Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Seeing the "David" for the First Time

I am ashamed to say that for the almost two years that I have lived here, I have never seen the “David.” I attribute my reluctance to see the sculpture to the replica standing outside the comune in Piazza della Signoria. However, a visit from a friend spurred me to see the capolavoro (masterpiece) today.

My friend Tina is from Germany, and this is the second time she has come to visit me in Florence. Thankfully she is not into taking in all the sites of Florence. I find being a tour guide boring and deviant Tuscan behavior. If someone really wants to see Florence, they should just enjoy it.

She did have one request — to see the “David” at the Galleria dell’Accademia. I honored her request. And I am glad I paid to see it.

Seeing the “David” in person is surreal. He is handmade perfection. He stands at the end of a long corridor that contains I Prigioni (“The Prisoners”) sculptures, also by Michelangelo.

When I reached the end of the hall, the room opened up into a circular viewing area. People from all over the world looked up to admire the peak of human perfection. From his navel around to his backside, I examined his body. He is what every woman wants her man to be — strong, smooth and focused.

He is eye-catching. Something else caught my eye. There was a plaque on the wall of the hallway to the left of the “David.” It commemorated his recent restoration and thanked those that contributed funds to the project. I looked closely and noticed that all or most of the names of the supporters had non-Italian or Anglo- last names. I found that odd.

Besides that observation, I was fascinated by the David. I encourage anyone who lives or visits Florence to see him; the replica does not compare.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Eating at My Favorite Pizzeria

After cooking for my friend and date to the wedding for almost 10 days, I wanted a break from the stove. We decided to eat out. At first I was at a loss for suggestions, then I remembered that one of the hottest — hot as in spicy — pizza places I ever ate at was here in Florence.

I only ate there once over a year ago. I remembered that it was not in the center, but over the river and away from the hustle and bustle of visitors. I could not recall the exact name of the restaurant. I only knew that the word “fratelli” (brothers) was part of the name and the owners were Calabrese.

After some searching on the Web I found the pizzeria. Rocco e I Suoi Fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers) was located in Piazza Ravenna, right down the street from my apartment. All these months I never knew that great tasting real Italian pizza was so close to me.

Florence is known for many traditional foods, pizza is not one of them. Not to say you can’t find good pizza here, but generally in Italy it is best to eat the dish in the town of origin, as the locals or to be more precise, creators, have first- hand knowledge of how it should be prepared.

But this pizzeria is different. The owners are from Calabria, a region known for its hot peppers. The menu has a section dedicated to hot toppers. My friend chose “Stai Lontano da Me” (Stay Far Away From Me) a triple-hot-topped pizza. There was perperoncino piccante (hot chili pepper) spread, freshly chopped garlic and chunks of hot sausage, ʹNduja — enough spice to keep Dracula away.

The origins of ʹNduja are uncertain, but what is certain is that it was brought to the region either by the French or Spanish and is now a food that is considered Calabrese.

The pizzeria is just that, a place to eat pizza. Around the room are signs warning the customer not to get out of hand. “If you get up to smoke outside, stay outside,” was written on one sign.

That’s why I love eating here. Like true Southern Italians, they don’t mess around.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Witness to Love

Under the cloudy blue Tuscan sky my friend and old roommate in NYC proclaimed her honor, love and commitment to the man of heart’s desire.

I have been invited to many weddings, all of them fairly large with hundreds of guests. This was the first small wedding that I attended. I actually spoke to the bride and groom without interruption. I shared their day with them.

It was an intimate gathering. The guests included their immediate family, best friend from childhood (and her husband) and two distant cousins, one of which was my date. In all we were 20.

Before the ceremony I went to the bride’s hotel room to help her with her dress and the final touches of makeup. Her dress was designer and lace. Her shoes were Champaign Manolo’s. Her makeup was NARS.

Her look was gorgeous.

Her hairdresser showed up late. That meant the photographer would have to wait until she felt she was perfect.

Once she was off taking pictures I called a cab and headed back to the hairstylist’s studio near my apartment for my do. But he completely failed to reproduce the look I wanted. Not only did my hair look like a flop but the lateness of the hairdresser made me late to the wedding.

At home I tried my best to get dressed quickly and re-do my hair.

The wedding was at Villa La Vedetta on Viale Michelangelo, literally two minutes from my house. But today there was traffic. We crept up the hill, stopping and going every 30 seconds.

We were a half an hour late, but the wedding did not start without us.

Finally we sat down in cloth covered chairs and waited for the bride. The groom was beaming and anxiously waited for his soon-to-be wife to appear.

With Brunelleschi’s masterpiece cupola serving as the backdrop, they recited their wedding vows among those who are truly a part of their lives.

During the ceremony I thought about how my friend had waited so long for this day. The nights we would stay up till 2 a.m. talking about our dreams and fears regarding relationships. At that time it seemed like forever till “the one” would appear. But then suddenly she fell in love and everything changed in a moment.

After the ceremony we went below the terrace to the pool for aperitivo. It began to pour. The rain lasted only for a few minutes. It stopped in time for our dinner on the terrace.

The bride and groom weren’t walking around the dining room greeting and thanking all the guests for coming or sitting away from their guests. They were sitting in front of me talking, laughing and reminiscing.

I felt honored that they made me a part of their special day and I wish them both love and happiness each day of the rest of their life together.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Harassed by a Worker at the Vendemmia

He cupped my breast so fast I didn’t even realize that I had just been molested. I didn’t know what to do. One of the workers, who I’ll call One-Eyed Pete, kept harassing me today.

At first it started with glaring stares. One of the supervisors had to yell at him.

“Pietro, ma cosa guardi, (Pete what are you looking at),” said the supervisor when he noticed Pete watching me while I took a break to drink water at the end of the vines.

We switched fields later in the day. We began to pick the white grapes for Vin Santo. Only the best grapes are picked, those without any marks, mold and that are ripe. They are cut and then laid in a plastic carton so that they can dry by Christmas.

Because the labor was slower and more involved I had to rely on One-Eyed Pete for advice. Esat was busy riding on the back of the tractor running up and down the rows collecting the filled cartons. So I had to stay close to One-Eyed.

Of course the jokes started. But he and another colleague saw my displeasure and annoyance at hearing more jokes. So they began to assure me that they only say jokes to pass time. It’s only talk.

One-Eyed stepped closer to me to tell me that once a girl thought he touched her, but he really didn’t. I joked that he should stand back since I had my scissors in my hand. But missing one eye did not stop the little man on zeroing in on me. He reenacted how he touched her. He swiftly reached out his arm, placing his hands around my breast. I looked down, his hand was gone and he was laughing.

One of the non-Italian workers noticed what happened. This was the first time he spoke to me. He yelled to me from down the vine to stay away from One-Eyed Pete.

I didn’t know what to do. One-Eyed was slick, he acted like it was all in good fun and even had the other worker laughing about it. I was mostly mad at myself for letting it happen. The rules are different out here. If I yelled at him or told the owner, I would probably look like a prudish moralist or stuck-up American girl. I just kept reminding myself that it was my last day.

Esat remarked that they took advantage of him not being around. He noticed that they had all been acting differently since the day I arrived on the fields.

When I returned home I told my Tuscan male friend what had happened.

His response “Va be, in campagna (Oh well, it’s the countryside).”

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Being Tired of Jokes at the Grape Harvest

Carrying the heavy baskets up and down hills, emptying the full baskets into the cart and picking the grapes in general have gotten much easier this week. Listening to the workers talk and make jokes about sex for eight hours every day has gotten tedious — especially when they are made at my expense. It is annoying me to the point of aggravation.

I usually work alongside my friend Esat from Albania. In between the vines we discuss our likes and dislikes of Italy. He also helps me out when I cannot carry my weight in the field. He knows that my body is not used to working in campagna, so he tries to assist me when possible.

Today Esat is away taking care of personal business. It seems that the jokes are more frequent and everyone feels less inhibited to speak to me about my personal life.

I don’t know how many more times I can fake a laugh. How many times can one smile or giggle at comments like “don’t take a sharp turn, I may have to kiss this bella ragazza”; “if I was younger…”; “do you like dopo cena (after dinner, aka dessert aka sex)?”

I thought that if I told them I had a boyfriend they would leave me alone. But that has just given them more material.

I pretend that I don’t understand what they are saying, but they’ve caught on and have called me out on it. “She understands; she’s just pretending. She knows what we’re talking about…wink wink.”

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Taking a Break from the Rain

What started as sunny turned into a grey rainy day. After lunch we continued the repetitious task of cutting grape clusters. After we finished harvesting all the red grapes we would move onto picking the white grapes for Vin Santo. The grapes have to be dry when picked, said Guiliano.

I was excited to do something “new” and to see the initial process of how Vin Santo was made. But after lunch it began to rain. I held out and continued to pick, but eventually the raindrops got bigger and fell faster.

My co-workers and I ran to a little shed filled with hay located on top of the hill with the vineyards below. There I finally got a chance to sit down and talk to some of my co-workers.

Gino, my supervisor, told stories of the most memorable incidents during the 25+ years that he has worked in the vineyard. The one incident that remembered the most was when he caught a couple having sex in a gazebo that once existed on the property. His eyes twinkled and he had to stop himself from laughing in order to tell us the story.

We sat for an hour waiting for the rain to stop. I was told that we would not be paid for that time that we were idle. I explained to Gino that I thought this was unfair. Either let us go home or pay us. “My time is precious,” I said.

They thought my comment was cute, however I was serious. They explained that this is how it is when one works in campagna (the country).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Vendemmia: Unglamorous Work

The vendemmia is one of the most unglamorous jobs I have ever held. To harvest the grapes I have to completely strip myself of anything I consider feminine. A green hat covers my head to protect my scalp from the sun. I wear old T-shirts that are now stained with purple grape splotches; the bottoms of my black pants or ripped jeans are stuffed into my black boots to protect my legs from weeds, overgrown bushes and other creatures that crawl on the vines. I wear gloves but I still have blisters on my right hand from the pruning shears that are used to cut il grappolo (grape bunch) from the vine.

We are required to work four hours before taking a one-hour lunch break, and another four hours after the lunch break. No other breaks are allowed. If I have to go to the bathroom, tuff. The field is my toilet. Luckily I haven’t had to do that. But my colleagues are constantly going among the weeds. A turned back is considered privacy. I try not to avoid seeing them urinate, but at times I catch a glance of a stream.

By the end of the day, I am sticky with grape goo and sweat. My arms and face, the only uncovered parts of my body are a magnet for thorns, seeds, pieces of grass and insects, including mosquitoes.

Because one has to carry the grapes that they pick up and down the rows, which are usually on a slant, the work requires physical strength. It is highly demanding on the body that by the end of the day I could care less how I look. I just want to splash water on my face, hands and arms and sit in peace.

The weather has been sunny and about 28 degrees Celsius everyday. The heat at times makes it almost unbearable to work. The others aren’t bothered as much by the sun as I am. This is not the first time they have worked on a farm. And also they have told me that it is worst to work in the rain because the mud makes your feet weigh 10 pounds each.

I am not embarrassed to say that I don’t even wash my hair at the end of the day. What’s the point. I don’t go anywhere and I haven’t done anything but eat and sleep. The only thing that reminds me of who I am is my tube of Lancôme lip gloss that I carry in the pouch fastened around my waist.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

First Days Working the Grape Harvest

My First two days working the grape harvest were exciting only in the sense that I was among old school Tuscan farmers. The two main workers who I have the most contact with are Giuliano and Carlo.

Carlo picks up Giuliano and I at Giuliano's home every morning around 7:30 A.M. And every morning I watch their interactions and all-in-the-name-of-fun arguing from the back seat while quietly cracking up. I look over at my other colleague who shares the seat with me, Esat, who we pick up along the way to the vineyards, and I can see that he is just as entertained with the Carlo and Giuliano show.

I couldn't explain the particular details of what they are talking about because most of the conversation is in dialect; however I do know that both of them enjoy picking on the other or as they would say rompere i coglioni (to break balls).

The first ride into the countryside Giuliano insisted that Carlo could not see the road. Back and forth he insisted that. And each time Carlo assured him that he could see where he was going despite the slight fog. This went on for 10 minutes.

The two have been working the harvest for years. Giuliano has been working this particular harvest for 11. He showed me the ropes the first day and introduced me to everyone, even though he himself could not remember my name. To make the eight hours fly Giuliano tells me jokes. All of them with sexual innuendos. Although they are jokes, they give some insight into how Tuscan farmers lived and the roles of woman and men a long time ago.

If we were in the States and or working in an office, Giuliano and the others would be prime defendants in sexual harrasment lawsuites, but the only rules of conduct in the world of the contadino are: work hard.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Preparing for the Vendemmia

I returned from Sicily by train on September 5. Since that time I have been waiting for Florence to open up again, and fill with my friends and acquaintances who left during the July/August break. In addition to that I have been desperately trying to find work. Since the city is basically dead from July to early September it has been difficult for me to find a job. Finally Friday night my roommate gave me the good news: I will be working la vendemmia (grape harvest) for three weeks starting tomorrow.

Because the harvest is in the countryside of Tuscany, in the province of Siena, her parents will host me Poggibonsi. She gave me the details of my job; I will be the only woman; I will be working with old Italian men; they will be talking about sex and may occasionally try to pinch my ass; “So be nice, joke a little and at the same time keep some distance,” said Francesca.

I heard woman get paid less than men, which leads me to believe that I will make 4 or 5 euros an hour. Regardless of the pay and hard work involved in picking the grapes Francesca told me that it is fun. I know I will be exhausted and may even have to work in the rain, but I am excited to be a part of the process that results in the best wines of the world.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Knowing My Family's Stories

Will my family’s stories be lost? That is what went through my mind as I sat amongst my Uncle’s sister, her children and grandchildren looking at photos — tones of black and grey and color, old and new. Yesterday was the first time I met her. I spent the day with my mother’s oldest sister, Nella. I accompanied her in saying her “goodbye’s” to her sister-in-law before returning to Australia.

My uncle and I have never met. They moved to Australia shortly after he married my aunt. Although they had the best intentions to move back to Sicily, fate had a different plan. My aunt and I met for the first time in 2007 in Milan. This is the second time we were in each other’s company.

So I was happy to meet my Uncle’s family. At least I could get some feeling of what he is like and how he grew up. I asked his sister if she had photos of him when he was little. Everyone gathered around the table to reminisce in the past with me.

As I sat there quietly listening to their gasps and laughs as they recalled their life, I wondered if anyone would ever ask me to share with them my family’s history. Will I have photos of my children, their children and their children’s children?

After viewing photos of weddings, baptisms, military trainings etc… my aunt and I visited my nonno’s sister. At my great aunt’s home my zia Nella told the story of how she met my uncle. She told us how she and my mother and other aunt, their littlest sister, pushed a cart of spices through the dirt road. That was one of the few times my nonna would permit her daughters to leave the house. It was at that time that my uncle first saw her.

We eagerly listened to my aunt tell the story. I asked for clarification and details trying to understand how different her life was then, how strict my grandmother was and what exactly did they do for money.

Her eyes and mouth fluttered while she poured out her love story. I thought about taking out my camera and capturing it all on digital, so someone else could know everything I know; so the past would not be lost. But stories like hers lose value when recorded. They are best told from memory, passed on from relative to relative in those few precious moments when distance is shortened.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Visiting the Doctor in Maniace

Chi ha la sigaretta piu leggero,” asked the Doctor as soon as he entered the room filled with patients waiting to see him at 9 a.m.

The door he walked through had a sign attached to it that read “Voui smettersi di fumare, parlene con il dottore (Want to quit smoking? Speak to the doctor).”

My cousin’s father offered his. Diane. The doctor, with his wavy silver overgrown hair, proudly walked toward him. He checked out the label before making a show of balancing the pack on his hand to judge if it was in fact the lightest.

I don’t remember whose he took because I was trying to figure out my place in the waiting line. The locals of Maniace do not make an appointment to see the doctor. They don’t even engage in the simple system of number taking. Instead they memorize who came in after them. Upon walking in the waiting room they ask “who is the last person,” whoever responds is the person they are after. Some people send children to hold their spot in line. Others beg the person in front of them to let them cut, pleading urgency and pain.

I did none of that. I felt it was no one’s business why I was in to see the doctor. Every familiar face that entered after me greeted me with a “oh you’re in to see the doctor,” expecting me to discuss my ailment. But I never bit.

Today was a follow-up visit. The Doctor was supposed to tell me why I have not been able to wear my contacts for months. He asked me to return after taking an antibiotic he prescribed.

I was one of the last people to arrive. After hours and discussions about my turn in line the person ahead of me finally walked out of the Doctor’s office. I entered his office. He sat behind a messy desk filled with papers and ashtrays. No white coat, I think he wore khakis and T-shirt. I looked over at the seemingly unused examination table, and knew my place was in the chair in front of his desk.

“My eye still feels dry,” I started to describe my symptoms to him.

He cut me off with “how do your eyes feel.” I repeated my symptoms to him again. He asked for me to describe my symptoms again. That back and forth continued for about five minutes.

“What’s wrong with my eyes,” I asked.

Without looking, touching or examining me he point blank responded “I don’t know.”

He suggested I visit his friend, an eye specialist. He rummaged around the office looking for the number. He made the appointment. I asked how much the visit would cost. The visit would cost 70 euros, but he got me a deal of 50 euros. I started to complain about how people say that the Italian health care system is free, when it really is not and at times can be more expensive than the U.S. healthcare system.

He stopped me. The appointment was with a private doctor. He explained that if I wanted to wait weeks I could go through the public system, but there was no guarantee when I would get to see a doctor and although the cost would be less through the public system I would still have to pay a fee.

My complaining about the supposed “free” and “quality” socialistic Italian healthcare system, lead to further questions by him about the United State’s healthcare system, Obama and how the insurance system works. I was getting annoyed.

“Doctor I don’t care about Obama, I just want to wear my contacts,” I insisted.

“No, please tell me, I am curious how it works,” he insisted.

Seeing that I was not going to participate in his wanted conversation of politics he called in my father. There we were — me, my father and the Doctor — sitting around his cluttered desk. Somehow my eye was no longer the topic of conversation. I don’t even think they remembered I was in the room. I patiently sat in his grimy office listening to him and my father discussing the United State’s healthcare system.

My father was kind enough to answer all of the Doctor’s curious questions. The Doctor really wanted to know why the doctors in the U.S. were “rich” while he was “poor.” He must have gotten his answer because he finally escorted us out of his office.

When my turn came to see the doctor the waiting room was empty. I was afraid to walk into it now. My session with Doctor took an unwarranted half hour or more. These people will kill me. Just my luck in order to exit I had to go through the waiting room. I discreetly scanned the room. Half of Maniace was now waiting in line behind me, and they did not look happy.

“Scusa, scusa,” I said with my head down briskly walking through the room and out of the building with my father behind me.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Being Pregnant Out of Wedlock

The moon hovered over Etna’s outstretched Western arm lighting up the black night as I sat outside my friend’s modest home on her front outdoor patio intently listening to her struggle as a single pregnant woman living in the small Sicilian town of Maniace.

A cricket’s chirp filled in the silent gaps of our conversation. My friend got pregnant out of wedlock. Her boyfriend and she have been together for several years, with the intentions to marry, but the baby to be was an unplanned pleasant surprise.

“I know everyone is talking about me, but what they say about me is happening in their own family.”

In a town where reputation is everything, a family will do anything to save face in public when something in their private life happens that is considered a disgrace. My friend told me how those who threw the knives are now on the receiving end of the daggers.

The whispers, the looks and the underneath conversations eventually make it back to the person who broke one of the Sicilian codes. My friend did not do anything to cover up her pregnancy. Unlike those who criticized her, she did not rush to the altar nor did she insist on a ring from her boyfriend.

The family that scorned her not only insisted their pregnant daughter marry the father of the soon-to-be-born child, “they filled out all the marriage documents on the father’s behalf,” she told me. “Now they are having a wedding in September so that she will not look pregnant.”

I always ask the questions that I know many Sicilians would not directly ask the person whom they are inquiring about. Instead they ask other’s in the town. Everyone knows she is pregnant. It is something one cannot hide. But to actually discuss with her how she feels about being pregnant without being married maybe considered taboo.

Maybe she was thinking how dare I ask if she was on the pill; how did it happen; how did she tell her mom; does she want to get married? I think I would be standoffish if someone was prying in my business; however, I was just trying to understand how she was dealing with living in a town that kept up mentalities that are extinct in the modern world.

Maybe she is just appeasing me and will go behind my back and tell everyone in town that I was being nosey asking questions about things that are considered very private. In the end I think she was relieved to speak openly. I noticed that she never left her house. It was then that I realized that this summer she never accepted my offers to get breakfast together or to take I walk. She didn’t say that she was ashamed to be seen pregnant. She didn’t have to.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Eating Fresh Organic Ricotta for Breakfast

Today for breakfast I had a hot bowl of fresh ricotta. My mother, nonna, zia Nella and zia Pina left our home at 8 a.m. to eat ricotta at a farm outside of Maniace. My nonna brought bowls and spoons so that we could eat it immediately after it was made.

When we arrived Antonio, the owner of the family run organic farm, was stirring a cauldron filled with milk squeezed from the cows that morning and yesterday evening. The room was hot and filled with cheese. Balls of provolone hung on the wall. Rounds of brilliant white cheese sat in strainers on top of stainless steel tables with a built in drain for the excess water.

I did not know that ricotta was made from what remained after the cheese was formed. I have heard that some do not consider it cheese and the way my relatives refer to make me believe that they consider it eat separate from cheese. We arrived after the cheese was removed from the hot milk. So I did not see the whole process nor inquire on what exactly ricotta is.

When the ricotta bubbled up we grabbed our spoons and bowls anxiously waiting in line for Antonio to ladle in spoonfuls of it into our ware. I ate mine outside sipping the hot tinged green water that surrounded the spongy ricotta in between mouthfuls. There were no additives, not even a pinch of salt — just pure milk — because it was made organically.

We left with baskets of ricotta and hand formed balls of cheese. I said “bye” to the brown spotted cows roaming around in the hay and promised to return one early morning for breakfast.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mass Exodus South

I had never seen a mass exodus before this night. What is amazing about this trip is that everyone is going to the same place and everyone is originally from the same place. My cousins, Nuccia and Mario, picked me up in Florence on their way to Sicily. This year they decided to drive from Milan to Sicily instead of flying. Our trip will take at least 14 hours.

We are not the only ones making our way back to the Motherland. There are hundreds of others with Southern roots making the same journey. When we stop at rest stop along the Autostrada for coffee or gasoline the parking lots are littered with people gathered around Alfa Romeo’s, BMW’s, Volkswagens and Fiats. Their accents are rougher compared to the refined Florentine dialect; harsh “ooo’s” and abrupt “oh’s” begin drawn out words and Bella now becomes Bedda.

Immediately after the Sicilians, Neopolitans and Calabrians exit the car they light up a cigarette — men and women alike. Nuccia offered me one, but I decided to decline. Once I start smoking in Sicily I can’t stop. Everyone smokes. If I accept a cigarette one time from someone in Sicily that person will always will expect me to indulge in a drag with them. Sicilians have a way of insisting that conjures guilt that I end up accepting just to make the other person feel better. So it’s better for me to start practicing my refusals now.

Once inside the restaurant of the service area Nuccia and I pushed our way through the mini market to reach the bar. After ordering coffee I took a step back to observe. Everyone had my features — thick dark brown hair, dark olive skin, not too tall, big almond hazelnut or brown eyes with a slight or considerable bulge. It is so strange to see mini-me’s congregated in one place.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Friend MC Loren Taylor and DJ Jahknow Playing at Tamburello Wednesday

Normally I don't promote events for the sake of promotion. But as I was packing for my trip to Sicily I received an e-mail from my friends Loren and Mark about their musical gig at Tamburello in the Cascine Wednesday, August 5. I looked closely and noticed that they lovingly stole my picture from my blog. I found that very amusing. So during intermission, while my life in Florence is on pause and I leave for a hopefully eventful month in Sicily, I leave you with the flyer. If your in Florence in August you should definitely check them out.

Will write as soon as an Internet connection is available. Happy August!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Suffering from Moving Syndrome

These past days I have seriously considered giving up and moving back to the States. Going back to NYC. Will I ever be happy anywhere? Is this symptomatic chronic moving syndrome? Do I suffer from moving syndrome? I posed those questions to my friend Cassandra during our breakfast Thursday morning. I expected her to reassure me that I will someday have a permanent home happily settling in one place for the rest of my life.

Instead she whispered a “yes” as she slowly brought her café macchiato to her lips and took a discreet sip.

My mouth dropped. Was she serious? I do have moving syndrome?

“People like you, me and Loren, we get bored quickly,” she said referencing her track record in dating as proof that it’s difficult to hold her interest. I replied that I never even get the chance to be bored with a guy because my relationships never last past six months. So I don’t know if that holds true for me in regards to men.

But as far as cities go … well it’s a different story. I have lived in so many places in my opinion, too many places for my life — Oxford (Ohio), Cleveland, Kent (Ohio), Washington D.C., Cleveland, Washington D.C., Hoboken/New York City, Cleveland, Firenze, Athens (Ohio), Firenze. I feel like a yo-yo. Will my list ever end?

The thing with humans is that we never stop wanting. If I could just be satisfied then maybe I wouldn’t always be searching or moving. But maybe I am fighting against human nature. Why am I so restless?

I remember one episode of “Sex And The City” where Carrie was going through the checklist of the three important things in a woman’s life: Apartment, Job and Boyfriend. At the time of the episode she only had two out of three. I currently just have the apartment and I am not sure how long that will last.

I always think how things look greener on the other side. And it’s true. I never imagined that I would have so many dislikes when it comes to Florence. Italy seems so beautiful from the other side of the pond, especially the Italian men. And I know that life is difficult no matter where one lives. But I did not imagine it like this. I also didn’t imagine that I would be selective in which Tuscans I actually liked.

Why can’t someone just call me and tell me what I want and the next step I am supposed to take? Why can’t I get out of my head?

I asked my sister for advice. She is biased. She told me to move back to the States. Her life is “the program.” No offense; a person on the program cannot understand a person who decides to get off “the program.”

No one understands that I feel obligated to all the people I call “friend” in Florence. I just can’t up and leave them because I can’t buy a pair of socks, or because I can’t afford to sustain the lifestyle I want. I’ll just be another person they speak about when they tell the newcomer how all their friends always leave Florence (see April 2, 2009 post “Keeping Friends”).

“I miss pedicures, and haircuts and buying things like shoes,” I confessed to Cassandra.

But above all this, the thing that bothers me the most is not being able to write for a credible newspaper. It does not have to be the New York Times. I would like to write for any newspaper that has some ethics and reports the daily news. How many times can I write that Italy is “beautiful?” When I interview people they are just trying to plug their product or business all for tourism. And I suspect that some people only befriend me because they know I write, hoping one day I'll write about their paintings, political cause, Web site, and other services that cater to Americans. It sickens me.

Before I left the States I had to search and discover my true feelings for wanting to return to Italy. If it was for my ex I could not return to Florence. I had to do it for myself. Before I left I told myself that I can no longer move to places just for an experience. I had to put my career first. I would go to Italy, but staying in Italy depended on my journalism career.

I am working on a project, which I am excited about. I will assess my decision to stay here in six months. In December I will return to my two homes, NYC and Cleveland. By then I should know if the project is moving forward. I know I said a year, but I can’t linger that long.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Cold Enemy: Air Conditioning

There are two words that when I hear them I want to scream: “Air” & “Conditioning.” Put them together and they mean that marvelous invention that sucks out humidity and blasts dry cold air. For some reason, Italians blame it for everything, every malattia (illness). It’s the Antichrist.

“I can’t sit near air conditioning; shut it off,” said one of my cousins during dinner at a restaurant. She was referring to a white thing positioned on the wall behind her that slowly emitted puffs of air. I sweated during that dinner.

“Don’t put the air conditioning, I have to work tomorrow and I can’t have a headache,” said another cousin when we drove to Piemonte. Another time I sweated and could not breathe because they also refused to open a window for the same reason.

They even converted my friend Melinda into a believer.

But what makes me want to scream about the invention that the Italians use as a scapegoat, which I’m sure came from the new world, is that it barely exists here. I can literally count on my fingers the few times I have actually stepped into a room with air conditioning. Let me be more accurate, I can count on my fingers the few times I have actually stepped into a cool room with air conditioning in Florence.

I have been sick this week. I have suffered all my life from chronic ear infections. Without warning my ears are blocked and an excruciating ping of pain takes over, so strong that I cannot speak.

Of course the Italians have their homemade remedies to cure my pain. My roommate once told me to put a scarf around my neck. I wanted to kill her, but I was in too much pain to argue. A scarf does not cure nor silence the pain of an ear infection, nor does it prevent an infection. She eventually took me to the emergency room.

This week my left gland was noticeably swollen. I felt fine. Just as a precaution I went to the Pronto Soccorso, (emergency room). My doctor was so nice, he waved the payment because I told him I was a broke immigrant, he showed the location of the eye hospital in case I needed a check-up, and he gave me advice about getting my tessera di sanitaria, the national health card.

He said the swelling was because I was getting an infection, in both ears, again. When I asked him why he said, “well you go from hot air to cold air; in and out of the air conditioning.”

I still carry my sarcasm from NYC, but it doesn’t come across quite the same in Italian.

“Air conditioning,” I said rhetorically. “oh yeah, cause it’s…,” I began to mumble. I noticed he was not laughing just looking at me with a blank stare.

Then I could not remember how to say “I’m joking” in Italian.

“See doctor, it just doesn’t exist anywhere I go, none of the bars or restaurants have it and I do not have it in my home,” I said.

“Well maybe when you get in and out of your car,” he said

That’s when I decided to just play along. If the doctor was smart he would have taken my shock over paying 26 euros for a visit as a sign that I cannot afford to own a car. Moreover why couldn’t he just admit he did not know why I was sick, instead of blaming it on air conditioning?

When I got home I called my friend Christine to judge the believed culprit — Air Conditioning. During the conversation she told me her allergies have been acting up the past few days. That’s when I realized what was probably causing my unnoticeable slight congestion, leading to an eventual infection. The last time I had an infection, I was also suffering from allergies. Thank God I have an American friend to consult with.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Making Potato Gnocchi with My Students

No matter how hard I tried to gently roll the dough using a calm rhythm with my hand flat it was gooey stuck to my palm. I just couldn’t get the right pressure and touch so that it was round in form instead of dull flat pasta.

One of my students teased that she comes from generations of gnocchi making, when I asked her why I just could not get it right. Despite feeling worthless because I only rolled one little batch of gnocchi right, the mood in the kitchen was fun and upbeat. We were having a hands-on “Gnocchi Party.”There were seven eager cooks in the kitchen, half of which were my students that I teach English to at the Library in Sesto Fiorentino; one part eager to eat and the other eager to make light practically weightless potato gnocchi.

It started with 12 (or 2 kilograms) of “classiche patate” boiled and peeled, and then pressed through a food mill. But the next steps were not easily measured; six eggs a pinch of salt (stirred well) and then “00” flour based on the elasticity, and stickiness of the dough. I was told this part is something that is learned by practice not by reading a recipe. The flour and eggs required just depends on the potatoes. We put in at least 300 grams of flour, and we all made a note of that.

During the mixing of the “pasta” is when I noticed that in Italy every measurement is done by weight, whereas in the states we measure by volume. That did not cause too much of a dilemma when I oversaw the making of one of America’s favorite desserts, Rice Krispie Treats. I had to explain what a cup was, and a tablespoon. It was amusing. But the most amusing part was seeing their delightful curiosity over the marshmallows. They had never seen marshmallows in the form of a puff.

I tried to warn them not to look at the ingredients because it was pure sugar. But we had a good conversation about what really was a marshmallow. At dinner time, everyone could only eat one Rice Krispie Treat because there were also brownies present.

I had to have my brownies with milk. Is there any other way to eat them? One of the guests was shocked. You see there is an order in Italy, an order to eating. Cappuccinos and anything milky or as they would say “heavy” should not be eaten at the end of a meal. Instead Italians drink a liquid to help with the digestion. Some may have a splash of Coke to help push the food through, before ending the meal with café and all sorts of liqueur including Vin Santo.

Even though I was playfully teased for refusing to be ruled and eating my chocolate brownies with a tall glass of cold milk, I was truly thankful that the guests and hostesses were open enough to try marshmallows. That they did not refuse a food because it didn’t have thousands of years of tradition and craftsmanship behind it was pleasure enough for me. We even roasted them on the barbecue, not quite the same as a fire, but it’s the thought that counts.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Attending BarCamp at Palazzo Vecchio: Discussions on Integrating the Contemporary and American Students

Salone de’ Cinquecento in Palazzo Vecchio (city hall) abounded with pens and notepads held by journalists eager to record discussions at the first BarCamp conference organized by the new contemporary and culture councilor, Giuliano Da Empoli.

From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. along the walls of the large room marked by marble statues and frescos were numerous tables and dry erase boards facing a seated audience ready to hear the presenters’ opinions, ideas and visions for Florence in regards to culture and bringing the city in line with the contemporary and modern elements characteristic of most leading European cities.

I should probably explain this to my readers. Most people come to Florence to view the past. As beautiful, rich and preserved the past is, at times it’s a burden to the city. Florence is like a big small town. There is no modern museum, no cool nightclubs or swanky lounge bars like the ones you would find in NYC or London, no recent fashion trends that I know of have originated here, and there is no metro or subway.

There are innovative and forward thinking youths that come up from the underground during the Festival Della Creatività and Frabbica Europa. Those once a year events boast modernity in music, design, art, fashion, thinking etc… Despite that the shops display antiques, the art scenes hung on the gallery walls reminisce in the Tuscan hills and landscapes, the design of the buildings faithfully hold to the medieval structure and the artists promoted by the city are the artisans creating objects according to a hundred-year tradition. That is what keeps the tourists coming. I am not saying get rid of it, hell I’m Catholic I love tradition and always worry that the Sicilian ones I have witnessed will be lost because I am too busy to practice them.

But what’s wrong with a bit of the future alongside the past? Why can’t we have some different and diversity? Is that possible without damaging what the Medici’s left behind? Less than a month in office the new mayor Matteo Renzi and Da Empoli have recognized that Florence’s past is weighing the city down. BarCamp gave people a platform to discuss integration of the contemporary while preserving the culture heritage of the city.

One topic I overheard being presented was integrating the American students into the Florentine life. As of now, I feel that they separate themselves and don’t really have a way to experience Florence they way it should be experienced. In my opinion most of the locals probably wouldn’t give them a second look if it weren’t for the Americans’ excessive drinking with a side of shopping. The drinking is a catalyst for peeing in the Fountain of Neptune in Piazza della Signoria, puking in the streets and other debauchery that takes place in the wee hours of the morning keeping up the residents. Plus many men from Italy and Albania hang out at the local bars just for a chance to brag about having a one night stand with a hot, rich “American bitch.”

In some ways I am so sick of hearing about the American student. It’s like an obsession for the business owners: “How can we take their money while controlling the things they do?” It seems that most of the American students that come here are from the affluent neighborhoods in California or the East Coast; not an accurate representation of the 50 states. Because of my aversion towards the obsession I walked over to another discussion.

Pino Brugellis, an architect of Fondazione Targetti, presented Spazi Comuni: L’Architecture Contemporaneo Per La Citta (Common Space: Contemporary Architecture for the City). I couldn’t hear most of what he said due to the poor acoustics and lack of a microphone. When he mentioned the word “space” Maurizia Settembri broke into his discussion taking an opportune time to present her ideas about making permanent space in Stazione Leopolda for Fabrica Europa, an organization that promotes contemporary arts in Europe. There was a disput between them about time slots. Eventually Brugellis conceded that his time was up, giving me a chance to talk to him alone.

It seems that public space for the people is slowly deteriorating. In giro (around town) I hear people complaining that the city center no longer belongs to the Florentines; the locals do not frequent the center as they once did. That may be because they do not feel safe in their city.

He made it clear that he does not believe in a police state, rather the people can “autocontrollo” (self control) their city by promoting activities in the public spaces. The socializing and mingling of the residents can make Florence approachable at any time of day including night. “Streets are not only for cars … an influx of people makes a safe city,” he said. “A secure city is possible when the people of that city control it. If there is activity in the streets it will automatically become safe.”

I asked him his opinion on restaurants and bars taking up public space on sidewalks and piazzas for outdoor seating or entrances, such as the Cavalli Club’s entrance ramp that is causing some distress to the locals. He said the problem is the use of good sense. The space should not be overcrowded while fitting the objects in with the local atmosphere. “I am not against this use of space, but the space used should be proportional to the overall public space; an element of elegance is required,” he said. “When a restaurant takes up space and that is half of a piazza … they should use good judgment.”

Brugellis was called back to the Settembri’s discussion during the interview. So I found some of my friends and met some other Expats. My male American friend wanted to introduce me to Da Empoli, but said there was a crowd around him. I tried to figure out who he was. I saw a good looking man who barely looked 30 surrounded by journalists. That can’t be him I thought.

“Is that him?” I asked unconvinced it was.

“Yep, that’s him,” said my friend.

We slowly inched our way closer to him. My friend, being a journalist in the past, did not want to interrupt their work. I had to remind him that I am a journalist. But it was too late. Someone escorted him away. Even though I did not speak to Da Empoli it was worth the little time I spent there and I hope to be informed the next time Palazzo Vecchio opens its doors to the residents.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Visiting the Catina La Torre Castel Rocchero in Piemonte

“She was the one drinking wine like water,” said our waiter to two of the soci (associates) of the winery La Torre Castel Rocchero in Piemonte. The soci of the cooperative invited their clients for a lunch at the agriturismo S. Desiderio (agriturism) near the winery. Fortunately for us, Nuccia’s neighbors Fiorella and Bruno were one of the chosen invitees. They RSVP’d for 22, turning the lunch into our mini family reunion. Relatives in Torino, Milano and Piacenza were coming to the lunch.

We left Milano around 9 a.m. with the TomTom GPS system guiding the two “drivers” in the front seat. For some mysterious reason no one listened to it. After a couple of wrong turns, reverse driving to catch the passed up exit and fighting over rolling down the windows, we finally made it to our first stop before lunch, the cantina cellar near Acqui Terme. A cooperative, the winery collects grapes from the 120 soci that own vineyards in the area. According to our tour guide Michele, an aggregate 15,000 hectoliters of wine including Moscato D’Asti, Barbera D’Asti, Brachetto D’Aqui Dolce (a spumanti) are produced each year.

Fiorella said that although white wine from Piemonte is good, red is the par excellence.

The meal seemed to last forever. An endless stream of dishes came one after the other, each with a wine. My favorite dishes were the carne crudo (raw beef) and tortellini. Even the coffee came with sugar cubes soaked in flavored alcohol. Two jars, one orange the other green were placed on the table. At first I thought they were candies. I popped one in my mouth. The whole inside of my mouth burned like a cool fire. I quickly spit it out. I looked over at my cousin. She was eating them like Skittles. With a smile on her face she said “these are soaked in pure alcohol. I love them.”

At the end of the meal my brother and I were saddened because we only had a drop left of the Brachetto D’Aqui that was served with the cake. We stared at his almost empty glass.

“Oh man I wonder if they’re going to come around with anymore,” I said.

Just when we both gave up hope, the waiter appeared. Our spirits rose again as he refreshed our glasses with the red bubbly. A cling and a toss, we finished the last of the wine. The long lunch ended in the early evening. With our stomachs overloaded we headed back to Milano.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Eating Sicilian Cookies with My Family

Ci vuole tempo, pazienza e passione (it takes time, patience and passion),” said my mother. She proudly explained to her cousins the mix required to bake. My parents returned to Italy after a five-year absence, and with them they brought my mom’s homemade Sicilian cookies. Everyone at the table was pleased that she managed to pack and transport the delicate edible “surprises” that she made in the early mornings.

She primarily made them for my sister’s baby shower, but then decided to pack up the traditional almond and hazelnut cookies, for her relatives in Milano and her sisters who are both waitng for her arrival in Sicily.

Her first cousins and their children sat around the table in awe of the little “gifts.” I find it a bit ironic that they enjoy her cookies when they have access to the ingredients and bakery shops that create the sweets. Thier reaction to me means my mother is an excellent baker.

My mother and father brought me the best gift of all — my older brother. His last visit was 16 years ago. He hardly remembered some of our distant cousins that were no bigger than a newly planted tree stalk the last time he visited Milano. But nonetheless, the Caprino’s, each one with fuller lips than the other, carried on just fine around Nuccia’s dinner table.

During dinner Nuccia discovered that she and my father are distant cousins.

E sangue che ti tira (its blood that pulls you),” she said to me as she kindly squeezed my chin.

She always looks after me, and treats me just as good as her own children even though I am only related to her husband, Mario, through my mom. But now we know why she instinctively takes care of me.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Police Raid Piazza Santo Spirito

Empty. That is how Piazza Santo Spirito looked when I entered it from the side street that leads to the front of the church. It was 8:30 p.m. — time for aperitivo. Normally the piazza is bustling with young locals. I looked around for the neighborhood crew. They are not difficult to miss. Some of them with dreadlocks, a mix of African, whites and Italian guys rolling cigarettes and possibly other plants, they are usually sitting with their backs up against the church wall.

But today no one was on the church steps. Instead I saw carabinieri (the Italian police force part of the government's military arm) huddled in a corner of the piazza. An eerie feeling came over me. I thought maybe I missed something. Ever since September, 11 I always prepare myself for any possibility — bomb scares, buildings falling etc.

Then I remembered what my friend had recently told me. He said there was a raid on the piazza recently. First the cops were lingering around and next thing he knew all the entrances, including the main entrance that runs along Via Mazzetta, were blocked by police cars. No one could get out. Then the authorities came around and requested documenti (identification papers) from all the people in the piazza, except those who were dining outdoors at a café or bar. Apparently they were trying to find illegal’s.

“The cop was shocked when my friend (part black part Italian) took out his Italian passport,” my American male friend said.

I should mention to my readers that my American male friend is far left than any communist I have met in Tuscany. Most of the time I strongly disagree with his theories, but he did make me question why the authorities only requested documents from those in the square. Why didn’t they check the identification of the people sitting in the outdoor dining areas of the cafés or trattorias, a space that sits on the sidewalk and part of the square? Is it a question of money? Not wanting to disturb those who are spending it? Or is it assumed that those spending it can afford to, and therefore are most likely not to be an illegal immigrant?

My friend and I discussed if it was legal to search people without probable cause; however he reminded me that although many countries emulate the U.S. model of democracy, they tweak the rules to fit their needs.

A couple of months ago I read in Il Reporter, a local newspaper that covers Firenze by quartiere, that the residents of the Santo Spirito area want to build it up into a posh neighborhood. With Roberto Cavalli calling glitz and glamour at Cavalli Club around the corner they were hoping some of that dough would rub off on the rest of the quartiere. I also met some ladies who live in the square and they spoke of a Santo Spirito committee to clean up and better the neighborhood.

For who? For the people that live in Florence? The people who the police pressured into giving up their identification? Or for the businessmen and politicians who want a piece of the tourist action that takes place across Ponte Vecchio.

It’s true. There are drunks and drugs in the piazza. In the doorways of the homes that make up the border of the square there are always people drinking and once or twice I’ve seen some selling. But they never bother me. This is the place where I go to have a reasonably priced aperitivo not affected by “tourist inflation,” to hang out with friends, and to be surrounded by real Florence. Not the tourist saturated Piazza della Repubblica or Piazza Signoria.

This is a place that is filled with people who live here, alternative Florentines with their thick rimmed glasses and dogs stroll in, the occasionally Brit or American looking for the unconventional sit down at a Café, and the Arabs who meet for business stand around the water fountain that sits in the middle of the square. The church steps are filled with locals drinking beer, putting on fire shows and playing bongos on any given evening, especially during the summer. It’s real.

I am not advocating the drug sales or use, and violence that sometimes takes place here. But how can Santo Spirito be“cleaned up” without losing its life? Why do all have to be punished for what a few do? I fear that if the politicians focus too much on it, they will make it sterile. It could be compared to the rift raft of Times Square replaced by Disney Land during Giuliani’s term. Ask a New Yorker how many times he hangs out in Times Square.

I once read a book that was a compilation of interviews with three famous Italian journalists (of course I don’t remember the name of the book or the journalists). One of the journalists was questioned about his choice to stay in the margins of society. He explained that it was where the action was. To know what was really going on in society one had to be in touch with those who lived outside the mainstream. It is in the margins of society where change and creativity take place. This is why I spend most of my time in Oltrarno and go to Piazza Santo Spirito.

Piazza Santo Spirito is the home of the modern Tuscan hippies and the recent foreigner trying to carve a place. It is the home of the contemporary not the redundant Renaissance. Florence’s now converges there and it would be a shame to see it silenced.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Being in Love With A Woman

I am in love with a woman, who at times I do not like. I have been in a relationship with her for a year now. The past 12 months she has brought me joy, heartache, tears, smiles, good times and bad. Although she is magnificent to look at, at times portraying a serene disposition, underneath she is complex. She portrays innocence yet, she is not a fool. She wounds those who try to bed her too soon and rewards those who are steadfast, patient enough to weave through her web looking for her soul. She only reveals layers of herself when she feels I have earned it.

Her past is carried on her shoulders. It is her past that makes her attractive, but it is her stubbornness to never let go of it that makes me daydream of my ex. Is this wrong? Should I break it off? Can you be in love with a woman, while not liking every aspect of her personality? Is it wrong to wish that she give in, and submit; to gratify my wants upon asking?

At times I am determined to take charge and command her to speed up; to conform; to trust me; to be on my level. Sometimes I ponder her seemingly self induced complexity. Why can’t she be simple; be bland not spicy; straight not curly. Then I remind myself why I started this relationship. I start from the beginning. I weigh her negatives, with my ex’s positives. Today I concluded that although I may miss another, my woman is like no other woman I have met before. She does not give in. She does not give up. She is Italy, and I will wait for her for one more year.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Is He a Pervert or Just Being Italian

How do you know when a man’s hug or hand slightly creeping around your waist is not “Italian-ness,” but actually an unwanted sexual advance disguised as a warm gesture?

That was the topic in question at this Sunday’s after-brunch lunch among me and the other staffers when all of the customers had gone home. I told them the story about when I was alone with an elderly married man for business reasons. What seemed like an ordinary meeting turned into a reason for him to get me alone. His generous embraces left me confused and unsure about what was really going on.

The female staff present at lunch had also experienced unwanted touching by older men (sometimes relatives or family friends) in an ambiguous way. It was obvious that these men were betting on ambiguity, taking advantage of the girl being uncertain if he was being friendly or a pervert.

One of the waitresses retold the story of being greeted by a friend’s father with a caress to the back of her neck. In front of the friend, and with family present, she quickly reprimanded the father.

“Don’t put your hands on me,” she told us what she said with a firm and direct voice emphasized by a hand gesture that communicated “puntobasta.”

She said that out loud for her friend and her friend's family to hear. She explained to her friend that her own father never greeted her friends with a hug or caress, but only with a handshake, or the standard kissing on the cheek, and that only after the friend has become a part of the family. The friend was upset with her for calling her father out on the unwanted physical contact, but she absolutely refused to feel uncomfortable for telling someone not to touch her. Ironically, it was later discovered that the friend’s father had been molesting a little girl.

Many American’s that I meet in Florence are not accustomed to the Italian culture of kissing on both cheeks, but since it is known that Italians are warm, some of them step out of their comfort zone to return the cultural gesture. Nonetheless, the male staff present at lunch said that these little touches and side hugs are the Italian man’s way to slowly get close to a girl, full well knowing that an American girl may think the touch was a result of just being Italian. It’s their excuse.

“That’s how they do it. Have you ever seen how these guys act once their girlfriends have left the room? They are always hugging or touching other women,” my male American friend interjected into the conversation.

Unlike the waitress, I was not sure if the older man I spoke of was hitting on me, or just being warm. When the touching was happening, it was mixed with pleasant words and little side hugs. Then he brought me outside for a serious discussion about relationships. He walked beside me and wrapped his hand around my waist. I did not want to be rude. I thought of how upset his wife would be if I said her husband was getting a bit too close for my comfort. I did not want to ignite a fight between her and her husband, nor did I want to run the risk of being accused of false accusations, or provocation (I have heard many woman in Italy, say that men cheat because a woman is insisting he sleep with her, and since the woman does not let up the man will eventually give in since he is weak).

So I didn’t say anything. However, I know that I never want to be alone with that man again. I was so offended that an old, ugly man would even think I would be interested. In the moment that he was hugging me and putting his hands on my waist, I had thought that maybe I was reading it wrong; maybe he was just treating me like family. But then I realized that whether or not he was trying to get a feel, his actions made me feel uncomfortable, and in the end that is all that matters.

What is upsetting is that I am not the only one this has happened to. Many of my female friends have had similar experiences here in Italy. Of course things like this happen everywhere, but in the States we follow through on laws, such as sexual harassment, in order to make men think twice about turning a business meeting into an opportunity to make unwanted sexual advances on their colleague.

I left out significant details of my personal experience in order to avoid direct identification of the man, and to spare hurt feelings or misunderstandings of others.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The First, the Last, the Boy

There is a protocol to sex: Everyone needs to make sure that everyone else is having fun. I went out with the 21-year-old American boy after we returned from Munich, and what started out as intrigue soon dwindled into an akward union that left only one of us satisfied.

Monday night we met on Ponte Vecchio, and walked over to Pop Cafe in Piazza Santo Spirito for an aperitivo. The conversation was nice, but I felt that there was a change in our chemistry since returning from Munich. He seemed more reserved, and I was ... I dunno ... I was feeling more direct, or domineering. Perhaps it was because we were back in my home, a place he would soon be leaving and I felt, he really did not understand.

After we finished our wine he walked me back to my place. Once at the foot of my building door, I asked him if he wanted to come up.

"I don't care," he said.

"Is that a 'yes' or a 'no,'" I asked.

"Maybe" annoys me. What does "I don't care" mean? Is the person interested or not?

Throughout the evening he spoke of an animated Disney film, about two robots that fall in love, shocked that I had not seen it, he suggested we watch it. So we snuggled up on my tiny bed to watch a free download of "WALL-E." It was cute, but I can't remember the last time I watched a movie with a guy as a prelude to sex. Wait, wait now I remember. Yes, the last time that happened I was in college.

He made his move. He gently tickled my back with soft kisses. Being with him was sweet, no sparks, just sweet. And I thought he was a nice boy. Despite the thoughts in back of my head that said, "be careful he's just a boy. Don't get caught up," in all honesty, he just seemed genuine and good looking, and respectful of a woman. A precious boy. And I told him that.

"You're so sweet," I said in between a kiss.

"That's weird. No one's ever said that to me before," he responded.

That's when I knew this was not going to rank on the top 10 best sexual experiences of my life. What else do you do in these moments? You say nice things. In love or not. You compliment your lover. Those sweet emotions pull at you when your lying in bed with someone.

I love pillow talk. That's the honey of romantic trysts; spending time, clothes off, talking about nothing in particular. Maybe the American did not know who he was yet, because if he was secure with himself, as so he should be, he would have taken the compliment with a smile.

He was taking his time, and I was asking him to hurry up and get to it. Maybe I was being too Samantha, but after him not taking to my compliment, it became apparent that I would just have to use him. But unlike my hopes of repeating certain acts throughout the night, he said he would only be showing for one single performance. And if I was not satisfied at the end of it, so be it.

And I was not satisfied at the end, middle or beginning. Maybe he did not know how it worked. It's called reciprocity. On top of that, he kept his socks on. Doesn't he know the rules: No socks, give and receive, repeats are a must, and its rude not to spend the night.

"Look at you, you look so mad," he said jokingly, laying there, acting like he just ran the New York City Marathon.

"This is an exchange," I said.

Of course I was pissed. Are you kidding, that's it? I felt bad for being demanding, but I chose him for certain reasons, just as he chose me.

He left in a rush. I think he was embarrassed, although really there is nothing to be embarrassed about. Things happen, chemistry is not right. I would have liked to try again, it took Carrie and Burger two times before they got it right, but the boy never surfaced again.

I think about what I did wrong. Maybe I was too mean; maybe I should have been nicer; maybe I should have just smiled and kept my mouth closed; maybe...

Now I figured it out. Maybe he was just too young.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Spring Fest in Munich

Löwenbräu beer, scenic hikes, juicy pork hocks, storybook castles, American boys and bikes … were all incorporated into my weekend jaunt with FlorenceForFun to Munich. FlorenceForFun is a travel agency that organizes affordable excursions to accessible cities of Europe primarily for American students studying in Florence.

I went on the trip as an assistant to one of the guides and managers, Anna McNiel.

We left around 11:30 p.m. on Thursday on a bus packed with 44 students, and drove through the majestic Alps to Bavaria. Anna warned me to sleep well on the bus because we had three days packed with activities ahead of us. So naturally I didn’t sleep at all.

 The next morning, with our luggage checked at the hotel, we hit the ground running, making a quick detour at Starbucks before beginning a four-hour bike tour of the city. Mikes Bikes Tour lead the group from well kept bike paths alongside gilded monuments, to the serene English Garden. We took a much needed lunch break at the Chinese Tower Beer garden. 

Under flowering chestnut trees, I sipped my stein of amber beer, while trying to conquer a full plate of heavy German food. Although my stomach disagreed with it later, I was thankful for the fried potatoes, topped with spiced sour cream and deep fried pork knuckles; finally, a greasy, unhealthy meal that was not centered on a boiled noodle or squashed grape.

 When we arrived back at the hotel, Anna and I only had time for a quick rinse and makeup fix, before heading out to the weekend highlight — Spring Fest. In a fog of cigarette smoke, women and men from 16- to 70-years-old drank, drank, drank. A lady with boobs up to her chin, that shook when she spoke, continuously dropped off fistfuls of beer at our table, while we sang and danced on top of benches.

The thing that amazed me, besides everyone having a good time and socializing with the patrons at the next table, was the cleanliness of the bathrooms. The portable bathrooms located outside the beer tent were cleaner than all the bathrooms I have used in an Italian restaurant or bar. A woman cleaned up the toilette seat after each use. Actually all the bathrooms that I used during this trip were sanitized mechanically or personally after each use.

It was that night that one of the students paid extra attention to me. I kept noticing him touching me, and naturally I wanted to touch him back. The beer helped me ignore the 10+ year age difference between us, plus he had a sweet smile and was from my hometown Cleveland.

Because I was technically working, I could not spend as much time with him that I would have liked to. We did manage to find a dark street corner, away from everyone for a long heated kiss, accompanied by some pushing up against a wall and leg wrapping.

The next evening we met up at Spring Fest, after I had spent the day hiking hills to visit Ludwig II’s fairytale refuge, Neuschwanstein Castle. Around 1:00 a.m. we took an exceptionally long walk to the furthest Burger King, and held hands while carrying back cold food for myself and Anna.

It was refreshing to spend time with a boy who was not dramatic, did not fake tears because I did not want to spend the night in his room and was laid back. He just seemed “untouched” by any negative thing in life or love, unlike me. And that is attractive.

On Sunday morning, the end of our trip, I called him to see if he wanted to join Anna and me for lunch in a beer garden with live music. I would never have called an Italian guy on the whim. They would have taken a phone call as a sign for desperation, pushiness or the worst clinginess. When I was in Sicily, I called x. one night, just to say “hey,” because I was bored. By the end of the conversation I knew that phone call was a mistake, and I would never see him again romantically. I was right.

In this situation, I figured I could enjoy Munich with another, and have a bit of fun with someone before they returned back to the United States. I knew it would not last, and if we saw each other back in Florence, I told myself “it could only be sex.” Let’s be realistic, he is not going to bring me back with him to his college dorm in the States, and I could not fit him into my current life.

In all, I was grateful to Anna for giving me work. Although, I admit being a tour guide is not my forte. I cannot make a connection with a person unless I make a connection. And that is difficult to do with a large group of people from all over the United States, in an age group that I feel I no longer have any common ground with. But Anna finds a way to ensure fun is had by all, and that everyone is taken care of. She also knows Munich like the back of her hand, and gave essential information about the city to those who wanted to break away from the planned activities.

Besides the natural beauty, Germany is a gorgeous country becauses everything works, and the Germans seemed to respect the space and rights of the others around them. I noticed this when we rode our bikes through the public parks and spaces, by how the bike path was shared, who had the right of way at a crossings, etc ... I would choose to live in Germany if I ever left Italy.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Being Ostracized

I have been ostracized by two people in Florence because I decided to no longer work for their publications.

People here take things to a personal level when it should stay professional. What makes my situation even more baffling is that neither of them paid me, yet they expected me to be at their every beck and call without consideration for my personal time.

One of them would invite me to free dinners, as if that should be sufficient compensation (last time I checked my landlord did not accept a plate of pasta for the rent); and the other only paid me about 300 euros for at least five months of work (and I had to ask for that amount).

When I had told each one that I was broke and needed to find paid work, I thought they would get the hint that their assignments for me would no longer be placed first — nothing personal, it's business.

When I informed one of the last month I would be working for free, they replied, “You have a lot to learn … I am not taking advantage of you.” Who said anything about being taken advantage of? That person was actually selling their product, and advertisements, yet there was not enough money to compensate me for my editing and writing services.

The other person, although not selling any advertisements that I was aware of, brought me into their idea for an English newspaper. The idea was I was supposed to be the editor. In a meeting last December the graphic artist, salesman and owner of the paper were all arguing about when to publish the first issue. It became clear that they expected me to write all 16 pages of the biweekly publication.

“What will the sections of the paper be,” I asked the owner (it was only natural that they would know what they wanted their future newspaper to be).

“No, you have to do that. You have to figure out all of the sections,” he said.

“But where was the rough outline that we decided on together last week,” I asked.

“No, no you have to do that. I don’t have any time,” they said.

In this meeting, I was told that I was not allowed to leave Florence to go to Sicily to visit my family, yet the same person that made this rule visited the United States for a week this month. After frivolous meetings and arguing over target groups in the months that followed, the group was falling apart, yet the owner made it clear that “the paper must come out before I leave for the United States,” yet they “did not have time” to commit to it. Somehow I felt that all the responsibilities were falling on me. I began to feel exploited for my knowledge of English, and writing skills.

That made me think twice about how appreciated I was, and if this person was as serious as I was about their so called “dream.” The day before they left for their trip to the United States, they told me I should look for a job since the economic crisis was not the opportune time to introduce a new publication in Florence. So that’s what I did. When they returned, I was still expected to commit my personal time. When I made it clear I was no longer going to be their writing monkey I was cut off — with intent.

It takes a lot of arrogance to dangle a work contract in the face of woman who does not know where her next meal is coming from. But what makes the vulture show through, is when they pretend not to know you when they see you on the street, blame you for the failures of their publication, cancel you as a friend from Facebook (my friend Christine and I laughed over that for hours), send a lackey to request materials back from you, and refuse to return your calls, all because you put yourself before their self interests.

I am realizing how the game is played in Italy. They try to make you believe that you need them, so that you will work for free. However, in reality it is they who need a mother tongue English speaker to develop their business idea. It is a psychological game. Some people that I have met in Florence are so good at this game, that they have made me feel ashamed for thinking that I deserve money in exchange for the work I do.

Those two experiences and more have made me realize that Italy does subscribe to a caste system. “You’re at the bottom freelance immigrant journalist! I am ‘so and so’ and I have been writing longer than you, living in Florence longer than you, and I have more connections than you; so you need to kiss my feet and work for free until I think you’re worthy of earning cash.”

And you know what I say to that: Fuck you. I have just as much right as anyone to make my living here, and write for more than one publication and to develop my ideas for my own projects — all for $$$$$$.

Competition exists everywhere, and so does jealousy. In Italy I see a trend beyond the normal competitive traits that these personality types have in common. They tend to be over emotional. They also talk themselves up and surround themselves with people who look up to them, such as students who come to Florence on study abroad programs. They keep their cards close; never revealing any information on their business or contacts; secrecy to the point of suffocation.

Maybe I am the naïve one; maybe I should be following those personalities and learning from their actions. But if being closed off and taking everything personal is what it takes to run a successful business in Italy, I hope I fail miserably.

I have deleted and added content to this post after its original publication in order to present the material in a more journalistic manner.

Monday, April 20, 2009

My First Interview with a Famous Person: Garrison Rochelle Speaks about Fame, Success and Life After "Amici"

“Amici are coming! Do we have enough food for Amici?” asked one of the owners of Angels Restaurant, the place where I waitress for the Sunday American brunch run by Florence For Fun.

I am now embarrassed to say: I thought she was talking about her friends. I was annoyed. Didn’t she know that we stop serving at 3 p.m.?

Then Matteo, one of the Italian servers told me who was coming to brunch. “Amici,” is a popular Italian television show, comparable to “Fame” with a splash of “Big Brother.” It’s been on the air since 2001, and is part documentary, part talent contest that shows young talents’ quest for stardom in the entertainment business. Viewers determine who will win the televised talent show based on participants’ ability to dance, sing and act. The professional dancers from the show were in town to perform "Io Ballo" at Teatro Verdi, and called the restaurant to see if we could accommodate them so shortly before closing.

I seldom watch T.V. ever since moving to Italy — I get my information solely through the Internet. So I remained unfazed, while some of my colleagues scurried in preparation for the arrival of the “Amici.” This with the exception of the boss, Federico — he always portrays a minimum level of charm, enough to keep everyone smiling.

“I am not serving them,” I said to Federico. “I don’t kiss anyone’s ass.  I treat all customers the same, so it’s best that someone else serves them. I will only place things on the table where you tell me.”

While I was walking back and forth from the kitchen, I was stopped by one of the professional dancers, José Perez. He asked if the shops were open on Monday. I do not remember if it was at that point or another that I said a word in English.

“You’re American,” said Garrison Rochelle, a former dancer and famous choreographer of the show.

And that started our conversation.

I took him into the kitchen to meet the rest of the staff, mostly Americans. Matteo was red and could not speak. That gave me a sign that this guy was someone worth interviewing. 

 Besides my professional interest, I sincerely liked speaking with him. I chatted with Rochelle about living in Italy, the struggles and the show. I told him I was a journalist, and asked if I could interview him if I ever came to Rome. He readily agreed.

The next day, I thought: why am I waiting? Maybe he has time for an interview today. With newfound determination, I called him and set up the appointment.

At 7 p.m. I entered Teatro Verdi through the artists’ entrance. A lady with thick black glasses walked me to the backstage. Bright, hot, almost blinding lights shone on the dancers practicing the routine for that night’s show.

I have to admit it was great to see the “behind-the-scenes” of a performance. Many people wearing black walked past me. I took it they were permanent staff of the theatre, and probably wore black to blend in with the stage.

Eventually, Rochelle arrived, and happily arm-in-arm, escorted me to his dressing room.

There his two dogs greeted us, and I interviewed him while he put on his makeup. We faced the large lighted mirror. I wasn’t sure where to stare, at him or the mirror. I chose to communicate by looking at his reflection. Before I pressed record on my digital recorder, I told him that he is my first famous-person-interview.

That comment initiated the interview. Rochelle really does not consider himself famous.

“Famous almost sounds like a dirty word to me, because it has negative aspects,” he said.

Traits usually associated with famous people, like vanity and neuroticism, are qualities that Rochelle does not possess. That makes him a genuine person. It also made it comfortable for me to simply converse with him. He does not put much worth in being famous or popular.

“The last 10 years have been good because of ‘Amici.’ But before that I worked for a program that was really popular. And so I would be ‘famous — really — famous’ (he made the familiar quote-mark sign with his fingers) where I couldn’t walk down the street. And then I’d be off T.V. for a year, and people kind of forget the face,” Rochelle said. 

But Rochelle does not have a problem with that. From dancing on Broadway to performing on various Italian entertainment shows for more than 25 years, Rochelle acknowledges that fame is momentary. After experiencing the downside of show biz, he places value on other types of success defined outside of public esteem. 

In 1984, he had his first encounter with fame. Italian fans noticed him with his mother in Milano’s Piazza San Babilo. They overtook the square in a matter of minutes, causing the police to be called. The experience’s impact was twofold. 

“It freaked me out … than after that I thought: Wow, I’m famous! I thought the deal was done … I could just wait for the contracts to come in.”

In the early 1980’s, he moved to Italy, where he and Brian Bullard formed the duo-dance act “Brian and Garrison.” One of their first performances was on RAI Uno’s variety show “Fantistico 4,” where they danced alongside Heather Parisi. Like most television shows, the program eventually finished. People called them with offers that he and Bullard thought were beneath them, such as “putting a woman between us.” 

“We thought: we are ‘Brian and Garrision.’ Why do we need to do that?” he said. “So you say no once, you say no twice, you say no three times, and they stop calling you.” 

In hindsight, Rochelle admits that they should have taken those opportunities, both for financial reasons, and to maintain a level of popularity. However, the lull in his career taught him to live independently of popularity, and to separate his professional and personal lives.

“I try to keep the two things (professional and personal) apart.” Rochelle said. “I like the person I am outside of television.”  

Rochelle’s career spans dancing on Broadway for renowned choreographer Bob Fosse, to being accepted by Italian audiences for what he describes as “being dizzy.” Rochelle now only wishes for what many people desire: enough money to live comfortably and to have free time.

 Looking beyond “Amici,” Rochelle foresees two or three prosperous years left in his career, and then hopes to retreat to three modest homes he would own. He already owns a house in Rome; his second home would be in Barcelona, and the third in Miami or Tampa, Florida.

Luckily his career has afforded him trips all over the world. However, because he was working on those trips, he did not get the chance to explore and enjoy those places. Now Rochelle is trying to set up his life where he will have time to travel.

I’m always amused about how men’s eyes get wide when I tell them that I belly dance. I am sure they imagine how my hip drops and twists play a role in bed. I prefaced my next question to him with that story. I had to ask him if he thought being a good dancer translated into being a good lover.

“Yes,” Rochelle replied without hesitation. “When I see a dancer, or male or female, when they dance bad, first thing I think is ‘God they must be awful in bed,’” he said with a playfully ghastly look. “You know,” he said to me.

“Yeah.” I completely agreed with him.

“I mean, I could be wrong, but someone that’s uncoordinated when they move, how could they be coordinated when they have (he put his hand over his mouth)… make love?” he asked. I assured him he could use any word he wanted to, as we freely exchanged opinions on the matter.

I admire Rochelle for his candidness, and for letting himself show through the interview. More importantly, I admire him for not putting too much worth in his popularity and fame.

As far as defining success, he does not use fame to measure success.

“You don’t have to be famous to be successful … you have to figure out what’s successful for you,” he said. Being successful in his career, as well as in his private life, “that’s a success.”