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”.