Week three of my six week program is coming to a close and I simply don’t know how to process it. I am in that strange state of being where I feel I’ve both been here for ages and for no time at all. In any case, I feel I’m racing toward the finish and wish desperately to deploy a drag chute.
I had a number of uniquely Italian experiences this week that haven’t done me the courtesy of having any unifying theme. The first of these experiences was culinary. Rumors have sprung up among the students in the program about a certain traditional Florentine dish. My peers tend to gag at its mention, pulling faces a gargoyle might be proud of. I, however, was deeply intrigued and desired to partake in this novel gastronomic delicacy. The name of the dish is “lampredotto.” It is prepared by cooking the fourth stomach of a cow, the abomasum, in water with tomato, onion, parsley, and celery. It is often served in a panino, but I simply had it straight with a side of parsley green sauce. I found the dish had a mild beef flavor. The thin outer layer, the gala, is tender like roast beef, and the fatty layer, the spannocchia, doesn’t have the chewy or squishy texture you might expect. Especially when accompanied with the very tasty green sauce, I found lampredotto quite enjoyable. I am very glad to have tried it.
The second of my noteworthy experiences this week was distinctly devoid of tripe. For the discounted price of twenty euro, I was able to experience world class opera in an amazingly intimate space. Saint Mark’s, tucked in unassumingly along Via Maggio, is a small but very beautiful church. Beneath its quaintly painted ceilings and between its many pillars, full length operas and concerts of love duets are performed. There is no stage; the performer’s play in a small cleared space in the church’s center. The space holds an audience of maybe fifty people, with the farthest seats still being wonderfully close to the performers. My friend and I were originally sat in two seats off “stage right,” but conveniently, two people with seats reserved front and center failed to show up. The usher/narrator for that night, an entertainer in his own right, offered the seats up to the first to raise their hand. He hadn’t finished his sentence before both my hands flew over my head. I’d like to thank the absent Sephton’s for putting me literally within arm’s length of the action.
The opera itself was entitled La Traviata, and is a dramatic tale of love, sacrifice, and misunderstanding. The set was simple and the costumes simply served to complement the scene. The performer’s sang with fantastic power and dynamic, and even had control enough to sing while lying down. This is no small feat and it blew my mind to see it done so effortlessly. The acting was also stellar, carrying the audience through periods of elation, despair, rage, and regret. The lead female impressed me the most throughout the performance, going so far as to really make me believe (spoiler alert) that she may have legitimately died on stage at the opera’s close. Upon leaving the church after the show, I immediately began considering seeing another. It had been a remarkable evening.
Like La Traviata, my third notable experience of the week is a dramatic tale of love. In wandering near Fortezza da Basso, I passed by a young man who promptly began attempting to flirt with me. While this would never happen to me in America, it happens multiple times a day here in Italy. This has probably been the biggest culture shock for me, as one with no romantic experience. This man (I’ll call him Vincenzo) seemed more genuinely friendly than most, was closer to my age than most, and, side note, I know karate. Long story short, I agreed to let him buy me a cappuccino. I saw it as a chance to practice my Italian and perhaps learn more about the local culture from an inside source. As the morning proceeded, I found both these opportunities come into realization. Vincenzo actually seemed impressed by my limited Italian, though we used a translator on his phone for more complex conversation. In terms of dissecting cultural phenomenon, I more fully realized differences in personal space. In Italy, you walk so close you brush shoulders, clasp hands in moments of excitement, and kiss once on each cheek to say hello and goodbye. With my cultural background, it is hard to discern flirtation from cultural norm.
Having had a pleasant morning with Vincenzo, with no inappropriate advances from him, I met up with him later in the day along with one of my roommates. He too brought a friend, and we spent the evening hanging out on the far west portion of the Arno. All was dandy, we were practicing Italian, enjoying casual conversation as well as periods of silence while we enjoyed the breeze and watched the sunset. Things became awkward, however, when Vincenzo and his friend insisted they were deeply in love with my roommate and me. They wanted to make plans to see us tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. At this point, my friend and I disengaged. I repeated “sono troppo giovanne” a number of times, physically removed Vincenzo’s arm from my shoulder, and my roommate and I returned to our apartment alone and by a roundabout path. And so, what was briefly an enriching cultural experience turned into a story of unrequited love. (Vincenzo has messaged me multiple times since we parted, so I don’t think he’s giving up. As in any tragic love story, however, we shall not be meeting again.)
I relish the occasions Italy invites me to take risks. Reaching full understanding of a place requires a certain spirit of daring. You should try the dish no one will touch, experience art forms you haven’t much before, and attempt to connect with a few locals. When your own cultural standards signal you that something is unacceptable, you can always abort mission. Often, however, I find that grand memories and personal growth result from measured risk-taking. After all, what is life without a bit of adventure?