Twenty-three years ago, I spent a few months going to school at the Centro di cultura per stranieri, in this building, Villa Fabbricotti, in Florence, Italy. This photo looks more or less like the photo that appeared on the brochure I got before I went. I didn’t really believe I’d be going to school in a castle on top of a hill.
I showed up a couple of weeks before classes started. I had a lot of work to do. I had a room in a weird monastic hostel for a week, and then I had to hit the newsstand, buy the local print equivalent of today’s Craigslist, La Pulce (The Flea), and start cold-calling about sublets. I was guided by the experience of my friend L, who had gotten there a few months earlier and been through it all already, but didn’t have space for a roommate. Many calls later, I found a place, a marble-floored gem with two scenic balconies, a view of the Duomo from the shower, a laundry sink outside – which my mom, when she visited, pronounced “deluxe” because it had its own washboard attached – and one lovely Italian roommate and one completely psychotic Mexican one (naturally, she was the one to whom I paid rent). Once I moved in and bought a pillow and some candles to light on Shabbat (“You in the dark?” asked the hardware store owner), I played tourist until it was time to start school. I bought myself a school notebook:
School began in April. It was a bit of scam, taking classes for two and a half months and earning credit at my university for a semester’s classes (I think I earned three classes’ worth of credit). We did have a lot of lectures but they were sprinkled liberally with field trips and Easter break:
Sadly, the spring course at the Centro was all I could afford. My parents had paid the equivalent cost of my semester back home, and I filled the gaps with money I’d earned at my clerk-typist job. Good thing I got a school ID that enabled me to eat my main meal, most days, at the mensa of the University of Florence. Three bucks got you a complete meal: pasta, “meat,” a vegetable, bread, and beer or wine from stainless steel dispensers (back home, I wasn’t even legal drinking age yet). It wasn’t half bad, and occasionally the Italian students (particularly the ones from the South, who were friendlier) would deign to talk to you.
At the Centro, I discovered on day one, there weren’t a whole lot of Americans. We numbered maybe a dozen, recognizable by our clothing even before we opened our mouths. There were about 200 students there, which meant everyone else was from everywhere else. Truly. I’m pretty sure every continent was represented. This was my first experience of full-on globalization – except that we were all there to be immersed in one culture, one which wasn’t our own.
Something else I learned early on was that many of the people studying at the Centro had been born in a country different than the one they were a citizen of. Certainly that was true in my case (I was born in Brazil). By the time I went to get my ID card made, the office staff were completely exasperated by this incongruity – there were a lot of people there in my same situation, and the ID form had space for place of birth, which was supposed to be the same place as where you currently lived. Perhaps this is what predisposed us to go study in another country, to really immerse ourselves in another culture. I certainly hadn’t wanted to be in an American program, so I wound up with the polar opposite experience. I spoke Italian all day long, even with people who spoke English passably or even very well. I didn’t have long to spend in the country, so I really wrung out my experience there, as thoroughly as I wrung out my socks after soaking them and scrubbing them in the deluxe laundry sink on the balcony (on the clothesline, they’d dry into cardboard, and get sooty from passing trains).
I became fast friends with a girl from Hungary, who began teaching me words and phrases in Hungarian, which intrigued me enough to take a semester of Hungarian when I got back home. (Major failure.) She eventually got drawn in by the local Hare Krishnas, who had a lovely villa outside Florence. I wonder if she ever got back home. Her name was the Hungarian equivalent of Ann Smith, so I’ve never had any luck looking for her. There was a group of eight girls from Scotland at the school, and after fumbling through unintelligible conversations in English with them, I eventually preferred speaking to them in Italian. There were a brother and sister from Switzerland, whose parents had emigrated there from Naples. The last day of school, our previously-beloved Italian language professor suddenly revealed himself as a total racist, directing most of his bile towards Southern Italians. It was an awful way to end the course, and this brother and sister were particularly distressed by his offensive rhetoric. I think someone went to talk to the head of the school, a white-haired figurehead, and it’s possible we got the guy fired. (I hope so.)
I had a small group of friends I’d go out with in the evenings – A (American, of Argentine descent), V (French, of Italian descent), and J (Swedish, I didn’t know his background but he was a lot of fun to hang out with). We were all pretty broke, so happy hour was a major draw. There was one Mexican restaurant in Florence at that time, Caffe Caracol. For exactly one hour, from 6-7 p.m., a pitcher of margaritas cost $20 instead of $40. The drinks were extremely strong. I wouldn’t say we were there every day, but we were there more than once. So were entire platoons of soldiers. At 7 p.m., a bell would ring and the prices would go up. We’d stumble out into the early evening, drunker than anyone else on the streets. I learned how to behave sober even when I was ridiculously drunk, because I wasn’t about to make a spectacle of myself. Oh yeah – I also saw lots of Renaissance art and learned how to find the Medici crest on buildings (they were everywhere). (Obviously, I learned volumes more than that.) I was pretty depressed for at least a month when I got back home. I had evolved, developed an entirely new life and new personality in another language in Florence, and it was over so abruptly.
I think of my experience now because it was perhaps the first time in my life that I lived so intensely for such a compressed period of time. I hope one day it will be parallel to my experience with metastatic cancer, a wild ride which I still can’t believe only started last September. There is a feeling that I’ve lived about a dozen lives since then. This time around, I’m hoping for nothing but joy when I repatriate, from Cancerland to Perfect Health City. I know that’s asking a lot. Also, it’s going to take a lot longer to get my visa to go there – five years, at least, if nothing else goes wrong.
I also think of my Italian experience today, because yesterday I saw my Swedish friend J, for the first time in twenty-three years. He has been visiting New York with his son, who is now 18. I had a great time showing them around Brooklyn. And it was like no time had elapsed at all.