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!

 

What Nobody Tells You About Living in the Top-Rated City in The World

Our bella Firenze was recently awarded the #1 spot for Conde Nast Traveler’s readers choice awards as the top rated city in the world.  I know, I know–it’s almost as surprising as finding out Elton John is gay.  But while the 70,000+ readers who voted for Florence as the world’s best city were busy swooning over the ornate architecture of Brunelleschi’s Duomo and chowing down on overpriced panini at the newly rennovated San Lorenzo market, I couldn’t help but shake my head as I thought to myself, What a load of horseshit.

Now don’t get me wrong–I love Florence just as much as the next wistful American post-graduate who steps off the plane with fantasies about Ferragamo shoes and getting swept away into the Tuscan countryside on a red Vespa by a dark-eyed Italian man.  But I’m also a journalist at heart, which means when I smell bullshit I have to stop and check everyone’s shoes to see who tracked the poop indoors–so forgive me, but something smells like crap and I’m pretty sure it’s Florence.

Perhaps it’s the lack of meaningful criteria on the voting scale (of which Conde Nast’s website explains only the bare minimum based on a scale of “excellent” to “poor”) or just the ignorance of thousands of tourists who pass through Florence each day cocooned in the protective bubble of their guided groups, but to me Florence falls woefully short of deserving the title of a top-rated city.  I could cite the dizzyingly high unemployment rates that plague the country as a whole, or the rampant corruption & narcissistic values that seem to pervade Italian government or culture as a whole, but to be honest that’s not what bothers me the most.  What burns my insides is the perpetuated idea that Florence can survive being placed on an impossibly high pedestal built solely on pretty things and ignorant people.

Allow me to explain what life in this top-rated city really looks like (bearing in mind, of course, that my experience as an expatriate is immensely different than that of my Italian friends).  It’s walking into a coffee shop and being undressed by the eyes of several leering men, or being charged an extra euro because the shop owner thinks you’re just another stupid tourist with blonde hair who won’t notice the difference.  It’s spending a fun night out with Italian friends that turns into a 2 hour argument because you’re trying to explain why it’s offensive when someone uses the word nigger like it’s no big deal.  It’s having a university degree and a desperate desire to work yet getting passed over on a job interview because you don’t play football with the owner’s son. It’s catering to the daily throngs of tourists who believe that paying their entrance fees to the Uffizi gives them the right to act like drunken animals and destroy priceless works of art at 3 am with broken bottles of Peroni and puddles of vomit.

Being a tourist is not an acceptable excuse for being an asshole, just like being Italian is not a reason to shrug your shoulders and say,” E cosí (It’s just the way it is).”  If we wipe away the makeup that Michelangelo painted all over our city, it’s easy to see that our beloved Florence is getting older and more grey with each passing year.  It’s up to us to help her get back on her feet, because as any aging supermodel will tell you, there’s only so much that plastic surgery can fix.  If we can peel back the unrealistic expectations and accept Florence for what it is, only then can we start to address the real issues and hope that one day, when we’re long gone and buried deep in the hills surrounding our city, our love for Firenze will have changed it for the better.

You know you live in Florence when…

There are some things that are just so wonderfully weird and ridiculous about living in a city like Florence, it takes a whole list just to appreciate it.

florence

You know you live in Florence when…

Seeing a homeless guy pooping in the middle of Stazione Santa Maria Novella on the front page of La Nazione doesn’t even surprise you anymore.

You drink wine out of empty Nutella jars because…well, it’s Italy.

You can name every pizza joint within a 5 mile radius of your house.

You like your bistecca fiorentina cooked like the Florentines do…aka rare as shit.

When walking on the sidewalks, you never ever look up–there might be a little surprise (dog poop) waiting in front of you.

Walking through Piazza Duomo for you feels like a scene from the Walking Dead only you’re fighting off tourists.

You can’t stand the months of July and August in the city, and escape to the beach along with the locals if you can.

There are at least 3 pieces of Ikea furniture or decorations in your rented apartment.

You remember when Lochness was a packed bar on Via dei Benci, and the locals didn’t give a shit about noise laws or rules.

You tell people you live in Florence and they sigh with jealousy.  And this makes you very warm and fuzzy on the inside, cause you know your city’s the shit.

Your daily commute to work includes passing by some of the world’s most famous artwork and architecture.

You’ve drank wine on the steps of Santo Spirito.

You’ve raged all night at Notte Bianca.

The Blob.

You’ve gotten hungover breakfast at The Diner and then spent all day in your pajamas watching reruns of Sex and the City.

You’ve had at least 3 bicycles stolen at some point during your time here.

Whenever anyone complains about the bread having no salt in Florence, you just smile and nod because…duh, schiacciata.

At first you hated it, but now you’d probably kidnap a baby just to get your hands on a juicy lampredotto panino with salsa verde and salsa piccante.  Especially when you’re hungover.

The guy at your local cafe who constantly talks about his digestive system doesn’t even faze you anymore.  Actually now, you join in on the conversation because it’s fascinating hearing complete strangers eagerly talk about weird bodily functions.

Nowhere in the world will ever compare to living in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Florence, I love you.  You’re the tits.

 

 

That Time I Tried to Plan a Date for €20 in Florence

Seriously–when did dating get so expensive? The dinner, the drinks, the entertainment…all of those things add up so quickly, especially when you live in a thriving hub of con artists and scarily persuasive street vendors who can talk you out of €20 faster than a fat kid at a cake buffet.  Florence isn’t particularly known for having a plethora of things to do at night, other than going to a bar (which i totally dig, at least when I have the money to do so.)  So when you want to do something a little out of the ordinary routine, you’ve got to get creative.  Especially when usually, my Friday nights out look something like this:

Francesco and I have agreed that we need to stop spending so much money on our date nights, so the plan was for me to come up with a way for us to still have a “date night” without breaking the bank.  FYI, he works like a bajillion hours a week so whenever he gets a day off, we pretty much just go buck wild and buy literally anything and everything we feel like until neither of us has anything left in their wallet but lint and crumpled up receipts of shame.

Anyway, in an effort to be more adultlike and money conscious, I told him that I was going to plan our next date using only €20.  He was all for it, mostly because he hates planning anything, so it was up to me to use my imagination and stretch that €20 like a fat girl getting into a pair of skinny jeans.

In my opinion, any good date has 3 requirements–booze, food, & entertainment.  With only €20, I had to be creative in deciding on the drinks for the evening, which called for a friendly visit to my neighborhood alimentari for some beers and snacks. These little mini-markets are a godsend for us poverty-stricken folk who can’t afford to drink at the bar all night.  Originally, I would have gotten us a bottle of wine from our nearest enoteca, but F starts acting like a narcoleptic sorority girl in Mexico after 1 or 2 glasses of red, and I didn’t really feel like hauling 110 kilos of man-drunk around all night.  If your significant other can handle their grape juice, then by all means, head to your local enoteca for a nice bottle of wine.

(Side note: If you’re looking for really good and cheap wine, skip the grocery store and head for any enoteca that sells vino sfuso–it usually costs between €2-3.50 per bottle.  2 of my favorites have to be the Fiaschetteria at Via dei Serragli 47R or Fattoria San Michele  a Torri at Via dei Rustici 6R, which also sells deliciously fresh handmade pasta.)

After my visit to the alimentari, I still had about €10 in my pocket so I headed over the river towards Santa Croce and the nearest 99 cent store to see what I could find that might be fun for us to do on our date…and that’s when I decided to kick it old-school style and get some awesome watercolors, colored pencils & paper so that we could channel our inner Michelangelo.  Obviously Francesco’s bachelor’s degree in art helped him win the battle of the Zola paintings, while mine ended up looking like a deranged goat with big buggy eyes.

This provided us with about 15 minutes of entertainment before both of us realized that if any of my roommates came home and saw us sitting in the living room drinking dollar beers and drawing pictures of our dog, they’d probably call the local mental-health hotline.  Also, we got bored like, really fast.  And by us, I mean Francesco sat still for about 10 minutes before he started getting all antsy-pantsy and annoying the shit out of me with his “Okay, so what are we gonna do next?” questions every 30 seconds.

Which is of course when I decided to go apeshit at Francesco for not appreciating what I had thought was a creative and interesting plan for us to do something different.

“WHAT THE FUCK,” I screamed at F, who looked bewildered by my sudden mood change.  “WHY CAN’T YOU EVER APPRECIATE ANYTHING I DO FOR US TO TRY AND NOT BE SO GODDAMN JUDGEMENTAL ALL THE TIME?!”

“Gina, calm down,” Francesco said in his most soothing voice.  “Everything’s fine.  It’s just that, well…I don’t think we can sit here and paint all night long.  We need to go out and do something where there are people, not just stay in the house.”

“Fine, whatever,” I snapped as I crossed my arms, unwilling to admit that I had not managed to think far enough ahead as to what we would do once the novelty of watercolor painting like 5 year olds had worn off.  “If you’re so smart then YOU can think of something for us to do instead.”

Francesco looked at me for a minute, clearly wondering if he was about to be eaten alive should he choose the wrong words.  “Well, I do have an idea…” he said hesitantly.

“And what is that?” I said, clearly still pissed at my own idea having blown up so fantastically in my face.

“We could go to a bar?” Francesco offered.

“Jesus, you are so predictable,” I sighed.  “We go to bars all the time.  ALL. THE. TIME.  Why can’t we ever do anything different?”

Francesco just looked at me, clearly not understanding my point.  “But we are doing something different.  We’re painting.  And then going to the bar.  That’s different.”

“No, it’s just doing something different before going out to do the EXACT SAME THING WE DO EVERY NIGHT.  What is so different about that?” I asked angrily.

“Well, I don’t know,” he said.  “But it’s my one day off this week, and as long as we get to spend it together, I don’t really mind what we do.”

Now I’d like to say that my heart got all gooey and melty hearing that all F really wanted to do was spend time with me, but obviously I am not a normal  girl and also the most stubborn human being on the planet, so of course I sulked for another 10 minutes until I decided that he was right and that the odds of us having any more fun cooped up indoors were slim to none.

And that’s when I decided to say fuck it to our €20 budget and go out to a bar instead.

Now, I realize that maybe I’m not the best example of planning a date for €20 when I bailed on my own well-planned, carefully executed romantic evening for two.  But seriously? You should be dating someone who doesn’t care whether or not you plan an elaborate evening out or stay indoors all day long and play video games.  Which is pretty much what I discovered on this disastrous version of trying to plan a Pinterest date.  It may look like a cute idea on the internet, but in real life the most important things, like spending time with each other, don’t always go according to plan.  And in the end, everything worked out for the best, mostly because Francesco felt sorry for me and bought me drinks the rest of the night until I was too buzzed to do anything but dance like a loon along to the 80’s jukebox tunes playing from behind the bar and try to make out with him about a hundred times.