I am tired of being an English-speaker.
Time for Italian.
The view from my balcony is beautiful but distant. Language is my way in.
Elisa is a woman who has returned to her native Italian after living fourteen years in London, and she agrees to teach me to speak like a Florentine. We plan to meet at the Palazzo di Medici, 11:30AM Friday.
If I can manage it, this will be the earliest I have been out of the aparttamento yet.
It’s 11:15, and a short walk past the Duomo to Via Cavour 3. It is another bright, sunny, unusually accommodating December day, but three minutes into the walk, I shiver: did I shut the gas on the stove?
Lighting it up for my breakfast of hard boiled with olives (yes, it’s good) required three separate operations. I keep walking, convinced all is well, then I sharply turn back – it would be bad for international relations if I were to blow up the place. I take the tiny lift to the third floor, walk one more flght, struggle with the massive front door (do I smell gas?), and sure enough I did leave the silver gas lever turned downwards instead of sideways.
This would not have caused a tragic gas leak, but am glad I returned; anything to make me feel more secure.
I hear the 11:30 church bells as I pass the Duomo and moments later I see Elisa standing on the Palazzo steps. I know her by the way she is looking for me; she recognizes me by my bright pink scarf.
Elisa is about 35, with a round friendly face. We walk her bike to one of the many bike lock-up bars and I note how many bikes are actually unlocked. “Ah, I wouldn’t do that,” she says with Italian inflection and an English accent.
A Florentine with an English accent – I love her already.
The best way to learn Italian is to be Italian, so Elisa takes me to Gilli, the oldest bar in the Piazza della Repubblica, to drink macchiato and talk. It will be my first caffe in Italy. We sit outside at a table, even though in Italy when you sit to eat rather than stand at the bar, it costs four times as much.
I’m not at Starbucks anymore. Thank goodness.
At first we chat in English; we want to know one another. She has two small children, Blanca, age 3 and her younger daughter, 13 months. She and Angel, her husband who is Spanish, met in London and returned to Florence to raise her children around family. They are not married but she calls him “sposato.”
“It must have taken courage to leave your home and your country when you were 19,” I said. “I cried every day,” she told me.
I am familiar with that.
“Allora,” she says with a charming lilt hyperextending the ahhh and the Ls, “parliamo in Italiano.”
I understand perfectly, and when I speak English/Italian patchwork, she corrects me. A lot. Nevertheless we are more like two friends catching up about our lives. I tell her why I am in Florence. I feel completely open and willing to speak personally. I tell her about Carly and Zach. She tells me about how demanding it is to raise two children, about how her mother gave her Dr. Spock book to guide her and she threw it away. We talk about yoga. And disappointment. And what life has taught us so far.
In our first hour and a half, I already understand many things.
I didn’t realize how much I had missed human connection. I have been alone in Florence for 4 days. Email and blogging are paltry substitutes for the melody of a voice, the rhythm of a conversation, the warmth in someone’s eyes when they look at you as you speak – these are all necessario for me.
I am not afraid to be alone. I am just afraid to be alone forever.
The sun has moved off the Piazza – it’s a minor miracolo that in early December, we sit on the Piazza della Signoria with no coats – and it is time for Elisa to return to her bambini. First, she walks me around the corner to the Hard Rock Cafe – I tell her that Zach is a musician and she says that Angel, her husband works there, and he will give us a sconto.
I learn sconto, another little word close to my heart: discount.
But it’s not my favorite word.
I ask Elisa to translate two phrases today:
“Non ho piu paura.”
“Farei di tutto.”
I am not afraid. Whatever it takes.
Tomorrow we plan to meet at the church of Santo Spirito, in Oltrano, the old city. We agree that it would be fun to meet each day at a new location, everyday for the next five days.
I walk around Florence for hours afterwards and manage to speak Italian to shop keepers (Quanto costa?) churches (une bigletto, per favore) and random people on the street (a burly Yugoslav vendor who twisted wire into letters sold me a name necklace for a sconto of cinque euro…but he got the last word: he spelled my name Ronha.)
I found myself at Santa Maria Novella church (in Florence it is always better to find yourself someplace than to plan to go) and got close to the Brunelleschi altar frescoes; the colors remain vibrant, after 600 years. The Masaccio fresco of the crucifixion, was, however, desperately faded and chipped.
Then I saw it.
Masaccio painted the hem of the robes of the benefactors outside the frame, crossing the divide into real life. Just a little bit ,but unmistakeable. In this gesture, I could feel how much Masaccio wanted remove the line that separated his creation, his painted reality, from his real life.
Perhaps this was the real perspective he was looking for: how to cross over.
Each day, I take a step further away from my old life, closer to breaking the very framework that holds it all together. I am approaching the edge where I will need to decide if I am willing to step into a life I want, without settling for less, farei di tutto.
Whatever it takes.