Ciao Waterbury,

Benvenuti Firenze

Story by Erika Giannelli

   I’m used to the wild hand gestures, 3 course lunches and loud conversation. Growing up with my Italian family in Waterbury was little Italy in itself. I can still smell the meats from the deli down the street, the mayonnaise slathered on crusty Italian bread, the cookies and pastries that lined the aisles. And I remember home, a building we shared with my beautiful great grandmother who cooked steaks and pork chops, escarole and beans. I can smell it today. My entire extended family lived around us, loud and expressive and loving.

   Five years ago I threw a coin over my left shoulder into the Trevi Fountain in Rome. I was in high school, only months away from my college experience at Marist. And though I haven’t returned to Rome as the myth reveals, I have settled in the city of Florence for a 4-month journey abroad, right at the end of my senior year. And now, I can smell the meat again, although this time I’m a vegetarian. I can smell the mayonnaise on the crusty Italian bread. I can talk with people in the cafes just like my family, loud and expressive and loving.

   I live in the heart of the city Florence, in an apartment above a loud and busy street, across from the most wonderful Italian woman, Ira, who I call my temporary grandmother. Every few days she blows me a kiss and asks, Scuola? And every few days I know a few more phrases to say to her. Although I’m here to study at an English-speaking school, the language has not escaped me. I am tightly wrapped in Italian culture through December.

   I arrived in Italy in September to finish the last semester of my college career. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have done a great deal of traveling. I’ve taken bus rides and flights to France, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and Monaco. I’ve snacked on French macaroons and tasted Spanish paella. I drank beer at Munich’s Oktoberfest and snapped photos in front of the Swiss Alps. But I must admit that every time the trip comes to a close, I can’t wait to be back in Florence. I’m always anxious to hear the musical language in the streets, to smell the city in all its glory.

Piazza Vecchio and the Clock Tower in the Main Square of Florence, Italy.

   Florence is a city straight out of a fairy tale. The buildings are made of smooth stone and decorated windows. The window panes are painted green and gray and blue. It constantly smells of coffee and pizza and waffles straight from the Gelaterias. Every day I sit at a café by my apartment, order a cappuccino in Italian, and listen. The clank and click of mugs, white porcelain, drown out the music, until the steam from the espresso machine roars. I see browns and greens and reds, wooden tables and clear glasses, wine in the morning before noon. Rolls of mozzarella and ham in plain view, sitting out far too long. Familiar Coca Cola signs housed next to a basket of oranges and shelves of marinated eggplant. There are slurs of Italian and French and English all around me. I watch as families and tourists and mailmen stop by for a sandwich, as they talk with wild hand gestures and facial expressions.

A thrill for Erika Giannelli was when her parents and aunt and uncle came to Florence for a visit in November. From left to right are Cynthia Giannelli, Paula Giannelli (mom), Erika, Joe Giannelli (dad) and Stephen D. Giannelli Jr..

    Close to my apartment is the San Lorenzo Market – a festival of vendors that line the streets seven days a week, selling everything from leather jackets to hand-painted spoons. Sometimes I walk through them aimlessly, cappuccino in hand, sunglasses on, strolling past the vendors that hoot and holler “You dropped something my love.” I’ve learned the art of the sly smile. I’m careful where I look, as even small eye contact with a leather bag sends the vendors in full ‘selling’ mode. For you, 30 euro. Sometimes I browse and ask about prices just so I can practice my Italian. But every time I walk through the market, I am amazed by the colors and the sounds. And sometimes, I just like to get lost in the scenery.

   One of my favorite spots is the Mercado Centrale – an indoor/outdoor farmers market packed with fruit, vegetables, cheeses, meats, nuts, and take-out cafes. Even three months into my time in Florence, I still stand in awe every time I make a trip to the market. The smells are wild, a combination of tripe and strawberries and macaroni. It is overwhelming and invigorating to speak my broken Italian as I ask for apples and broccoli, and a half a kilo of pecorino. Samples of balsamic vinegars, Limón cello, and sun dried tomatoes are scattered in the maze of rows. I still get lost finding my favorite stands – the ones with basil still attached to its roots.

   Lunch in Florence is never a simple sandwich – for me, sometimes it involves a foamy cappuccino and a cannoli with sweet ricotta and candied orange peels. Other days I take ‘sandwich’ to a new level, ordering mozzarella, pesto, and fresh tomatoes. And sometimes I just take my bottle of fresh-made olive oil and syrupy balsamic, and make any excuse for a salad.

   Being abroad is an experience that requires a great deal of wandering and walking and getting involved. I wanted to see the city outside of my school and my apartment, so I decided to join an Ashtanga yoga studio on the other side of the Arno River. To my surprise the first class was taught in English, even though I was surrounded by native Italian speakers. But after that, each class was taught in a mix of Italian and English, shared sequences of breathe and respira. And at the end we always “OM”. The classes are an incredible experience of presence and language and energy. What I found most incredible was the universality of communication. Hands gestures and facial expressions, broken language and charades fuse the language gap. I am able to communicate at the yoga studio, even when I am surrounded by a language I do not know. And in that yoga room, we are all speaking a universal language for an hour.

   I’ve left my home in Florence to visit Italy in pieces – the Amalfi Coast, Cinque Terre, Milan, Bologna, Sienna, San Gimignano, Chianti. The familiarity of the food and the streets is calming. But no matter what, I always come back to the musician at the Piazza della Repubblica. Gelato at Café delle Carrozze. Pasta at La Giostra. Peace at the top of the Duomo. Language near the Uffizi. No matter what, Florence has my heart. And I will be sure to throw another coin over my shoulder at the Trevi Fountain.