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!

 

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.

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.

“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.