A Husky Abroad: Florence, part 10

"The Birth of Venus" by Botticelli from the Uffizi museum in Florence. (Sten Spinella/The Daily Campus)

This is the tenth installment of a series of #content meant to illuminate the first study abroad trip for UConn student Sten Spinella.

No one could have told Michellozo or Brunelleschi that the church he built would become a gathering ground for the ungrounded – that the unemployed Italian youth and the soon-to-be unemployed American students would congregate on the church steps to smoke cigarettes and hashish, drink wine and beer, flirt and tickle each other, search for something in the piazza spread in front of them, the restaurants packed with the wealthy, dogs barking, men teaching women to dance near the fountain in the center and the statues. No one would have known this. Michellozo or Brunelleschi wouldn’t have believed them. But here everyone is, in their NBA jerseys, their button-down shirts, their dresses, their leather jackets, their Converse, their tight jeans, their t-shirts and their tank tops. This is not a merchant square any longer, nor a religious one. It is a place where the unlearned go to seem learned and the learned go to blend in.

It’s 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, and hundreds more people (mostly Italians) gather in Piazza Santo Spirito to spend their free time. So this is where the Italians who are not working at night go, not drinking with the Americans on the main side of the river. They come here to remind themselves that this is Italy, and it belongs to them, as evidenced by the many who blow smoke near me and laugh about me as I write this. Power to them. I don’t want to usurp, to conquer; just to understand.

(Sten Spinella/The Daily Campus)

Over the past week I’ve visited San Gigimnano, Chianti, Sienna, Monteriggio, and Venice. The factionalism of Italy makes it so that every place I go to is different, whether it be a rural winery, a religious city like Florence that had once been a regional power or tiny, scenic, medieval towns. Or a city built on water soon to sink. I’ve had two wine tastings, one gondola ride, visited four museums, gone out to five restaurants and saw two friends from my hometown in that time.

Andrew and Ben Ferrucci swung through Florence for a weekend with their grandparents during their family vacation in Italy. I had met their grandparents last summer when I went with Andrew to their house in Cape Cod. They are good people, Republicans, but from what I gather, reasonable, and good. I went to the apartment they were renting with a terrace high up over D’Arno to drink wine and reintroduce myself.

A landscape photo from Lucca, Italy. (Sten Spinella/The Daily Campus)

Seeing the boys in Italy was surreal. We’re used to waiting tables together, taking classes together, driving around rural Connecticut looking for mild trouble. This, though, this was grown man sh**. The grandfather was in such good spirits – Andrew and Ben told me that every day in Italy is like Christmas for that guy. His vigor renewed my obsession with the country.

The five of us walked to a restaurant, which Grandpa Ferrucci had visited almost every year during his six straight years in Florence. The entire staff – all family – knew him by name. He handed them all Twizzlers as we walked in (“He thinks Twizzlers are a form of currency,” Andrew said) and tried out his Italian on them. “Ferrucci!” they yelled. He took pictures, shook hands and introduced us. Two bottles of wine were brought to our table. Andrew, Ben and I couldn’t stop laughing. This grandpa, rather short, stout and bald, legitimately had pull in these parts.

Pizza in Florence (Sten Spinella/The Daily Campus)

The meal was unbelievable: prosciutto with buffalo mozzarella, papperdelle with duck ragu, pesto ravioli and tiramisu. We sat in the same table that the older Ferruccis had sat every year, tucked tight in a corner of the restaurant. The grandparents had a separate conversation the whole night with a Swedish mother and daughter sitting at the table next to us while the two brothers and I shared our separate Italian experiences thus far with each other. Apparently, the daughter at the table next to us, probably in her 50s, was a journalist for a large Swedish newspaper. Mr. Ferrucci knew of my writerly ambitions and had me sign an autograph for her due to the fact I was “absolutely going to be famous some day,” according to him, who had never before read a word I’d written. Old white men can be afforded such certainty. I knocked on wood.

My considerable literary abilities were called upon when Mr. Ferrucci ripped off a piece of tablecloth and told me to impress the journalist. I pulled out a parlor trick and wrote a sentence of journalism: “On Saturday evening, seven foreigners found each other in Florence – five Americans, two Swedes – and became great friends.” Then poetry: “Red wine / and white linen / are no good combined.” And finally, prose: “The kitchen smelled like fried beef and tomato sauce, 25 different nationalities inhabited the restaurant, but everything sounded like Italy.” It was juvenile, gimmicky, and tacky; but they loved it.

After our meal, I hugged the grandparents and told them I’d see them in Rome next weekend. Us three boys then set out on our nighttime adventure although I was to be in Venice the next day, scheduled to leave the train station at 8:30 in the morning.

We drank the beer I had in the fridge and they met my roommates. I like the people I live with in Florence, four boys, but seeing people I’d known for a long time and like a great deal was refreshing.

I took them for a typical American night of drinking in Florence. First we went to Shot Café, which was always the pregame spot because of Mirko and cheap drinks. Andrew and Ben just kept buying – we were drinking like we wouldn’t see each other seven days later, like we’d never be able to share a buzz again. The women who kept filing into the bar blew the brothers away. They said they were all better looking than American girls. I didn’t disagree.

A street artist in Florence. (Sten Spinella/The Daily Campus)

It felt like we were the only Americans in the bar since it was Saturday and most of the study abroad students were not in Florence. Once we determined that we were very close to being too drunk, as innocuous statements were deemed hilarious, we left, walked past the Duomo (they were amazed that this was a thing, that a regular part of a night of drinking in Florence was seeing this renowned cathedral), and went to Lion’s Fountain.

Cultural importance had waned and the night had become about boys being boys, acting like we were back in Connecticut for the summer, camping on the island, or reminiscing at a house party, but we were in Florence, a few drinks in, officially too drunk, but the boys just kept swiping their mother’s credit card, and I just kept reveling in its riches, and we met two girls from California who would not be voting for the first female presidential candidate to win their party’s nomination, but they wouldn’t be voting for Trump, either, at least that’s what they said (so many Trump supporters are closeted, and for good reason, why would you want to admit you’re a woman-hating racist with no nuanced ideas?) and then I think one of the boys got mad at me for talking politics, as I’m wont to do (“Come on man, we’re in Italy!”) and I got that, so I stopped. I vaguely remember taking them to Red Garter, a karaoke bar, getting onstage, rapping “Touch the Sky” by Kanye with Ben and a girl we met in line, then taking the brothers to the secret bakery past 2:30, they loved that shit, and I remember getting a Nutella croissant and a vanilla donut. I do not remember saying goodbye. I remember being shirtless in my kitchen with my roommate at 3:30 in the morning, but I don’t remember what we were talking about, then I went to bed at 4 after saying something probably stupid over Facebook message to my girlfriend, but definitely heartfelt. I woke three-and-a-half hours later with a nasty hangover and a picture in my phone that made me laugh.

Sten Spinella is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu. He tweets @SSpinella927.