Searching for the “Real” Italy

When my good friend Georgette from Girl in Florence approached me about collaborating on a group discussion on the topic of authenticity and Italy, I was a bit skeptical.  Talking about the “realness” of this jumbled country is not an easy task, and to be honest I didn’t know whether or not I would even be able to organize my own constantly fluctuating opinions into something even remotely worth reading.  However, the great thing about writing on a computer is that you, my dear reader, will never know how many times I erased the stupid things I was putting down on the screen and only have to suffer through the next few paragraphs until you get bored of me and can start scrolling on Buzzfeed for more interesting crap like babies who look like drunk people.  Now stop stalling and pay attention to what I’m saying because it’s important if you ever want to understand why an authentic Italy doesn’t exist.

So here we are, searching for an authentic Italy. The real Italy. The one that we’ve recently started reading about in travel magazines, or hearing about from our friends who invite us over for a home-cooked Italian dinner taken straight from their recipe book bought in Rome.  We sigh enviously when we see those stunning photographs of the Amalfi coastline from our neighbors’ summer vacation, imagining ourselves stretched out on those sun-drenched beaches and languidly floating in the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.  We swoon over ruby glasses of wine brought back from Tuscan farms, exclaiming over the marvelous quality and taste of the balsamic vinegars and golden oils given to us as gifts from returning visitors, wondering how in the world such a place could even exist.  And with a sudden start, we realize that all this time, the Italy we thought we knew is another creature entirely.  We wonder if perhaps we don’t know as much about this distant land as we once thought. And suddenly, before we even have time to process it, the seed is planted—desire, that curious little spark that unfurls its tendrils and quietly seeps into your heart.

And slowly, after months of dissatisfaction at our ordinary lives, the longing becomes so unbearable that we must act.  We must visit this mythical country for ourselves.We scan the internet for flight deals, talking to everyone we meet about the best time of year to visit, what we should see and do while we’re there, taking recommendations for restaurants and daydreaming about rooms that are stacked floor to ceiling with strands of golden pasta hanging out to dry.  We pack our suitcases weeks in advance, armed with guidebooks and lists from trusted friends who have been there before, counting down the days to departure.

When the big day arrives, we manage to get all the way through connecting airports until we are being waved through customs in Italy by a bored-looking older gentleman who doesn’t even stamp our passports, only flicking through them with a cursory glance before glancing over our heads to the next person in line behind us.  We cram our bodies into tiny Fiats, allowing ourselves to be driven into a winding maze of shrinking alleyways at breathtaking speeds, craning our necks as we glimpse the dizzying heights of ancient buildings whizzing past us.  And as we venture out into the streets for the first time, a sinking feeling starts to wash over us as we realize that perhaps we may have been mistaken entirely.

Because surely this cramped, chaotic mess can’t be the same idyllic place from the photographs. The place in the photographs didn’t have shouting street vendors on every corner, hounding you as you walk down the littered streets.  And it must be impossible to grow such delicious food with the lingering cloud of cigarette smoke and bus pollution permeating the air. Why, we can’t even walk down the staircase without stepping over discarded ashes and empty beer bottles, let alone sleep with all that noise outside our window at all hours of the night! Impossible, we say.  It’s not the same place.  We can’t even get the internet to work in our tiny rented flat—how on earth can these people survive?! Surely there is some mistake.

So we rent a car, thinking to move to the countryside, or out to the edges of the sea. And we sigh with relief. Yes, this is better, much better, we think to ourselves as we hastily pack the last of our souvenirs into our bursting suitcases and thank the taxi driver who carries them all the way back down the stairs again (but not tipping him for all his hard work, no, because our guide book says all the real Italians never tip for these kinds of things).  And as we pull away from the cities in our rented Fiats, our hands grip the steering wheel tightly as we try to manuever our way out of town, cussing loudly at the insane drivers around us who honk and swerve around us as we desperately try to follow our GPS directions. But wait—wasn’t that the sign for our exit back there? How do you know? The same sign is pointing in 3 different directions, and we’ve definitely gone through this roundabout at least 2 other times. Are we lost? Oh god, what have we gotten ourselves into?

As our frustration and blood pressure level rises with each passing kilometer, we complain amongst ourselves.  How can these people get anything done, we ask? Everything is so much more difficult than it ought to be.  There are no clear directions anywhere, everything is so confusing and complicated, and every time you ask someone for directions you get a different answer! We throw our hands up in the air in defeat. Fine, we concede.  We just have to get through the next few days and then we will finally be home where everything makes sense.  We stop at a roadside restaurant, staring dejectedly at our plates of cold sandwiches and Coca-Colas in defeat. This is definitely not the authentic Italian experience we were looking for, we think sadly as we climb back into our overstuffed rental car, staring moodily out the window as we drive through miles of industrialized towns.

And then suddenly, without warning, we turn the corner and are driving along the most beautiful stretch of road we have ever seen in our lives.  We gasp with excitement, pulling over on the side of the road and hitting our hazard lights, not caring about the honks from exasperated drivers behind us as we snap picture after picture of the glittering blue sea stretched out for miles ahead, hugging the cliffs where brightly colored apartments are stacked precariously along the edge, forming an impossible Tetris combination of ancient architecture and land. A peaceful feeling washes over us, soothing the jagged bits of anger and resentment that’s been lingering in our hearts over the past few days as we watch the sun sink down into a blanket of sapphire water, lighting up the sky with a comforting golden glow. And we smile as we realize that perhaps we are experiencing a moment of pure authenticity that has nothing to do with Italy, but with our own satisfaction instead.

This post has been a collaboration with #italyroundtable and your favorite blogging misfit group #COSItaly. Read on for more!

Jessica – Where is this “authentic Italy” everyone’s looking for?
Gloria – The odd woman out’s view on “authentic Italy”
Rebecca – Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro
Alexandra – Art and Travel: the authenticity of seeing art in person
Melanie – Everything Is Authentic
Kate – On being authenticated
Michelle – Living Authentically: How Italy Forced the Issue
Georgette of Girl in Florence-
Pete of Englishman in Italy – “How Authentic an Italian are you?”
Rick of Rick’s Rome: “The Authentic Italian Culture Debate”
Andrea of Sex, Lies and Nutella: “How to be an authentic Italian (in 9 simple steps)”
Married to Italy – The fear of the fake: What “authenticity” means to a foreigner in a strange land
Surviving in Italy – What does it mean to be Authentically Italian?
Unwilling Expat – Leading an authentic life in Sicily

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.

London, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

The past few days I’ve been happily trotting around London for a training trip with work, blissfully unaware of the chaos that reigned unchecked in my absence from Italy. Case in point—my boyfriend’s mother, who tripped and broke FIVE of her bottom front teeth, or the bizzare earthquake that rumbled through Florence accompanied by several baby aftershocks. Friends broke up with their significant others, others quit their jobs, and I returned from the hustle and bustle of England’s most cosmopolitan city finding that in just a few short days, everything had gone ass-over-elbow instead.

Before we go any deeper into what happened in Italy while I was away, let’s start off by saying this—I was more excited about visiting London in December than a fat kid in line at a Las Vegas buffet. Have you guys ever seen that “Friends” episode where every 30 seconds, Joey blurts out “IT’S LONDON, BABY!”? Yeah, that’s me.

london baby friends

Anyway, the entire morning before our flight I was like a little kid at Christmas with ants in my pants. I must have taken about 20 pictures at the airport even BEFORE we got on the plane, which thoroughly embarrassed my co-worker, but I was just SO EXCITED. It’s London, baby. And then, I got off the plane and immediately changed my mind.

Here’s the thing—I’m a small town girl. I grew up in California, but in the suburbs surrounded by lots of grass and places to ride my bicycle. And then I moved to Europe, which opened up my mind in a whole new way, but still—I live in Florence. If you’ve ever been here for more than 3 months, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a small town, where everybody knows everybody else and you float around in your security blanket because there’s a pretty good chance that even if you do end up face down in the Arno, at least one person will recognize your disgusting bloated corpse after you wash up along the dams at Ponte Vittoria.

London, on the other hand, is a whole different universe. I stepped off the train at Victoria station and into a sheer madhouse of bodies all rushing past me, elbows held out aggressively from their bodies to check the never-ending tide of people crushing in around them. Shrinking back from the waves of chaos, I stood timidly in the middle of the train station, anxiously looking around for my co-worker, who was fearlessly charging ahead through the masses of people, confident in her knowledge of the city seeing as how she had already lived there and knew the ropes. I, on the other hand, spent the next 3 days alternately bemused, shocked and thoroughly bewildered as I attempted to keep up with the mayhem.

In the few quiet moments before the sky lightened enough to feel like daytime, I meandered through the neighborhoods near our posh Kensington hotel, admiring the classic white Victorian buildings and soaking in the English charm. This was what I had been hoping for, not the panicked feeling I got every time we had to brave the hoardes of people while taking the tube.

 After a whirlwind few days of meetings, parties and pubs, I was more than ready to be back on a plane heading to Florence.  Although I had enjoyed my brief glimpse of the city, the sparse daylight hours and stressful atmosphere of London’s city streets had worn me out.  And then, of course, I just had to go through security at London Gatwick and fall into the 21st century a.k.a shopping Wonderland, where not even the joys of getting felt up by the airport security lady could compare to the glee I felt when I saw all the mini travel-sized toiletries lined up before me.

Seriously, Italy–is it too much to ask to stick in a Boots or a Waitrose’s every once in awhile?  You sure know how to break a girl’s heart.

I’m not quite sure how I’d describe my feelings towards London after my all-too-brief encounter with the city, but I do know that I’d like to go back and continue exploring it one day.  For now, though, I’m perfectly content to be sitting on my couch at home in Florence with Zola at my feet, with a BBC documentary on TV and my Cadbury’s chocolate in hand.

“Nobody Leaves The Table Until They’ve Eaten So Much That They Hate Themselves”–Observations on Eating in Italy

“Nobody leaves the table until they’ve eaten so much that they hate themselves.”  Even after years of eating some of the best food Italy has to offer, this is the one quote (said by a good friend after a painfully long and indulgent meal) that has stuck with me the most.  Trying to describe what it’s like to eat the regional food in Florence would take years, and to be honest I wouldn’t even know where to begin.  How do you explain the feeling of biting into a ripe tomato so juicy that it explodes in your mouth the second it hits your tongue?  What words can one use to describe the dazzling array of colors in the vegetables spread out so lovingly across the stalls of Sant’Ambrogio?  I’ll tell you what you do–you stop thinking and start eating.  A lot.

Have you ever seen something so RED in your whole life?!
Have you ever seen something so RED in your whole life?!

The thing is, not that many Italians are fat.  In fact, pretty much none of them are.  They’re all just regular people who happen to have kick-ass metabolisms groomed after centuries of poverty and disaster.  After spending years picking up the pieces that Mussolini and WW2  left behind, it’s no surprise that they would want to celebrate.  And what better way to celebrate than with food?

Tuscans are particularly good at this skill of turning pretty much nothing into something amazing.  Take a handful of stale bread, some leftover beans, the wilting bits of cavolo nero from the pitiful garden harvest and BAM! You’ve got yourself a stew called Ribollita, baby.  No need for fancy spices or hours on end.  You make use of everything you’ve got, because you never know when that stock will run out.  And when you make food, you make A LOT of it.  You know, cause you’ve got to feed the neighbors and stuff, too.

antipasti
That’s just the appetizer plate…

 

Every region in Italy has its own particular “brand” of food–from the steaming mussel soups of the Ligurian coastline to the thick doughy pizzas of Campagna.  The Tuscan brand is farming, from the groves of olive trees swollen with green fruit to the creamy white cows grazing along the hillsides that end up as prime cuts of bistecca in Florence’s most upscale restaurants.  Wine, vegetables, meat–if you can grow it out in the countryside, it’s probably coming from Tuscany.  If not, it probably tastes like shit.

The problem is that now my whole perception of food has been ruined.  I used to love munching away on a piece of string cheese (ask my mom, she used to buy like 5 packets a week) or a microwaved Hot-Pocket, but now I can actually tell the difference between processed foods and fresh ones so it kind of sucks for me because I’m way pickier when it comes to eating.  That being said, I also eat a lot more weird stuff, like cow’s stomach and fat spread onto a piece of bread and wild boar, because if you live in Florence for any length of time you’ll inevitably come across a Florentine who will shove it down your throat because “YOU HAVE TO TRY THIS AT LEAST ONCE, TRUST ME.  I’M FROM FLORENCE.”

So if you’re planning on coming to Tuscany at any point in your life, you’ve been warned–pack your stretchy pants and say goodbye to your waistline.  From the salty schiacciata flatbread to that first crisp sip of Chianti Classico, you’ll understand one day when I say that every bite is an adventure.

This post is part of a series on different food regions in Italy from your friendly neighborhood bloggers C.O.S.I.  For more stories like this, click here.

 

“Shut your mouth, pussycat, and Fammi un macchiato.”

You guys ever troll the internet looking for things to occupy yourself with (obviously in the attempt to avoid doing actual work) and happen upon an absolute gem of a video that you’d completely forgotten you’d seen 2 or 3 years ago?

If you don’t enjoy the following, you probably shouldn’t ever come to Italy because sadly this is about as good as it gets entertainment-wise for folks around here.  Also, very handy in practicing your Italian for those times where you want your woman to shut up and make you a macchiato, or just prance about twirling your moustache and cackling to yourself.