I’ve come to believe in something I spoke about earlier called “La Dolce Far Niente“. A way of living, a lifestyle attitude, the Italian way. The phrase boils down to mean the sweetness of doing nothing. I first arrived in Florence and had heard the phrase mentioned by my Italian teacher who used it in passing with another professor. She was talking about how she had a million things to do that day, needed to pick her daughter up from school and make dinner for her relatives who were visiting.
“La Dolce Far Niente” her colleague responded. Which I now understand is the Italian way of saying take it easy- they are famous for it. A typical NYU student is constantly doing things. A routine day starts off with morning class, an afternoon internship and then maybe homework or going out in the evening. Busy schedules are almost synonymous with the life of a New Yorker. As I enter into my final year and a half of college I can already see the time flying by. It feels like just yesterday that I moved into my freshman dorm and said goodbye to my family for a new experience on the east coast. Where did the time go? The past few months have stimulated constant self reflection. The pace in Italy has demanded a slower lifestyle and consequentially a greater appreciation for the minute occurrences of daily Florentine life. On my last day studying abroad, I woke up and sat by the Arno River for a few hours, drinking tea and watching the tourists walk in and out of the Uffitzi Gallery. I had to pack and print out my boarding pass, pick up last minute gifts and drop off my keys at school, but in those few hours I was at peace. Returning home I will try to maintain this habit, though it will be very difficult. I’ve already been home a day and I have two doctors appointments scheduled, a meeting with a potential employer for next semester and a dozen other things my mom put on a list for me to do. I know I will never be able to return to the care- free lifestyle I was enjoying in Florence. It will be a long time before I can look at a map of Europe and pick a place to spend my weekend. I am coming home with incredible experiences, new friends and a different attitude towards my daily routine. I’m confident that when the New York rush becomes overwhelming, I will have my memories of Italy reminding me to “Dolce Far Niente”.
As the semester has come to a close, my group of friends and I have begun to reflect on the past semester. This normally occurs at big dinners, where we use the “were leaving soon” excuse to order every pasta dish on the menu and multiple bottles of wine. With 10 people at a table, incredible fresh food and bottles of italian wine- we always have a fun time. These moments are in essence my reasoning when someone asks if they should study abroad in Florence. I could tell them about Italy’s central location and the ease associated with getting to other european cities. How the city is easy to navigate and everywhere is just walk away. Or about the art and florence’s rich renaissance history. But the true beauty of Florence is in the atmosphere it fosters for students studying abroad.
There are so many restaurants here, try and eat at as many as you can. Consume all the gelato you can get your hands on until you find your favorite sport. Eduardo’s happens to be mine: their cinnamon flavor is addictive. But more important then foods, bars or clubs is the mindset you have before you arrive. The only thing you need to have in advance is patience. Theres a basic understanding that once you arrive, things move slowly, and Italians are notorious for their lackadaisical attitude towards getting things done. You step off the plane from a fast paced, vibrant, semester in New York City and the cab driver in Florence takes the scenic route home and you understand, “Dorthy you’re not in New York anymore”. But embrace it, and learn to love the break from the rush. Instead of taking the bus to class, walk home and take the time to notice the beautiful sculptures perched atop buildings that are so unique to Florence. Stop and listen to the man playing the accordion in the middle of that Piazza you normally avoid because the other way home is so much faster. As my time in Italy closes I feel I can be bold enough to speak on behalf of the entire study abroad program. Florence is the breeding ground for a perfect study abroad experience. It combines the very best food, art and energy that you could ever hope for. Take advantage of this idea and utilize the city, I promise it will be worth it.
After school- I occasionally like to say hello to the David.
Years ago I was really into the idea of eating sustainably and growing all my own vegetables and fruits. After hours of research and dozens of trips to a home gardening store, I had the perfect little backyard plot. The space was small but perfect for planting tomatoes, zucchini and cucumber. I treasured my little garden, carefully sowing in the seeds in a perfect line. My days were spent tediously watering, weeding and doing all of the other necessary steps to ensure a productive harvest at the end of the summer. Towards the middle of the whole experience, my dog ended up chasing some animal through the plot, destroying all of the seedlings in the process. A part of me was relieved- I wasn’t sure how my plants would turn out and this was an easy excuse out.
Jump to the first week of my semester in Italy where I received an email about an extracurricular class entitled “Greens We Eat”. The course gave students the opportunity to grow their own vegetables and nurture them to point of harvest, culminating in a large dinner using all of the fresh produce. The vegetables grown would represent the Mediterranean diet that has become synonymous with healthy eating famous in Italy. The whole thing was very hands on, we dug our own plots and made our own compost. Aside from the growing portion their was also a lecture component that met every monday night for a few hours. The school flew in famous agriculture experts and NYU professors from the food studies program. We learned about soil composition, plant fertility, and proper watering techniques. By the end of our ten week course we were left with baskets of beautiful green things like kale, fennel, zucchini, and broccoli.
My revelation came after pulling a bright pink radish out of the ground, slicing it open and adorning it with a big squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. It was sweet, tart, and bursting with freshness. It really made me think about the culture of eating in Italy and their reliance on vegetables and fruits. They use good ingredients and end up with good products, devoid of that heaviness you typically associate with the food in America. For the harvest dinner we made a raw kale pesto for homemade pasta, broccoli cream soup, a crostini with white beans and sautéed spinach and a fennel and rosemary quiche. Yes, the dishes were delicious but more gratifying was knowing that a few weeks ago that food was just a tiny plant and I nurtured them into a meal. It makes me think that I might try the whole planting thing again when I’m home- but this time with a fence, no dogs allowed.
The owner of the cafe down the street from where I live, Francesca, is not just a barista, not just a cafe owner. She is a renaissance woman. She is a comfort. She is from Milan and wears fantastic hats when they are in style, and jackets, even when they are not. Every morning I come into Cafe Michelangelo, her platinum blonde hair is the first thing I see and is always quaffed into a perfect up-do. If you know her well enough you can call her “frenchie”, a privilege I was granted after frequenting the cafe every day for two months. Frenchie makes the coffee and deals with the cash register, her husband serves the pastries. Their roles- untraditional- defy the Italian generational expectations, and to the fact that if someone were to watch the couple they would see that it was Frenchie who wears the pants in the relationship. So she knows my order by memory. Without a doubt she is always there.
Frenchie is well known in my neighborhood. She makes coffee for me, the students at the school across the street and probably even the owners of other cafes in the area. She makes warm cappuccinos with airy whipped milk and a dash of chocolate power. Her husband serves sweet apple pastries dusted with powdered sugar. He heats them in the toaster until the edges turn crispy and the sugar on top caramelizes like Creme Brûlée. At one point frenchie will have twenty customers asking for coffee. That is something I never realized until I started writing this post but in Italy ordering coffee works different. You don’t wait in line and pay like you would for example, at Starbucks. Italians just crowd around the bar and assertively shout their order, waiting until the barista hears them and makes their coffee. It took me a while to join the in crowd of Cafe Michelangelo. It took a while for Frenchie to have my coffee waiting for me when I walked in. It will take me a while to get used to not having her when I return home. Finding your place is like hitting the jackpot. On days where I can’t focus in my room or the library, I head to the cafe, sit down in the back and lay out my books to study. The location is convenient and the staff has offered me a sense of comfort that I desperately needed while living in a foreign country. As I enter into the final weeks of my time here in Florence- I’ve been receiving messages from friends who will be studying abroad next semester. Aside from questions about nightlife and food, they ask about adjustment and studying outside the U.S. I conclude every response with similar advice: “find a local spot, get comfortable with the staff, and make it your place”.
It’s strange to think that up until a few months ago, Florence and I were pretty much strangers. I never thought about, it never thought about me, and that was it. But now (as corny as it is to say)- the city is a part of me, I see myself as florentine. Going back and reading my old posts I can’t help but laugh at how negative I was. Constantly complaining about its slow pace or the lack of varying food options. Rather I should’ve been appreciating this unique break from the complexities of daily life I am often confronted with in New York: the weird smells, the snow, Times Square?
People often equate Florence with food, art and tourism. Not that these things are so far off, but the true essence of Florence is more than restaurants and museums; and picking a place or a thing that symbolizes florentine life can seem impossible. The Duomo is too representative of the tourist culture in Italy- and just saying “Italian food” would be a cop out. I believe that the spirit of Florence is in its piazza’s not its pizza’s. These public squares are in almost every Italian town, representative of a communal and social energy present in Florence.
Piazza Santo Spirito sits on the “other-side” of the Arno, just a five minute walk from the Ponte Vecchio. It has become my favorite place in Florence. Bordered by cafes, small bars and delicious restaurants, the square is the epitome of Italian cool. There is a small park in the middle of the square with large trees and wooden benches. During the day, women sit outside and sip espresso people watching and gossiping. At night, the sun sets and the square is bathed in this warm yellow hue- it quickly transforms into a meeting place for tourists and locals alike. The surrounding bars blast 90’s american music, italians stand outside in big groups drinking bright orange Negronis. When it begins to rain, which often happens spontaneously in Florence, large umbrellas are opened up. People sit under these umbrellas, eating dinner by candlelight, watching the rain blanket the piazza in a glossy wetness. One of my favorite restaurants Osteria Santo Spirito is located in the piazza, and serves the most incredible-molten-hot white truffle gnocchi. As the temperature has started to drop, the restaurant has begun to offer blankets so people can continue to dine al fresco. There is nothing more Italian than sitting outside, drinking good red wine and munching on little salty snacks. It is nights like these that I will miss when I return to the states.
The day starts slow, an early alarm, a languid walk to the train station, a short drive to the chef’s house. The pace quickens soon enough, but in that moment we clothe ourselves in quiet, in a sleepy stillness, and with a brief nap on the train to Cortona.
That day we cooked like true italians, our entrèe made entirely from scratch and with precision. The space is small and the coffee had yet to be poured, but an exhaustive cooking session is a fine trade for the experience of making fresh pasta contrasted by a stunning tuscan countryside. It’s something I accept as I chop onions at nine in the morning while I wipe wet beads from my brow
I watch my mom frustratingly trying to peel garlic. She’s in town for the weekend and was insistent on taking a cooking class. The chef comes to her rescue, dicing up the garlic and adding it to a squash ravioli filling. He moves the mixture around and adds salt and handfuls of fresh herbs — a little here, a little there— seasoning and taking pains to ensure perfect balance. Homemade olive oil is drizzled over the filling, the oil anoints the fresh garlic underneath and makes the pan sizzle.
When the antipasti platter has been assembled and the fresh pasta is rolled and cut, I grab the plates, the chilled wine, and make my way to the table. The chef chops homemade mozzarella, mixes it in to a salad with a dash of salt, and then tosses it with a dressing that bathes it all in the sweet breath of what you’d imagine tuscany to taste like. I sink my teeth into a crispy piece of bread with whipped ricotta. The truffle oil spills down the side of my mouth. I try and remember everything we just did. There will be no cooking on this torpid evening — but I will use the skills I learned in the next couple weeks before I head back to California.
Outside the chef’s dog chases chickens through thick olive foliage. My mom and I watch from the beautifully set table, our food spread out in a feast fit for 10. A few hours later and were back on our way to Florence. The train rushing by blows a breeze just this side of cool. We’re stuffed with food and new recipes; I melt into my seat and put my feet up, the perfect time to digest and reflect as we make the trip back to our hotel.
Barbra Harisson is quoted in an excerpt from Traveler’s Tales Tuscany where she discusses the joys of traveling through Italy. Specifically, “ …the Tuscan landscape, the terraced hills crowned by churches and towers blessed by vineyards, and everything- stone houses, silver-green olive trees, blue green undulating fields, triangles and bowls of wheat green land bordered by dark exclamatory cypresses and shaded by beneficent umbrella pines- everything bathed in the austere, uncompromising Tuscan light, I feel that life is altogether bounteous and good, lovable, manageable sweet.
Studying abroad is generally an incredible time in the life of a student, but the stereotypes associated are typically geared towards uncomfortable and unglamorous travel. Studying in Italy, I often think about beauty, and attempt to find or create it each day. I try to acknowledge its’ constant presence in my surroundings. My time in Italy is slowly approaching its end and I will be leaving the lush greenery of tuscany for the grey concrete in New York City. While both cities represent a different type of beauty, I can’t help but favor the beauty and lifestyle of the Italian experience. Whether its cooking amidst a tuscan countryside or walking between groves of trees to get to class, the joys and beauty of Florence will hopefully stay with me for a long time.
It’s nine in the morning and exhaustion has set in. My plan for last night, the one where I did work and went to bed at a reasonable hour was thwarted when my roommates demanded that we go out to a new bar in Florence. So its early, and I have a full day of class. I know I won’t be getting back to my apartment until 8pm; the thought of being away from my bed for that long is unsettling. The only thing on my mind is running to the cafe inside of Villa Ulivi on campus and ordering a large cappuccino.
There is something special about having a coffee shop inside of your school. This cafe is very different from the Starbucks in Washington Square. The small size allows for a quick in and out coffee or snack break. You aren’t waiting in a long line with caffeine addicted students who have poked their head out from their Bobst cubicle to satisfy their coffee craving. Not to sound snobbish, but in Italy we try and savor our drinking experience. Fernando, the barista, has become a regular in my life- he greets the students with a high five and huge smile. Though the options are limited, what more do you really need? Coffee and tea, bagels and pastries, fruit and yogurt.
At a school renowned for its lack of community spirit and group involvement, there is something to say about the way in which this small cafe can bring our entire study abroad program together. Freshman and Seniors sit together, drinking coffee while taking a break from their classes. The whole cafe is representative of the Florentine experience: the chatter of students studying in broken Italian, the sound of the steam enveloping from the espresso machine, and the smell of fresh hazelnut pastries warming up in the oven. There is nothing flashy about this space- it does not serve fancy coffees or imported teas. The barista is friendly, the prices are low, and the location is convenient. And in a setting as idilic as the NYU Florence campus, a simple coffee shop is all we really need.
Last week I was in Venice, and had to make a trip to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The museum was named after the American heiress Peggy Guggenheim who at one point owned the building and made significant contributions to the museum’s founding. Guggenheim was a collector and socialite who played a major role in establishing an appreciation for modern and contemporary art, architecture and other versions of visual culture. A majority of the historic pieces from her personal collection were kept in the Guggenheim in Venice, with some having been donated to New York and Bilbao. In 1969 Peggy Guggenheim donated her palace and works of art to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Today the museum remains one of the most visited attractions in the city of Venice.
The museum rests on the southern side of the city facing the grand canal. Getting there meant a quick trip on the water shuttle. Direct light illuminates the inside of the building, requiring little indoor lighting. This setting acts in stark contrast to other Guggenheim owned museums. Because Venice is comprised of 118 small islands, the structure essentially occupies its own private land formation. The original intent was to create a structure resembling the facade of a Renaissance or Baroque building, but the patron’s family could no longer afford the building. As such, the architect halted production and left the palace as a one story building. The low and long exterior esthetic now acts in contrast to the higher buildings representative of Venetian architecture. By 1948 Peggy Guggenheim purchased the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni as a permanent home for the next 30 years and as a place to hold her extensive art collection.
Working in tandem with its distinctive name, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection displays distinctive modern art and sculpture. Eight of the building’s front windows, which are entirely composed of glass, allow in large amounts of natural light and allow for truly impressive views of the Grand Canal and passing boats. The interior’s architecture is distinctive from the exterior, the former comprised of a simple and minimal design- the later completed in renaissance fashion.
Peggy Guggenheim’s collection is really central to the being of the space, showcasing some of the most famous works from 20th century Cubist, Futurist, Surrealist, Abstract and Avant-garde movements. I was shocked at the amount of work that was showcased in such a small space. In a small house, essentially rests some of the most famous Modern Art from the past century. Calder’s mobiles hang from the ceiling, Picasso’s pieces are hung next to Magrite’s. You move from room to shocked by the impressive volume that a single woman could amass in one lifetime. Some of the most well known paintings include, Picasso’s The Poet, Braque’s Clarinet, Duchamp’s Sad Young Man on a Train, Mondrian’s Composition No. 1, Kandinsky’s Landscape with Red Spots, Miró’s Seated Woman II, Ernst’s The Kiss, and Pollock’s, Alchemy. One of the most fascinating pieces was René Magritte’s Empire of Light v. II, so much so that I found myself returning to the room where it was displayed three or four times. Often times surrealist work can be unsettling, but this piece is approachable- done in the impersonal and precise style that was typical of Magritte in 20th century. There is nothing moving or melting, just a paradoxical contrast of day and night on what seems like a typical suburban home. The sun which normally provides sight and clarity, is shown in the piece as an object which bring confusion and bewilderment. This lack of understanding makes the darkness at the bottom of the piece even more unsettling and hollow. This interesting element keeps drawing you in.
After walking through the Museum, I sat in the outside area overlooking the Canal. Truly one of the highlights from my trip, watching the gondolas and water taxis drive by was a relaxing and serene experience. The location was pivotal to my interpretation of the museum. It would have been a completely different trip if the collection was placed in the heart of Manhattan in a giant building. Looking at the art hung adjacent to the water provided a sense of calmness, allowing you to better interpret and understand the complexities of the Modern Art. It sounds strange, but because I felt at peace, the complicated art seemed to make sense. And, how incredible to be in a space that helped expose artists and sculptors who essentially shaped twentieth century art.
If you are going out to dinner in Florence, you will almost always receive this standard response.
“Dinner? Oh, on this side of the Arno or the “other-side”?”.
Students studying abroad in Florence know the difference between the two sides. The former generally represents a typical quick dinner in the form of a lack luster pizza or overly creamy pasta, while the later represents a journey into the unknown. The other-side of the Arno river represents everything noncommercial about the city; it is untouched by the mobs of tourists who tend to stay near the Duomo. My Aunt and Uncle came to Florence last weekend and were in search of quality Italian food, so I made all the dinner reservations for the “other-side”. If you are looking for an authentic Italian meal, it is as close as you are going to get. The food is clean and simple, a majority of the restaurants serve home made pasta. New menus are made weekly with the items listed in Italian, a good sign that you’ve found a non-touristy place.
ok- honestly I took this one, but it just seemed right
As MacCannell states tourists have a fetish for identifying with the experiences of the locals. They are entranced with “making a production” out of the trip, trying to locate the most authentic version of what they believe a tuscan vacation to be and encapsulating it into a photo or excursion. The harsh truth is that no matter how hard you try to find authenticity, the reality is that it can never be anything more that a contrived tourist experience. Because to be in the mind of a local, you must in fact be that local- a feat that is impossible. Rather, I believe it is important to just enjoy the adventure, moving away from preconceived notions of what you want your trip to be. Ignore what MacCannell explains as the front or back region and pursue an experience that you will enjoy. Whether that means eating at “Cafe David” next to the museum with Michelangelo’s David, or traveling to the “other-side” to find a meal representative of Italian home cooking, the experience is completely personal.
Last weeks dinner from the “other-side”
I am currently standing on a train traveling from Venice Santa Lucia to the Florence Santa Maria Novella station. I had just spent the weekend in Venice marveling at everything the unique city had to offer. History is all around, thousand year old churches have withstood the test of time. One way canals lead to quiet piazzas, old buildings sit beside even older bridges. With 118 small islands, Venice is hard to navigate. I quickly realized that a paper map wasn’t going to cut it, I guess getting lost is just a part of the Venetian experience. My friends had heard from locals that an hour north of Venice, there was small island with the most charming little town. The hotel concierge said that the trip all together would take two hours; a shuttle to the island, a walk around the tiny island, and a shuttle back. It was during hour two on that water shuttle to the Island of Burano where I realized that we had misunderstood the directions and got on the local boat instead of the express. The whole experience could only be equated with taking the New York subway “6” train uptown instead of the “4” or “5”. Basically it meant we would get to our destination, just in the most time consuming and inconvenient way possible. I kept looking at my watch, but told myself, “ there are worse things than being stuck on a boat off the coast of Venice”. One hour later, we stopped on a local Island to transfer to a different boat which would take us to Burano- asking every person we came into contact with if we were going in the right direction, and receiving no help. It was only once we arrived at the destination and stepped foot on to this gorgeous, picturesque, and unique Island, that I understood.
In La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, Beppe Severgnini writes, “You’re never really ready for the Italian jungle. No other nation is as good at difficult things, like cooking, aesthetics, and family relationships, or- as lackadaisical over the easy ones, like sticking to the rules, organization or administration. Italy’s good qualities are the inimitable product of centuries of history. Its failings are the annoying consequence of civic idleness. That’s why Italy is the kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or the course of ten minutes” (212). Severgnini has managed to perfectly articulate the Italian way of life I have tried to express to all my friends and family back home. Venice, for example, is a city with 20 million tourists and only 60,00 actual residents. Asking for directions or trying to get anywhere quickly will just get you upset. Italy has created this breading ground for tourists, with restaurants relying on this niche market by packing your leftover food into an aluminum foil gondola. And yet: Venice is a city overflowing with history. It was the home to Marco Polo, the subject of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and the stage for some of classical music’s most famous performances. Traveling along the pure blue coast, which looks like a postcard, reveals an ocean that is both mystical and illuminating. Rock formations jut out of the sea- massive and mysterious, it’s tough to convey how beautiful the landscape here is.
So, I’m standing on this train back to Florence from Venice. My tickets didn’t print at the station and the company’s contact number was just an answering machine. I was advised to just stand and wait until I could reach someone. But I wasn’t bothered. I was just in Venice, spending the afternoon on the Island of Burano, a place where every tiny house is painted a different neon color. While the bureaucracy of Italian daily life can be infuriating, the whole experience outweighs the minute annoyances. And in the end, I won’t remember standing on the train, but the unique experience of studying abroad in this beautiful region of the world.
P.S. I did something touristy and rode a gondola. It was fantastic.