two animals and teaching them to fall asleep on your feet, thereby eliminating the need for socks or additional space heaters.

Adopt your furry space heater today!

Step 3: Eat spicy foods.

It is a well known fact that eating spicy foods will not only help you stay warm but also Gisele Bündchen does it and maybe that is the supermodel’s secret to looking so supermodel-y. Also there is the deliciousness factor to consider, so it is a definite recommendation.

If you don’t have anything spicy in the house, a doughnut will do in a pinch.

Step 4: Make the sexy times.

The average human body has a temperature of 98.6°F (37°C) but scientific fact says that this level of heat will change dramatically once you have an Italian stallion in your bedchambers.

Step 5: Go south for the winter.

Birds are nature’s most intelligent creatures–as soon as the outdoor weather turns chilly, they pack their suitcases and sandals and jet off to Malta or Sicily or Morocco for some much deserved rest and relaxation. I like to imagine them on a beach somewhere sipping Mai Tais but then I get annoyed because they don’t have to fly RyanAir to get there.

 

And there you have it–the perfect guide for any foreigner in Italy to help you survive the cold winter months. For more classical interpretations of Winter in Italy, visit the number 1 rated (by me) page on Facebook, C.O.S.I. or check out the links below to the team’s various articles tackling this month’s Winter theme:

Rick’s Rome-How to Enjoy Winter in Italy
Girl in Florence-What to Expect When You Visit Florence in Winter
Surviving in Italy–Italy in the Winter: Baby It’s Cold Outside
Englishman in Italy–Baugna Cauda and Wine
Married to Italy
Unwilling Expat–Without Winter There Wouldn’t Be a Summer
Sex, Lies and Nutella-Surviving the Italian Winter

 

 

 

 

 

First-Aid Courses in Italy: If you’re going to drop dead, don’t do it here.

A few months ago at work, my boss brought up an opportunity to participate in a primo soccorso or first-aid course here in Florence.  I immediately jumped at the opportunity–apparently I am the only American for miles that has never been CPR certified and actually wants to learn how to mouth breathe on total strangers when they collapse in the middle of the piazza ( I blame my mother and Shonda Rhimes for getting me hooked on Grey’s Anatomy–have you SEEN how smokin’ hot everyone is on that show??).  So after filling out my application form and getting the green light to skip out on work after lunch, I trotted off happily to a nearby language school to attend my first basic life-saving skills course.

Over the next three days, my afternoons melted into a blur of Italian medical vocabulary and complete chaos.  For those of you who have never seen the inside of an Italian classroom, let me give you a little sneak peak at what to expect, also known as Utter Bollocks.*

*This is no way reflects on the teacher of my primo soccorso course, who was unfailingly professional and polite in the face of complete idiocy.

Let’s begin by examining the course itself, shall we? A simple enough concept in which several people come together in the hopes of learning some basic life-saving skills should the need ever arise, taught by a qualified professional such as a doctor or nurse.

Now we had the professoressa, a trained medico who had experience in the field of life-saving as well as in teaching this course.  This was clearly not her first rodeo, since the first thing out of her mouth was the following:

“So the course that you will be completing is registered with the state, and you will receive a certificate upon completing the 12 hours required. I won’t be letting you leave early, either, because you really have to do 12 hours in order to become certified, so don’t even ask.”

Immediately several middle-aged women in the front row of the classroom started protesting in what I’m sure they assumed to be their “indoor voices” a.k.a louder than a garbage incinerator. “But I thought that if we went through it quickly..” “Well my friend took this course and she said they got out early…” “I should probably call home to let them know I won’t be there until late..”

Undeterred, our professoressa continued on with her explanation of the course objectives, telling us that we would all be expected to pass a written test of about 30 questions as well as practicing CPR on a mannequin on the final day.  In the front row, predictably, the hands went up.

“Mi scusi…”

And so went my initiation into the Italian classroom, a place where I rapidly learned the foolishness of my desire to actually learn anything at all.  Instead, I took pictures of the Powerpoint presentation to study later in my spare time and sat back to enjoy the spectacle that is twenty middle-aged Italian women forced to sit in a classroom together for hours on end.  The questions ranged from mildly amusing to completely ridiculous, mostly centered on the one scintillating topic–Whose fault was it if someone died? Below is a favorite exchange of mine:

Woman in class: “Ok, so if I finish this course and I get the certificate, what happens if somebody starts dying in front of me and, you know, I just can’t help them?”

Professoressa: “What do you mean, you can’t do it? I’ve just taught you how to administer basic life saving techniques.”

Woman: “Well yeah, but I am a very emotional person and if I see someone collapse in front of me, I just don’t think I could do it. So if I just can’t do it, then what?”

Professoressa: “Can you use a telephone?”

Woman: “Yes, of course!”

Professoressa: “Then you can call 118 (the emergency number in Italy), which is what I’ve basically been teaching you for the past 12 hours.”

My favorite part of the primo soccorso course was our third and final day, in which everyone was required to practice CPR on the dummy unless they were quick enough with the excuse like one woman who claimed her carpal tunnel syndrome refused to allow her to participate. Luckily for her, the professoressa was so sick of us by that point that she just waved her hand in the air and got on with the rest of the class without making the woman get up and go through the act of pretend breathing into rubber Randy’s mouthpiece.  Watching everyone pound away on Randy’s chest while the others simultaneously shouted instructions at them, called them an idiot for doing it wrong and/or cheered them on was better than any medical drama on late night TV.

In short, I’d strongly advise everyone to get a thorough medical exam and maybe brush up on their physical fitness before visiting our bel paese.  You never know when you might need a competent set of fingers to push the buttons on a telephone.

Back in the USA: Some Observations on Being A Freak in Your Place of Birth

Helloooo from America, land of the free and home of the lightning fast internet speeds that have pretty much turned me into a potato chip eating, Netflix-binging shadow of my former self.  It’s been almost 8 years since I’ve spent a summer back in the motherland, and while my vacation has been a blissful combination of visiting with family and friends and enjoying some creature comforts like obscenely large jars of peanut butter and to-go boxes of food, I have noticed that in my absence a few things have changed.

Behold the ever-changing and constantly growing list of things that are now super weird to me:

  1. American toilet paper.  It’s like wiping your ass with kittens! How do they get it so soft and where can I buy some of this magical mystery fabric in Florence?
  2. The outrageously large size of the stores. They’re growing wider every day, much like my waistline.
  3. Potato chip flavors. Southern biscuits and gravy? I can almost hear my arteries clogging, but in the name of sacrifice and this blog I tried them. And by try I mean ate a whole bag and then hated myself for about 30 minutes afterwards. DAMN YOU, LAYS!!
  4. Space on the roads. Have we always had this much room in between lanes? The first time I got behind the wheel I had to fight the urge to swerve like a Mario Kart driver between lanes while shouting WEEEEEEE!!!!
  5. Strangers being nice and chatty with no ulterior motive like getting you to give them a discount or stealing your spot in line while you’re distracted.

Is it possible that I’ve turned into an Italian without even realizing it?  A few days ago I was walking around the city with my sister, looking for a place to buy a coffee and exchange some one dollar bills for coins to feed our parking meter when we passed a very unassuming shop window filled with stainless steel countertops and an empty deli window. I was about to follow her next door to an actual coffee shop when I spotted an espresso machine out of the corner of my eye, lurking behind a couple of bearded gentlemen who were chatting behind the counter.  “Hang on a minute, let’s just get a coffee in here,” I said as my sister looked at me a little strangely. I asked the guy behind the counter for a coffee and almost cried with joy when I realized THEY WERE ITALIANS!! AND THEY HAD ESPRESSO!! Turns out these two dudes were actually from Rimini and Lucca, respectively, and had literally just opened the shop a few hours ago for a prova (trial).  They were super sweet and gave me a free coffee which made me so happy I had to restrain myself from jumping across the counter and kissing their awesome Italian beardy faces.  Instead, I will thank them by shamelessly telling everyone who visits San Francisco to go to The Italian Homemade Company on Union Street.

It’s strange how out of place I’ve felt since coming back to America.  I never really considered Florence my home until people started asking me where I was visiting from and I realized that although I may have been born in California, I have spent the better part of my twenties in Italy, struggling to adapt to the habits and customs of a foreign country while simultaneously trying to navigate my post-college adulthood.  For better or worse, Italy has been with me during these defining years and has turned me into a weird half-breed of human that doesn’t quite belong in either place.  I will never be Italian, just like I’ll never identify with being just American anymore– it’s too late for that.  Anyone who has ever made a home outside of their birthplace can relate to this strange place in which I now find myself–dancing along the line that connects continents and cultures, learning to be content with existing in the space between.  Because like any good foreigner will tell you, at the end of the day it’s not really about where you come from, but where you are now that really matters.  Bonus points awarded if where you are now has extra-soft toilet paper…#AMERICA!

 

Top 5 Tips on How to Be A Good Tourist in Florence

GUYS, GUYS! THE SUN IS OUT AND FLORENCE’S WEATHER MOOD SWINGS ARE OVER!! Wiggling my toes in my Rainbow flip-flops and walking around the house in my underpants complaining about mosquitoes has never felt so good.

In other awesome news, we have been hosting a pretty special visitor to our fair city these past few weeks in the form of one Mr.Tom Hanks. You might recognize him from such films as Forrest Gump or Philadelphia, but I know him as the guy who is currently causing some of the biggest pedestrian traffic jams in Florence and really pissing me off because the only place I’ve seen him so far is on everybody else’s Instagram feeds. COME ON TOM! Throw a girl a box of chocolates or two, would ya?

In T.Hank’s honor and also because it’s that time of year, the lovely group of loony tunes expats we call COSI decided to put together a video with some tips on how to be a good tourist in Florence. Unfortunately I was super late in showing up to the party as per usual, so I’m here with the 1990’s paperback version instead.

Top Tip #1: Learn how to greet people in Italian, and then actually DO IT.

Repeat after me: “Buon Giorno is for morning, Buona sera is for night. Grazie is for leaving, remember to be polite.”

Listen, these poor Italians have to deal with incredible herds of tourists swarming into their cities day after day. The least you can do is acknowledge their existence upon entering their workplace. And possibly buy something from their shop or go on a date with their 40 year old single son who still lives at home, that one’s totally up to you. It’s amazing to me how many people just blatantly ignore the greetings of shopkeepers and baristas. SAY HELLO AND SMILE! You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes in your experiences with the locals.

Top Tip #2: Embrace the chaos.

I know that a lot of people who arrive in Florence are shocked when they see just how chaotic our city can be–dudes, even though it’s small it’s still a CITY. There is no way to completely avoid the noise, traffic, pollution, or dog poop that you will inevitably encounter. Just roll with it, trust me. You’ll be happier in the end. And bring some earplugs for safety’s sake.

Top Tip #3: Talk to the locals.

Resist the temptation to just stop at the first overpriced restaurant with outdoor seating that you see and ask around for some recommendations on where to go for the best food in your area of town. It might be a local farmer’s market where you can make your own picnic lunch with freshly picked olives and sliced salami or it might be a Mom and Pop shop around the corner from your hotel that bakes its bread fresh each morning, but you won’t know until you ask, will you?

Top tip #4: Spend your money.

I know, I know. This one’s a toughie–it’s in our nature to always look for ways to save and stretch our coin. But if you’re on the fence about it, my philosophy is just go for it. You can always make more money but you might never make it back to Italy, and that butter-soft leather bag you’ve been eyeing for 3 days will definitely double as a pillow for when you can’t afford to pay your rent and wind up sleeping on your parents couch.

Top tip #5: Channel your inner Aretha.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: There’s nothing more obnoxious than a visitor without it. While Florence can often feel like a Renaissance version of Disneyland, just remember there are some people who actually have to live here and we have no problem dumping buckets of water on your heads at 3AM out our bedroom windows if you’re being too loud. You’ve  been warned.

For more tips on how not to get your ass kicked while traveling in Italy, check out COSI’s Facebook page or any of my awesome blogging partners’ websites under the COSI tab on the homepage of this blog.

What It’s Like to Fall in Love With Italy

This post is brought to you by your favorite neighborhood blogging mafia C.O.S.I. 

So you want to know what love looks like in Italy? Well, my story might not be the most romantic, but if you’re interested in how a 22 year old California girl who’d never left home before studying abroad and eventually wound up living in Florence and dating a half-English, half-Italian bar manager….well, I already wrote about that here.

The love story I want to talk about today is my long-standing love affair with my city.  Firenze is the place I’ve called home for the past 6 years, and while there have been plenty of ups and downs along the way, there is just something about this goddamn city that I can’t stay away from, no matter how much I hate it sometimes.  Take this morning, for example.  I’ve been packing frantically like a rat high on cocaine for the past two days since I got the unexpected notice that I had to be moved out of my apartment by Feb.20th, not the end of the month like I’d originally planned. I’ve had little sleep and a jam-packed work schedule on top of this, all the while trying to ALSO pack for my vacation back to California on Thursday for one of my best friend’s weddings.

So needless to say, it’s been a stressful time in my household (Zola has taken to hiding in her corner of the couch, blissfully unaffected by the chaos around her) and this morning was no different. After being woken up at 2am to Francesco moving boxes out of the apartment, I had to be up and out the door for work at 7:30am. As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes during my walk across the Ponte Santa Trinita, I realized that in the morning light I was literally the only person around. Taking cold sips of air in through my nose, I breathed out a sigh of relief and looked around me.

sunrise ponte vecchio
Sunrise warming up the Ponte Vecchio
empty streets by the ponte vecchio
Empty streets for miles…

 

Moments like this are rare with my city, but when it happens it’s enough to stop you dead in your tracks for a brief minute.  Without the noise, the traffic, the bodies and daily chaos of the tourists clogging up the streets, this morning was a stunning reminder of why I fell in love with Italy in the first place. There’s just something there that tugs at just the right place in my heart, kind of like when you eat a lot of really spicy food…oh wait, that’s not right. Well, the obsession with one’s indigestion thing (and also the need to publicly discuss bodily functions) is probably also why I love living here too.

Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is that even though sometimes Florence can be a real bitch, I also am really going to miss her while I’m away for the next two weeks.

NOT! I’ll be sitting by the pool in San Diego with a beer in my hand laughing at all my friends who are freezing their asses off.  Sorry I’m not sorry, guys. I really need this vacation.

A presto!

Xoxo,

Gina

 

Only Masochists Live in Italy: An Observation on Possible Homelessness

Now before you go getting all uppity and self-righteous about me using the word “homeless” in the title (yes, I am aware that there are actual homeless people living in Italy, and I’m not one of them) I’d just like you to imagine for a minute what life would be like if you were on the imminent edge of, let’s say, losing your home/apartment/cave dwelling/baby momma’s grandma’s house and becoming, as they say in Italy, senza casa.

I realize that for my Italian counterparts, even the mere thought of being without a place to call home is ludicrous, because even the most orphaned of Italians surely have some sort of long-lost uncle that’s got a friend whom they can stay with for awhile, if not an entire undiscovered part of the family who is waiting breathlessly to welcome them into the family fold, chaining those well-worn catholic guilt-stained handcuffs to their blissfully ignorant wrists as the women offer to iron their underpants or at least cook them dinner. But imagine, if you will, being a foreigner or immigrant in a country where the majority of the population was born into a family home and simply never left it. Over the years (and economic cycles), the villas became houses, and the houses became apartments, and some Italians even (gasp!) left their homes and bought new ones further away in the more affordable areas of town, leaving behind the smaller, used apartments in the city center to sit empty and meaningless until the tourist boom hit Italy and suddenly, everyone wanted to live here and the rental market blew through the roof.

I bring your attention to a little-known yet often discussed problem in Florence—the housing crisis. In a city where half of the population seems to be American students who shell out thousands of dollars to universities who cater to their every whim, or foreigners looking to establish a new “home away from home”, finding an apartment in the city center can be as enjoyable as plucking your eyelashes out with red-hot tweezers. I should know—I’ve been frantically looking for a new apartment ever since the clock started ticking on my lease, and I’ve come up completely empty-handed.

You see, part of the problem is me. I know it, and the Italian landlords know it. Being American and a woman, I have a higher standard of acceptable living than most people. For starters, I expect that an apartment on the rental market will have a few basic components to it that enable someone to, in fact, call it an apartment and not a glorified hole. For example, when an Italian landlord describes their apartment as “charming”, we both know that what he really means is “shit-small but in a good area of town”. Or if someone says that their apartment is “unfurnished”, it means that you’re literally going to have to put in all the appliances, oven, stove, toilets, and all the other furniture and junk that goes with living in a habitable environment. These are things that I understand and expect from renting an apartment in Italy.

However, when someone says that an apartment has a full-functioning bathroom, I do not expect to take a shower while sitting on my toilet and brushing my teeth. Nor do I wish to pay two-thirds of my paycheck in order to do so.

Introducing...the scary shower/toilet/sink combo, all in one!
Introducing…the scary shower/toilet/sink combo, all in one!

Also, guys, let’s be honest—the entire selling point of an apartment is in the photos, right? I mean, you wouldn’t think that someone would put up a shitty looking picture of their apartment if they wanted it to get rented…right?

blurry bathroom pic scary apartment 1

These are actual apartments in Florence, everyone. And these landlords are laughing their asses off all the way to the bank with your security deposit, because no self-respecting Italian would put up with this shit in a million years, and everyone knows it but you.

So while I’ve contemplated which cardboard box I’ll be using to set up camp underneath the Ponte Vecchio once I get kicked out of this place I’m at now, I’m content with the fact that I won’t give up on my pursuit of the perfect apartment.  If I have to rompere a few palle on my way towards the top, so be it. Maybe one day I’ll start a legacy of apartment rentals so kick-ass, I’ll be like the Damon Pope of Florence.

New Year’s Eve in Florence, Or As I Like To Call It, The Italian Hunger Games

Capodanno, or New Year’s Eve for all us foreigners, is a celebration so rowdy and raucous that only the most seasoned of veterans can survive. This shitshow usually involves some sort of dinner with friends, in which copious amounts of prosecco are involved, and a giro walking around the city, possibly stopping off at a bar or pub where the cover charge isn’t too expensive to take shots of whiskey to ward off the chill December night. The night culminates in people throwing bottles into the street and chucking firecrackers at each other in the piazzas, drunk and in love with life and laughter filling the air.

Needless to say, New Year’s Eve in Florence kicks ass.

Now I realize that not everybody is prepared to conquer such a night themselves, which is why I’ve compiled this trusty list to get you through the evening in one piece. Here goes:

Rule #1: To Survive the Italian Hunger Games, You Must Adequately Fuel Yourself.

Now everybody knows that in order to sustain a night of heavy drinking, you must consume enough food to get you through to your 4am kebab. My suggestions in order to keep the night from burning too big of a hole in your wallet is to avoid the €75 fixed menus peppering the town and stick to the tried and true aperitivo. This way, you get to start off the night by both drinking and eating, a surefire way to kick start a buzzed night.

Rule #2: Arm yourselves with some trusty weapons.

No, seriously. Do it. Go to a tabacchi in Sant’Ambrogio the day before and load up on sparklers, firecrackers and rocket bombs. You’re gonna want these later when all hell breaks loose in Piazza Signoria , trust me.

Rule #3: Keep your friends close, and your enemies far far away.

Grab as many close acquaintances as possible to start your evening out with. Chances are that half of them won’t make it to midnight, and you’ll want to be with at least one person that you know and trust enough to get your ass out of a jam if people start getting too crazy.

As for your enemies, know them and keep them at a distance. Get sloppy when drinking tequila? Avoid it. Tend to rage a little too hard when hitting the vodka bottle with your girls? Stick to prosecco and pass on the clear stuff. Nothing’s worse than waking up on New Year’s Day with a pounding headache, 10 angry voicemails on your phone and a notification informing you that you’ve just been de-friended on Facebook by your mother.

Rule #4: Map out your plan of attack for the evening’s festivities.

If you and your friends can create a loose idea of which bars you want to visit and what area of town you want to stick to, you’re more likely to be able to find each other again at the end of the night when you’re drunk and get separated because you decided you just had to take a picture with you holding a sparkler sitting on the back of the bronze porcellino wild boar statue in Piazza di Mercato Nuovo.

Rule #5: When the clock strikes Midnight, run like hell.

And kiss the nearest person straight on the mouth cause IT’S NEW YEARS, BITCHES.

Have fun, you filthy animals. I hope you all have a fantastic and phenomenal new year, and thanks as always for reading all the nonsense that I write.

May the odds be ever in your favor.