Firenze (Florence) bustles in the high season, energized through evening, late into the night. Teeming with sightseers, bodies spill into streets, clogging arterials that spiral out from the city's stunning, central, orienting structure — Il Duomo. Folks saunter and sample, with tiny spoons, gelato piled high. Tourists peruse shops brimming with the durable and delectable — leather, jewelry, textiles and confections. Craftsmanship perfected and passed down through generations. Multitudes engage in the evening ritual of aperitivo and sipping on Aperol spritzes.
But if you awake during the early, enchanted, sultry, summer morning hours, you can catch a distinct glimpse of the city, one flowing with more languid, less populous energy. Not all locals stay up late, some rise with the dawn, working at places like the old 19th century market — tucked between via dell'Ariento, via Sant'Antonia and via Panicale — Il Mercato Centrale. There, butchers carefully carve meats like tripe, delivered in plastic bagfuls. Bakers craft copious varieties of biscotti. Vendors arrange displays of lush fruits — lampone (raspberries), albicocca (apricots) and fragole (strawberries), or dried, candied versions. And people — including purveyors, workers, recently resettled refugees, residents and visitors — converge.
Inside this massive market, hugging a corner off the central aisle, sits a tiny place — Café Bambi — where you can find delicious conversation and coffee. Nearly every morning, I ventured here to learn about Italy while teaching at our Gonzaga-in-Florence campus. Here, I witnessed countless interactions, providing better context for understanding my surroundings. Here, I fell in love with Italians. And while I must admit I now view this world through rather romanticized lenses, I sure wish we'd consider importing certain characteristics. Italians seem to have a deeper sense of presence, infused with appreciation, resulting in an alternate hierarchy of values, centered primarily on tactile, tangible experiences and relationships.
They trust more. Payments are typically only rendered after an interaction, though most tourists insist on paying prior. Foreigners also seemed overly concerned with accounting, requiring receipts, while locals rely on consistency and good faith.
They savor more. They relish, describe, delight in and obsess over food — its freshness and quality, caring immensely about what's going into their recipes and bodies. They also walk everywhere, a combination that leads to a less disjointed, healthier, symbiotic way of living and eating, without a need for diets, deprivation or denial.
They express more. One day a young man, clearly having difficulty, laid his head on the counter. Instantaneously, he was surrounded with reassurances, a hand placed on his spine, an arm slung over his shoulders, a kiss planted on the back of his head. In that moment, my heart broke for Americans, especially American men, and our lack of avenues for such tender expression. Italians also constantly acknowlede beauty, not possessively, but solely recognizing and releasing, finding it everywhere, in a poem, a person, a perfect latte, a good glass of wine or in a bright smile. They use countless words of affirmation — bella/o, amore, ragazzi — to make people feel seen and respected. They use parts of their bodies as substitutes for speaking, words communicated through limbs and eyes, making translation to another's mother tongue, irrelevant.
On my last day, there were of tons of tears, crying commensurate with appropriate amounts of gratitude and grieving for departing a destination, transformed into a home. Upon leaving, I was asked to carry a piece of Firenze in my heart. I promise, I am trying, attempting to live a life saturated in presence, trust, savoring and seeing beauty, taking the spirit of a people and their beautiful city with me wherever I go. Grazie mille (a thousand thank yous). ♦
Inga N. Laurent is a local legal educator and a Fulbright scholar. She is deeply curious about the world and its constructs and delights in uncovering common points of connection that unite our shared but unique human experiences.