Life is Wanderful... in Italy

While in Italy, I kept a journal. I wrote in train stations, on park benches, laying in bed at night.  Following are my musings (or at least what I've managed to type so far)...

In October 2010, my roommate at that time and I decided to take a trip together. We chose Costa Rica! Yay! I had been wanting to go there FOREVER. I'm a teacher at a year-round school, so I have two weeks off in December, and the roommate would be on break from nursing school. All we need to do was buy the plane tickets (and plan the trip...but the important thing, in my opinion, is to actually get there). Well, I kept saying something and saying something, and she kept saying reasons and excuses to hold off...until it was too late. :(  I moved in with a new roommate at the end of November (not because that last one ruined by winter vacation, although it was a sore point).  This roommate worked at the same school with me, and we had a two week break coming up in March. So, we decided to go to Italy together. Yay! I had been wanting to go there FOREVER. So we talked and talked, and I even bought a travel book for us to pore over. And then, come beginning of January, she decided that she couldn't afford the plane ticket. Argh. :( 

Well, I was not about to let a bailing travelmate spoil my dreams for a second time. I decided to go alone. I have never taken a vacation by myself before. But I figured, I moved to Austin by myself, so surely I can do this myself, too.  I spoke with a trusted friend who had been to Italy before, and he had every confidence that I'd be fine on my own. So, one afternoon at the end of a school day, I bought myself a plane ticket! Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh! I ran down the hall and opened of the door of any teacher still there - "I'm going to Italy! I'm going to Italy!" I cried out, jumping up and down in giddy circles. I don't think you could have slapped the smile off my face if you tried. 

So, now that I was definitely going, what to do? I decided to couchsurf my way through Tuscany. I’ve always had romantic ideas of Tuscany, maybe from the book Under the Tuscan Sun, or maybe I’ve just made up dreamy scenes in my mind…but I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to explore all of Italy, so I settled on this region. (If you haven’t heard of couchsurfing before, please check out my explanation on the home page. It’s an incredible way to travel, and I can’t recommend it enough. If you’re curious about what it’s like to couchsurf, please continue to read.

I spent time crafting my couchsurf request and then translating it into Italian. I wanted to be polite and make my introduction in their native tongue. Alas, I was unlucky finding anyone to stay with in Siena, one of the cities I wanted to visit, so I decided to broaden my search. I figured anywhere I stayed would be new and interesting to me, right? So, I started contacting people in towns I had never heard of, until I was invited to stay with Claudio in Livorno. Sounds good to me! That would be my starting point, and I made arrangements to stay with four others on my trip. It was all planned! Now all that was left was to pack and go!

…two and a half months later…

DEPARTURE                                                                                             3/14/10 3:36 pm
I'm sitting in the airport at my terminal - D11. The excitement and nerves coursing through my body are intense. When I approached the line for security, boarding pass and passport in hand, I felt an overwhelming sensation and thought I was going to cry. "Why?" I wondered. Not from sadness...fear? Maybe. Really, I think my happiness reached the tippy-top of the emotional continuum, so it had to cycle around to sensations on the opposite end. This is incredible. Am I glowing? Do others see and feel the gleefulness that flows through me? This will be one of my greatest adventures, or perhaps the first of many great adventures. Thank you, universe.

EN ROUTE – AMSTERDAM                                                                3/15/10 9:00 am
I have been on European soil for the first time, though I have yet to touch it. I have my first stamp in my passport - Amsterdam. The flight over was long, but thankfully I slept through most of it. I also slept through dinner and breakfast, but I don't really feel like I missed out. The Amsterdam airport was easy to navigate, and I even had time to exchange my American dollars for Euros ($1000 --> $670). My goal is to have this last me all twelve days. It is interesting hearing so many languages around me. I can't wait to begin using my (limited) Italian! Just a few more hours... I plan on sleeping for the duration of this flight, too. Right now I'm six hours ahead of Texas - 3:00 am at home. No wonder my head hurts with tiredness. Getting hungry, but I'm holding to have my first taste of Europe in Rome. :)

ARRIVAL IN ITALY – ROMA (ROME)                                                        3/15/10
Sonno sorride. :)  Roma sta crazy! I land in Rome. I follow the signs that look like a train to a ticket counter, where I ask for a ticket to Roma Termini, the main train station in Rome. There are only three tracks, and I'm directed to #2. I board the train with a throng of other travelers and take it to the Termini. Easy enough, I say to myself, I'm pretty good at this foreign travel. When I arrive, I need to buy a ticket to Livorno. But where do I buy the ticket? I walk, I look for signs, I see nothing. For the first time, I'm beginning to stress. I don't understand anything. I ask someone, and they tell me to go downstairs. I go downstairs and find a grocery store. I ask the checkout boy, and he tells me something, but I don't understand. Grazie, I say politely, and I leave. Next, I walk to the convienence store, also downstairs, and ask the cashier - She directs me back upstairs, to the left, all the way to the end of the platform (I think).  I follow her directions, looking for signs, but no luck. I eventually see a sign for customer service, which is a good enough sign for me, and they manage to direct me to the ticket counter. Already I am learning my first lesson: Not understanding the language makes the simplest tasks much more difficult. It is frustrating. It is scary. I must ward off feelings of helplessness and remain determinedly optimistic. Finally, finally, I buy my ticket (final destination Ventimiglia), departing at 15:46, and I will get off in Livorno. Huge sign of relief...

Okay, I'm feeling better now. I even begin to smile. Small bump, but I can handle a foreign country with a foreign language, no problem. I walk to the Departures board, find my time, find my destination,  and see it leaves from binario (track) 20. I look and look, but now I can't find track 20. When I do find it, the sign says Cassino. Huh? I ask a passenger if this train is going to Ventimiglia, but he says no, it's going to Cassino. I look at the Departures board again. 20. I keep asking for Ventimiglia, and they keep telling me to check the board, and the board still says 20, but everyone else says not 20. "Dove? Dove?" (Where? Where?) I ask. Paranoid thoughts creep into my mind of being trapped at Roma Termini because no one can understand me well enough to help me find my train. I show my ticket AND the board to someone, and they say 20. I go back to 20 and ask another passenger, and they say, "No, Cassino." I'm confused. I'm so, so confused. And overwhelmed. Again. I look at the clock hanging along the track; it's almost quarter til. I go back and forth between the board and the train. I can't understand, and no one understands me. The doors begin to close on the train. Shit, I'm going to miss my train, I think. I'm starting to panic again, feeling like I might cry, but I just plaster a smile on my face. I ask another passenger, show him my ticket, plead with my eyes. No, no, he tells me, the next one, I'm too early. Ohhh... The next train. Uh, 15:46 is 3:46, not 2:46. Oops. And lesson #2 presents itself: Learn military time.

With that figured out, now I have time to pay attention to the hunger gnawing on my stomach. I find a little place selling gelato (how could gelato, what I've dreamed about, not be the first Italian food I eat???). I order a piccalo with fragoles and banane (small with strawberry and banana). Mmm, delicious. I find a little bench on the 20 line, so I will be here when my train arrives. At this point, I'm not taking any chances. While I'm enjoying my gelato, a man comes up to me, trying to sell me socks. "Non, grazie," I say politely. He keeps talking, but I don't understand. "Non Italiano?" he asks. "Non, non." "Anglais?" he asks. "Ci, ci." He leaves and comes back a minute later, talks to me some more. We have a hard time understanding each other. Where am I from? he asks in Italian. "America." Oh. "Tua bambina Americano?" (You are an American girl?) "Ci, Ci," I respond, excited that I'm understanding anything. Are you here alone (en Italiano)? "Ci, ci." ...More I don't understand. Finally, I figure out that he's asking me to marry him and bring him back to America! I laugh. "Non! Non! Non l'uomo Italiano con mia a America." I cry out. I laugh some more. Why? he asks. "L'uomo, a man, back in America," I explain. Oh, he says, I am here, but I have a man back home. "Un braccio," he says, as he blows me a kiss and walks away. I blow him a kiss back. My first Italian conversation! I enjoy the rest of my gelato in peace. Shortly after, my train arrives. Before boarding, I cross paths with Carlos, the sock seller, again. "Ciao, bella," he says. "Ciao!"

Oh my God, finding this train was nerve-wracking for a little bit there. At least the 10 - 12 people I approached were all friendly. It's not their fault I can't speak their language. I'm wishing now that I had spent more time practicing Italian - oh well. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing Claudio, hoping he knows as much English as I think he does. Speaking of, I dial Claudio's number to let him know my arrival time. Unfortunately, my phone, even though I was told it would work in Italy, doesn't want to make the call. Great. After trying a few times, to no avail, I start thinking about options. There is a middle-aged couple sitting next to me, and they seem pleasant enough. In a mixture of English and Italian, I manage to explain my situation, and the gentleman kindly allows me to use the phone to call Claudio. Together, we contact Claudio and through a scratchy connection manage to convey the message.

I lean my head against the window and look out at the passing landscape. Wow, I can't believe I'm looking at the other side of the Atlantic Ocean right now. While I slept, an entire ocean passed beneath me... It looks the same, but instead of feeling disappointed, I am enchanted with the idea of people so far apart enjoying the same view...

1ST DESTINATION – LIVORNO                                                                      3/15/10
I get to the Livorno Centrale train station, and, of course, I have no idea where the buses are. I get to play the "I pretend to speak Italian, and then I pretend to understand your Italian" until I eventually due manage to locate the buses. And then I can't figure out how to buy a ticket. Why are such simple things suddenly so difficult??? Eventually, it's figured out. I get to my stop - Piazza del Republique. My texts aren't working. No Claudio. I try calling again (yay, it works this time!) - his phone goes straight to voicemail. Hmmm... a policeman. "Dove il Piazza del Mille?" I ask. He points me in the general direction. Someone notices I'm lost. I show him the address. Together, we ask two others, and we find Claudio's door. "Grazie, grazie," I say. I am SO grateful for the kindess of strangers. I push the buzzer next to C. Tofani. Long. No answer. Again, harder; maybe it's finicky? No answer. Hmmm. I wander, thinking I'll find a place to sit and wait. I decide on Mary Angel Cafe - it looks pleasant, a place where I could maybe get something to eat and linger. I walk back to Claudio's and leave a note on his door.  Walk back to the cafe. Use the bathroom - no toilet paper, and I can't figure out how to flush or use the sink. It's actually a bar, and I only see pastry (I later discover that all bars are actually called cafes in Italy). As much as I want to sit, as hungry and thirsty as I am, I'm not in the mood for a beer and croissant. This isn't going to work. Change of plans. I dial Simone, and it rings - actually, it's more of a long beep - and I pray silently, "Please answer, please answer." A boy walks by and winks at me. That makes my situation a teeny bit more bearable. "Ci?" a voice. "Simone???" "Ci." And out my story spills. I sit on a bench and wait for my hero to arrive. Simone is on his way to get me. My journey to Italy, entering the god-knows-what hour, might finally be reaching a destination.

When Simone approaches, I can't help but give him a huge hug. It feels so GOOD to finally make contact with someone, to no longer be solo, to talk with someone that actually understands me! He takes me back to his home and presents me with an impromptu dinner of coppa (meat), peccorino (sheep cheese - my first time trying this, and it's delicious), brie, bean soup, and cookies for dessert. I sip my first taste of Italian coffee – which is nothing like American coffee. It’s strong and good (and needs lots of sugar), comparable to an American espresso.  Over coffe, Simone translate some phrases for me: "Sono fellicia," is “I am happy,” and "Mia biache il vino," is “I like wine.”

Simone's a gracious host, repeatedly encouraging me to relax and make myself at home, treating me like an old friend. It’s late, so shortly after dinner, it’s time for bed – it’s been a VERY long day. I’m confused by the mini-sink next to the toilet in the bathroom – Is it an Italian custom to wash hands in a different sink after using the toilet? Clueless, I leave it alone (and later discover that, in fact, it’s not intended for washing hands…).  I sleep well on an air mattress in the living room.

LIVORNO                                                                                                                3/16/10
I wake up and open the shutters to look out on the narrow Italian street. My first day in Italy! I breathe deeply the salty, coastal air… We eat a breakfast of eggs, cheese, meat and coffee at Simone’s, then prepare to explore Livorno, a poor port town, and the surrounding area. The day is beautiful – bellissimmo! We ride his motorbike, and I’m excited to be his first passenger, since he only got it last week. The road winds along the coastline – which I discover, to my acute embarrassment, that it’s actually the Mediterranean, not the Atlantic…duh. Guess I need to brush up on my geography…

It is intensely fun riding on the motorbike, as we apparently don’t have to follow any traffic rules: we just drive between two lanes of traffic or squeeze past on the curb. The air takes on a brisk chill, so I stick my hands in his jacket pockets to keep them warm. Simone takes me to Cala del Leone, a beautiful beach accessed by walking down a long flight of stairs carved in stone. I find small treasures on the beach – lira (old Italian money) and groppa [spelling?] (a stone found only in these region). I inquire about a castle on a nearby cliff, and I’m in shock when I learn that it’s actually someone’s home! What is must be like to live in Castella Sydney, I wonder…
We ride through the hills (Castellaccio) and see a hawk hunting. Simone tells me it’s rare to see hawks, and we are lucky.  I tease home for his pronunciation – he says “awK” instead of “hawk.” They don’t have an “h” sound in Italian.

Then we ride to Castilioncello, a small town nearby. It’s a very popular summer destination, but right now it’s quiet, closed up, and practically empty. It’s a very pretty spot, though, and I can imagine the throngs of summer vacationers walking along the quaint sidewalks, sitting outside the cafes, and sunning on the beach. As we’re heading back to Livorno, I keep noticing signs with a word slashed out by a thick, red line and surrounded by a thick, red circle. It brings to mind the Ghostbusters sign, and I’m wondering, No what? When I ask Simone about them,  it has nothing to do with banishing ghosts or banishing anything – the sign marks when you’re leaving a city or town.

Simone asks me if I’d like to eat at the ostrichaia for lunch. It’s a local restaurant right on the water that serves local cuisine. Well, I think, I’ve never eaten ostrich before, but I figure part of experiencing a country is tasting local flavors. Besides, I like other poultry, so I’ll probably like this as well… You cannot imagine my shocked realization when I discover that ostrich had nothing to do with birds in Italy. It’s shellfish. Gag. I have never touched shellfish in my life, nor have I had any desire to do so. It’s mushy and gross, like eating a slug. So, it’s not a pleasant surprise when a large dish of shells and their slimy insides are placed on the table. Well, the last thing I want to do is insult my host, or seem unappreciative, so I gather my courage. Game on, Melissa. There is shellfish from France (capansanta) and Livorno (tartufa). I tip it into my mouth, trying to let it land as far back in my throat as possible, in order to avoid as many taste buds as possible. It slides down quickly in one gulp, leave a salty aftertaste. “It tastes like the ocean,” I say. And it does. I can just go swimming in the ocean for the same flavor, but with the added bonus of no slimy accompaniment. I gulp down a few more, so as not to be rude. They’re not horrible, but they’re definitely not good. Who knows, perhaps a lover of shellfish would think these are amazing. But not me.

We stop at Terrazza Mascagni, a beautiful plaza along the sea, before parking his bike at home. 
It’s time for us to walk through Old Livorno now, where Simone shows me both the “old” and “new” fortresses and tells me about the races they used to have in the canal. While we walk, I get my first Italian lesson: If a word has a double consonant – such as “bella” or “caffe” – you pronounce the letter twice: beL-La and caF-Fe. He teases me when I say perffeto (correctly pronounced perF-Fet-To), but I tease him right back when he says “hate” and it sounds like “ate.”

We go to the beach and sit and watch the sun get lower and a boy throwing rocks and then sand at his nonna. I find a tile from a home, smoothed and worn down by the waves. We sit quietly. Back at his home, we do an Italian crossword, and I try to read comics, but he checks them first to make sure they're funny. He teaches me to say, "fuck you" - va fucalo. At 8:30 I am hungry. We go for torta (a yellow bean pie that is a Livorno specialty) and pizza (he has proscuitto and porcini, and I have sausage and onion). Torta with pepper is buono and the mozzerella has more flavor here. I have my wine; he orders Italian beer - not bad.  I learn that Italians don't take leftovers, and if you don't finish your plate, they wonder if you don't like it. And they tease Americans a Italiano – Simone and our waiter kept joking with each other, and I still don't know what was said. When I asked Simone, he replied with, "I can't translate." I responded with, "How do you say fuck you again?" We laughed. Simone doesn't let me pay; he says my money is fake. He teases that Livorno is the best, so the rest of my trip can't be as good. We leave, in search of dessert (of course I want gelato). From every restaurant, bar and café, American music is drifting to the street as we walk. How funny, I think.

The gelateria is closed, so we have frozen yogurt instead. I have mine with Nutella dn granola - okay, but not gelato. J Actually, I didn't like it, but I ate it because I didn't want to disappoint Simone. It had a tangier taste than American frozen yogurt, which I didn’t really care for. Once home, it's time for bed. He gives me another blanket because I was cold last night. It’s still chilly in Italy during March.

PISA                                                                                                                          3/17/10
Today I continue my journey. Simone take the train to Pisa for work, and he suggests I come along to check it out. I really wasn’t interested in this tourist monument, but since it’s on the way… I also decide to stop in Florence for a few hours, also on my way. Simone helps me buy a train ticket from Livorno to Arezzo (my final destination), that’s good for 24 hours, so I can make these stops without having to buy new tickets each time. On the train, I study the map, confused when I can’t find Florence. "Is Firenze near Florence?" I ask. Simone bursts out laughing. "Firenze is Florence," he explains. Wow, good thing I asked - would have been difficult to find my train otherwise. Why do we change the names of cities? It makes no sense to me.

Simone and I part ways at his work, and I continue down the street to the infamous leaning tower of Pisa. And that’s exactly what it is. A leaning tower. With lots of scaffolding because it’s currently under construction. Hmmm… Perhaps the multitudes see a fascinating tower, an amazing feat of architecture, but it’s lost on me. Still, I do the proper tourist thing and take pictures. I notice an old man eyeing me as I'm photographing the tower and church. I am weary. Is he choosing an easy target? Looking for someone from which to pickpocket? I am a young girl traveling alone. He finally approaches me, asks where I'm from, am I traveling alone, do I like Pisa? I'm pleased that I'm getting better at understanding Italian. He invites me for coffee. “Non,” I politely refuse. Why? I say that it's time to meet the man I'm with who works here (which is sort of true). He compliments my hair. He walks with me, and then says his goodbyes. So bold and full of flattery. I must admit, I enjoy this unabashed appreciation Italian men express. I appreciate their willingness to speak honestly, the sincerity in their words, the lack of fear in speaking kindly, which I find so many Americans reluctant to express. I don’t find this attention an invasion of my personal space or crossing a line at all, although I can see how some might feel uncomfortable.

I return to Simone and say my goodbyes - I will miss him! I plod back to the train station. Ugh, I must carry my backpack again. Actually it’s my friends backpack, and it’s a large frame when my short self really needs a small. So, I must carry all the weight in my shoulders, and it hurts. A lot. I discover that if you’ll be carrying a backpack for any length of time, it’s definitely worth investing in a backpack that fits you (or at least finding a friend closer to your size). I navigate the train station well - much easier than Roma Termini – now that I'm familiar with how they work. I even notice that the last train to Firenze is late, and I'm able to switch platforms quickly enough to catch it. 10:32 instead of 11:06. I hope for baggage storage at the Firenze station. Time to watch Italia passing by…

FIRENZE (or Florence to us Americans)                                                             3/17/10
I notice the baggage storage quickly, and I’m psyched that I don’t have to bear this burden (literally) during the short time I have in Florence. There is another girl with a backpack, also traveling solo. (Hee hee, she notices that our backpacks are "a couple" - I'm carrying the guy version, and she has the one designed for women. I eye her version enviously…) She is also in Firenze for only a couple hours, so we decide to walk together. Her name is Yael, an Israeli how has been working on farms for the past five months and is on her way to another farm today. I learn she has also spent a year traveling in South America. Only twenty-eight, and already so far ahead of me, I think...sigh... I must catch up! Yael has no idea of where to go in Firenze, but I have suggestions from Simone. We go to the Duomo (molto bello) and then Piazza della Signoria. The statues are huge and amazing.

I am hungry, so I get spagnole gelato (cherry) – yum, my new favorite flavor! Yael’s kosher diet prevents her from having any, so I feel bad to eat it in front of her, but not bad enough to abstain. I finish my gelato overlooking the Florence River, near Ponte Vecchio, the Old Bridge. Simone also suggested visiting Piazzale Michelangello, but it sounds far, so I decide to skip it. It is a gorgeous day - sunny and warm. We walk some more, then part ways, as she needs to be back to the station sooner than me. It was nice having some company for a bit, but I realize I’m rather looking forward to spending some time exploring on my own. I wander some more, getting lost and going in a few circles, then decide to head back to the piazza and duomo. It really is a very interesting plaza, I think, full of sights and sounds and people surrounding the ornate church. Still hungry, (gelato is a tasty treat, not a nutritious meal, afterall), I look for a pizza place (as if that’s much healthier). At the pizzeria counter I choose mushroom and procuitto, but as I walk to the end of the case to order, I notice the cannoli. This is as good a time as any to try it, so I get that instead. (Forget my earlier reasoning about wanting a nutritious meal. I have an insatiable sweet tooth and will eat sugar as often as I’m able.) I savor my second dessert of the day sitting on the steps of a giant church. My brother will be happy to hear that it's not any better than the cannoli he gets at Mike's Pastry in Boston - just as good, but not better, at least from how I remember it (in fact, I like the one in Boston better because it had more chocolate chips on the ends). This one has an orange rind, though, which is yummy.

I have a little more time before I need to get back to the station, and since the cannoli was large but not filling, I decide I should try another gelato flavor (when will I learn that sweets do not satisfy hunger???)... Just a piccolo cup, I tell myself, just a tiny taste... I leave the gelateria with a generous scoop of tiramisu gelato sandwiched between two waffles that cost me eight euros. I think this is the most expensive ice cream treat I've ever eaten. And worth every cent. It is messy and delicious. The waffle has a sweet, crispy crust and chewy inside. The tiramisu gelato is a sticky version of heaven. Try as I might, I can’t finish it (I wonder why???). At least now I have a full stomach. And a sugar headache.

I look for the bathroom at the station, but it costs one euro to use. I don't have that... Marco from Madriano shares his number with me, but unfortunately, that doesn't get me into the bathroom. Oh well, in Arezzo.

I’ve learned that Italians don't say hello or excuse me on the streets, but if you talk to them or ask a question, they're very friendly and helpful (most of them, anyway).

From the train window, I see mountains with traces of snow!

AREZZO                                                                                                                    3/17/10

Roberto is waiting for me on the platform, a big relief after No-Show Claudio. We go back to his place, and then walk around Arezzo, visiting the churches. He shares a story from the city’s history: A politician and religious man were fighting for power of Arezzo. The religious group was able to overtake the politician, decapitating him on top of the hill (which is the center of old Arezzo). His head rolled down the hill, eventually coming to a stop.  It is here where they built La Pieve, a church which is still there. At another church, I am excited and intrigued to an old pope’s remains.

For dinner, Roberto cooks pesto pasta that we eat with bread, tomatoes, and beans. We drink Chianti from Siena – really good (are you surprised?). Dessert is panine, an Easter sweet bread full of raisins that’s local to the region. It's only just after nine, and I'm exhausted, but we go get his dog (Yoda) from his parent's home and take her for a walk. I'm looking forward to sleeping tonight.

AREZZO                                                                                                                    3/18/10

We have Italian coffee, apples, and biscotti for breakfast. I love cookies for breakfast - what a good idea! Roberto tells me that many Italians enjoy cookies with cappuccino in the morning, and then they have espresso in the afternoon. Since I’m not a huge fan of milk, I stick with espresso. Roberto enjoys one of the bagels I brought him, per his request, with crunchy peanut butter. Apparently, they don’t have bagels in Italy, but he had them when he visited America. (They also don’t have ketchup or barbeque sauce, nor is peanut butter commonly found in household pantries.) Breakfast in Italy is usually small and simple - coffee or cappuccino with a croissant or pastry – and it leans toward sweet, rather than salty, flavors. I describe biscuits and gravy to Roberto, one of my favorite breakfasts, and he is amazed at how heavy and rich it sounds – and I agree. I definitely couldn’t eat an “American” breakfast every morning. Although, I don’t know if starting the day off with cookies is any healthier…

I spend the morning wandering Old Arezzo alone because Roberto has to do some work. Most everyone is wearing solid clothes with no patterns, and I’m wondering if I stick out in my pink and grey plaid jacket with the fur-lined hood. I know I’m a tourist, but I’d like to look like I belong here, am a part of this. The flowers and windows capture my attention, so earn most of my camera’s attention as well.

Roberto's mom had previously prepared ribolliti for our lunch - a Tuscan dish of twice-baked vegetables, Tuscan bread, and beans – and it’s delicious. It is kind of her to send over a regional specialty on my behalf. I hope to get the recipe from his mother and cook this dish for my friends. I think it would be a nice “souvenir” to bring back for them. We also have sandwiches made with piadina (flat bread), sliced tomato, pecorino (sheep cheese), and finocchiona (a regional meat made with wild fennel). This simple sandwich is sooooo delicious - I definitely need to have this again before I leave, and I’m already wondering if I can find the ingredients at home. Seriously, I think it may be one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. We drink wine (biano) with lunch, of course. We chat throughout the meal, and Roberto is patient with my questions, generous with his knowledge of Italy. I learn that the Italians wear jeans or skirts or slacks, no khakis.

After lunch, I wonder the streets for a couple hours while Roberto is at a meeting. An Italian approaches me on a pathway through a small park. "Bellissima," he begins and continues speaking to me in Italian. I smile and look at him with what I imagine to be friendly, helpless eyes. He pinches my cheek, but in a gentle way. The only word I recognize is piccolo, small. Still, such gentle attention and a soft voice are always good, even if not understood. When he is finished, he continues on his way, and I continue on mine. I find a bench in the park and relax, enjoying some sunshine before it sits too low in the sky and gets hidden by buildings.

While walking to meet Roberto, a woman says, “Scuzi,” and begins speaking to me in Italian. I have no idea what she says...but so cool that she thought I was Italian and spoke her language! Roberto and I go to Il Gelatone, his favorite spot for gelato. Just like American ice cream, some gelato is better than others. He teaches me a trick: Look for gelato that has natural coloring because this means it’s made with real fruit; gelato that is brightly colored is made using powders. He also tells me that Sicily is known for their gelato (sadly, I won’t make it there on this trip, but I will make it there one day). Il Gelatone serves a special flavor found nowhere else that Roberto loves, and even then they only have it every two weeks. It's called Sacher Torte, their gelato version of the chocolate cake with an apricot filling. Lucky us, they have it today! Mmmm, it is decadent…

We eat dinner with some of Roberto’s friends - Simone, Glauco, and Michele - at Antica Pieve in Castiglione Fiorentino. Our starter is crostini toscani (mushroom, liver, and tomato sauce on bread). For the meal, we have a regional specialty called bistecca (beef steak) and tagliata (steak off the bone, sliced and seasoned), with red wine. I like the tagliata better. The boys are so nice offering to let me taste everything and sharing. Most talking is in Italian, so I am lost through much of the conversation, but sometimes someone thinks to translate. If they spoke directly to me, they tried using English. Their English isn't as good as Roberto's, but still much better than my Italian. For dessert, I have croccantino, a block of hard ice cream with nuts inside, with a cup of espresso. We finish our meal with an aperitif. I sip limoncello, an after-dinner lemon liquor that's typically drank by girls, but the boys like the sweet flavor, too. Men typically drink Amaro, which means bitter. I have a sip, and it isn't too bad - I can taste the spices, and it seems like a "man's" drink. The boys generously pay for my dinner, and then we wonder a bit through town, looking for a pub. It's a good thing I work out at home, I think, as I follow the boys up and down the steep streets of this medieval town. The pub we eventually enter, Velvet Underground - at midnight on a Thursday - is too crowded. Go figure. So we go home, which is fine by me, because I am exhausted from the day.