Last May I was lucky enough to travel to Florence for three glorious weeks. Well, the first two were glorious, then my little girl got bronchitis and an ear infection and suddenly a really cool trip turned a little bit worrisome, the language barrier grew dramatically then. Still, we weathered the storm and learn a lot about Italian way of life, the rhythm and little cultural things.
I also stayed in an apartment off of the AirBnB website. That was lovely. We had a rather sizeable two bedroom apartment just across the street from the Coop, a big grocery store; several restaurants; a panifico, a bread store; a gelateria, ice cream; a park; a farmacia, pharmacy, and of course several café’s. And the apartment, while centrally located, was very quiet.
I wasn’t sure if I would be happy so stationary in one place for that amount of time, I was in Italy after all, in Europe! I felt like I should have been jumping on trains and going to see the sights, but it afforded me this opportunity to really explore Florence and the surrounding neighborhoods.
I became rather adept at using the bus, which ran right in front of the rented apartment and found that if you buy a ‘quattro corse’, a ticket you can use 4 times, it’s cheaper than buying one ticket at a time. I learned a lot about shopping in grocery stores in Italy, my favorite phrase, when the cashier asked if I wanted any bags, I would smile and shake my head, “no, grazie. Uso la mia.” I’ll use my own, thank you. Ha ha! I learned that if you get to the panifico after 9 am on a week day, the good stuff is already gone. I learned to love the one stop shop of a tabacchi where you can buy gum, a bus ticket, a chocolate egg for your kid, and a stamp to mail your postcard.
The thing that I liked the most, was becoming a regular at the café just across the street from my first Italian apartment.
Caffè La Fenice, the phoenix, is nothing special. It’s located on the corner of a remotely busy street, Via Erbosa, roughly 8 minutes from the city center of Florence. It is a typical neighborhood café, where the barista knows everyone’s name and has their drink ready the moment they walk in the door so he can take a moment or two to catch up on the gossip of the day.
At the time I was visiting, I had been learning Italian for about 4 years, so I was pretty fluent, not quick, but I understood an awful lot and for those who were willing to stick with me, I could slowly get my point across.
When it comes to ordering my coffee though, I have those Italian phrases down.
The polite “Buon Giorno” or “Salve” were called out upon my arrival. I call back the greeting and then because I just look like a tourist, often times the barista’s just raised an eyebrow at me, what did I want? The look would say, they weren’t going to waste their language on someone who didn’t speak it.
That’s fine, I get it. Still, I would smile and say “Vorrei avere un cappuccino.” I would like to have a cappuccino.
Often, the sneer would be taken down a notch, in appreciation of my attempts.
Of course, then I needed a sweet to go with it. This task is as simple as asking if you can have ‘that one’ and pointing. “Posso avere questo?”
I often took sweets back to the apartment for everyone else, and when you buy tarts and other assorted goods that don’t fit in a bag, they wrap them up. Giving a sense of celebration to the whole affair.
La Fenice became my morning ritual every day for three weeks. I came early, before the city was up, before the rush of the crowd on their way to work, before my little household woke up.
I came to love the characters of the shop. The woman who ran the pastry side of things, perhaps early 40s, a blonde whose dark Italian roots constantly showed through her hair that was looped up in a clip. She had a great Roman nose and she wore a constant frown that could only be replaced by a local who had really good gossip; and when you paid her she barely made eye contact.
The barista was a thirty something man. He wore the required black pants, white long sleeve button down shirt, with the sleeves rolled up and an apron tied around his thin waist. His dark black hair was always gelled in a perfectly messy way, he had a small thin beard that looked just grungy enough, his ears were pierced and he wore small gold hoops that didn’t look cheesy and a thick black leather bracelet to finish the ensemble.
On the fifth morning, something glorious happened. I walked in, smiled and called out my greeting, “Buon Giorno.” And the barista, my barista asked, “Cappuccino?” I nodded my head and he had my drink ready for me in a moment. Meaning he saw me walking across the street and started it.
I was a local.
I was asked questions after that, where was I visiting from. Was I living here? How was my drink? He even decorated the top of my cappuccino like you see in so many pictures. The woman melted on me a bit too, she told me the names of the pastries I was picking out and offered a little information, my favorite the Bomboloni, was a regional pastry found only in Tuscany.
The cappuccinos were perfect, exactly what I had come to expect from Italy. The surroundings of the little café were sweet, nothing special. La Fenice has a little enclosed outdoor seating area that was nice. It was nothing to celebrate or put on the ‘best of’ lists, but what was magical about it was that for three glorious weeks, it was MINE.
I was a local, and it was glorious.