from the mitten to the boot and back

Ann Arbor is cheerful and upbeat, there’s an electricity here. The University of Michigan is intertwined with the city and they depend on each other. In part, it’s powered by the students; the twenty-somethings buzzing to and fro with a furious mixture of excitement and anxiety. There’s either no money in our pockets or too much of dad’s. We’re confronted by our futures. It could be in 5 minutes from now, following the call of a grande soy vanilla latte  – or directing the course for years in advance, to major in English or Communications because “at least you can get a job with that”.

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“Townies” as we call the natives of Ann Arbor could be described as hip and well educated with a general acceptance that driving around this city is hell from September to May. Some are a bit eccentric, but they certainly add to A2’s flavor. Because of the University’s international scope, lots of people are drawn here from all over the world.

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Anyone who has an interest in anything can probably find it in Ann Arbor. The community and University combined offer a club for almost anything and activities from rock climbing, to roller derby, nerdy but cool gaming places and record stores to a botanical garden. Obama likes hanging out here and Madonna went to UoM for a little while – her daughter goes here now!!

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The truly, truly beautiful thing about college, and specifically University of Michigan is – we have this cradle of Ann Arbor, it surrounds us in comfort and offers the tools we can use to find ourselves. It is soft here, and welcoming. People are happy and helpful.

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Mid December overcast skies in Michigan, the trees have laid their leaves down and they are long gone from their raked piles on the side of the street. We barely hesitate, we slip on our gloves and our long, black, puffy parkas to head out into the cold. Although I know the routine, every year it seems I forget about the biting wind and the ever present chill that cannot be quenched by layers of clothes or artificial heat.

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I was staying with Nikki who graciously took me in for a few weeks when I came back from Italy. (roomies4lyfe) Thanks to this girl for always being there. Ride or Die. A truth speaker and often times my moral compass. The bigger the hoop earrings the better. I could say a lot but I’ll spare her. Days are spent pretty quiet – we stream tv shows on the internet and always have good talks over smoke breaks.

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And dearest Gaby who gives the warmest hugs lives two doors down. Within one block, four houses belong to my closest friends – a one minute walk connects most of the people I hang out with.

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This is our little baby Zilla, she’s two years old now, but she has the small stature and spirit of a kitten. By that I mean she’s pretty crazy and basically a ball of cattitude who is very loving in her own way when she chooses to be.

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By the time night falls, we pick ourselves up, and finally put ourselves together. With our energy wound up all day in books and working food service part time, after dark is our time to shine.

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Once the night’s supplies have been gathered and we are prepped to go, our troop begins to fall in line. Jackie, Joe and Théo come in from Division, across the parking lot behind Nikki’s house – the silliest folk I know who all have sharp wit, are keen on cuddling and cooking, and are the most generous with their love and resources.

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After a lil goofing off, we go from Jefferson around the corner to Division where my friends were hosting Théo’s birthday party. The party started with all of our closest friends. I heard many people say “if this is all that show’s up, I’ll be fine with that”. We are all in senior year, we have found our niches, our family, our spots. A night with the people you already know trumps a night of walking around looking for a party big enough to crash.

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The thing about college is that sometimes Crystal Palace is your only option, and that isn’t okay but it has to be.

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I can tell you with certainty that Taylor Swift’s “Shake it off” is streaming on someone’s iphone through the speakers to get us all in the mood to dance – it works every time.

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Leaving my signature.

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The best thing about my friends is how much variation we have amongst us – we all differ in background or race, career path, sexual orientation, major, and beliefs. My friends all have different perspectives that help me to understand and care more about the world outside of my own experience. They are all strong willed, I know that all of my friends will succeed in any endeavor they chase. I expect they will all go far. Nikki’s mom spent a night with us once and after observing our interactions, with heartfelt tears welling in her eyes, she compared us to “a good minestrone” with lots of different ingredients that each have a taste of their own and compliment each other. I admire my friends for their passions in human rights and for tirelessly putting acceptance and love into a world that is so often unforgiving. I am blessed to be surrounded by folks who support me to the max. They not only love me for who I am, but they helped make me this way. It’s people who make a place feel like home.

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We carry on from porch to porch around the neighborhood, meeting friends of friends which automatically makes them friends too. We let go, we drink and laugh and probably forget a lot of the details.

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The holidays bring about ugly sweater themed parties to celebrate the end of a semester. Peppermint patty shots are  peppermint schnaps poured down the hatch, followed up with chocolate syrup to chase it down.

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Walking down liberty towards main st we head to the German bar, Heidelberg, then a cab ride across town to Blue Lep.

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And he’ll probably hate me for putting this in here, but since leaving Italy in November, my boyfriend Peppe has been stuck behind a screen. 4,000+ miles is really far and difficult but we’re going strong and totally excited for the next big adventure: Peppe in America! Coming soon!

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once upon a trullo town

On the way to Alberobello, somewhere in the hills between fields and stone dividing lines we stopped at a gas station. This is completely random but I find it the most strange and I will always remember it. Okay so. We approach the gas station and the first thing I see is a seriously huge, like 12 ft tall, statue of Jesus. He was standing right there on the edge of the parking lot at this gas station in the middle of nowhere. ???? So then we go inside the store of the gas station to get a coffee. I was a little taken back, but somehow not surprised when I realized there was a full bar in there. Just come on in for a drink while you’re gassing up to drive in your car. Oh, Italy. Anyway, scroll on for the real story and also a lot of pictures.

We were on a mission to see the trulli village in Alberobello. When we first arrived, it seemed to be a city like any other.

DSC_8304 copyJust around the corner we found an entrance to the village and an immediate shift in atmosphere. It was like walking into a fairytale crossed with Lord of the Rings. They were drystone dwellings with conical roofs, some adorned with flora, popping with color against the white walls. It felt magical and other-worldly, like how could this place be real? Would a hairy-footed creature come out of one of these doors?

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First of all, thinking about how old this place is really amazed me – this particular settlement dates back to the 14th century.  The sheer volume of trulli maximize the oddity factor, it’s like being transported to another time.

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The other factor I found most interesting about this place was that people actually live here. It’s not a land of gnomes and trolls. Mailboxes and entryway decorations, furniture and rugs outside of dwarf-like doors seemed almost staged, like a curious town-sized dollhouse. Perhaps now that’s more of what it serves as, a novelty. Some dwellings are offered up to tourists for a weekend stay, and noticing lots of telephone wires, I wondered if they had complimentary wifi.

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On what I assume to be the main strip of the village, tourist shops with trullo-shaped limoncello bottles lined the streets between handmade crafts, art studios, historical sites, and homes. Originally, this style of construction was designed for easy tearing down and building back up again – to evade taxes of course. These strange buildings have been repurposed, renovated and still stand within a delightfully peculiar community.

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(all film images thanks to Peppe)

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The white painted symbols on the roofs represent a variety of Christian, magic, and primitive good luck charms. One of the craft stores was open, so I had to check out the inside which was far more spacious than I anticipated. What appeared to me as a little one room house actually had a few connecting corridors filled by hand painted trinkets with a small studio in the back. The objects seemed crafted by elves, but to my disappointment, no one hid behind the counter with a hat and pointy ears.

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Annarita and Ivano, who shared the adventure are two of my boyfriend’s closest friends, so it was really great to spend some extra time with them. (and to have someone else help me make fun of Peppe). I promise I’m learning Italian so I can have actually good conversations with everyone. Thanks to these two for being so warm and accepting to me!


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A pop-up shop sold various nuts and dried fruits as a handy snack for walking around the village. We had almonds and olives and a white nut that I impulsively shoved in my mouth without realizing there is a “right” way to eat them. “It’s too late,” Peppe laughed as soon as I popped it in still coated in its shell. A cloud of smoke filled my nose with the smell of roasting chestnuts. The sun was getting low and my eyes traced a silhouette of the village, like a cut-out on the canvas tent.

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Peppe spotted these stairs from the other side of the village center and was drawn to them – so we investigated to see where they led, which ended up being some pretty cool views.

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I can’t help but look at this and see a miniaturized, quirky storybook world. As a notably small person in a tall man’s world, I find myself with an affinity for anything quaint and “me sized”. This maybe the closest I’ll ever come to being in a fairytale.

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On the walk back to the car we had a run-in with a one-eyed cat and her troupe of kittens. I persistently called, “micio!” to them in efforts to coerce them into coming nearer. She seemed like a warrior, a survivor. Her kittens were fresh, probably barely on their feet and she only had one-eye so I don’t blame her for being skeptical.

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down to the roots

I’ve been back in the mitten now for two weeks where my attempts at getting life in order here have delayed further posts. I promise there is no shortage of adventures to share from my last few weeks in Italy. The first is Palese. My boyfriend’s hometown is Palese, in the southern region of Puglia just fifteen minutes from the main city, Bari.

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Arguably the most important value to Italians (especially southern) next to vino and pasta and sex, is family. Meeting Peppe’s parents and brother was the part of my trip I looked forward to the most. And c’mon, how precious is this woman.

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Not only meeting the family, but spending an entire week with them was a really cool opportunity. I entered their home for the first time and wanted desperately to connect with them. Words failed me but I managed to choke out, “grazie per tutto” and “che bella casa!” While we couldn’t share in conversation, their warmth was immediate. Literally, because most of my interactions with Peppe’s mother were her offering shoes and sweaters and making sure I was, in fact, warm enough.

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(Peppe had an old film camera, Koroll 35, which I helped him load. All of these black and white shots are his)

Pollocciotto, the cat’s name, means basically “little sweet fluffy ball” and he says “miao” not “meow”. I learned that even animals speak Italian haha big surprise. Also all animals I saw in Italy still had their balls because as Peppe would say, “Well, yes, that’s the point.”  This kitty lived in the family garden and was free to roam.

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The garden had a lemon tree and an outdoor kitchen. Obviously because they live on the sea, foods fresh out of the water are a main part of their diet. One of my favorite meals we had was a huge variety of fried seafood – squid, octopus, some whole fish. The octopus was, surprisingly, my favorite.

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This was actually the way I found easiest to connect with Peppe’s mother, through food. Let me preface this by saying, you have never had real Italian food until a real Italian mom cooks it for you. Basically all I had to do was at least try everything, and clear my plate whenever possible followed by “buonissimo”. I wish I had a way to fully express how much it meant to me for them to be so accepting and welcoming.

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The only real conversation I had with her, was when Carmela asked Peppe to ask me why I loved her son. So as I carefully and thoughtfully explained myself, my boyfriend translated and she nodded in agreement and appreciation.

Peppe’s parents have been together for something like 36 years – since she was 14 and he was 17.

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Traveling by train at the beginning of my trip exposed me to the countrysides of Italy, blurring past the panoramic windows. Other than that, I hadn’t seen much outside of Florence’s historical center.  We landed in Palese once the sun had already set and a cloak of darkness shed only whispers of the town’s full beauty. I didn’t know what to expect. In the morning, even though the day was unusually cloudy for this region, I was seriously amazed.

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One of my goals for coming to Italy, was to actually see the sea, which I have never done.

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Peppe took me to something he called “the arm” and explained that this was a place when young people are new to a relationship, they would come out here to kiss.

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So I finally saw the sea for the first time, the Adriatic Sea. Most of the shoreline was rocky rather than sandy and the water was crystal clear.


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I saw little crabs scurrying through the rocks and I bent over to soak my hand in the warm salty water. Palese is a place that Peppe described as people basically living in the sea. He told me about being young and free to run and play here, because there wasn’t much danger.

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We spent some time with his closest friends Annarita, Nicola, Ivano and Stefania. This was the night I finally grasped a true understanding for what Palese is like. At first I was drowning, completely lost because I couldn’t understand anything anyone was saying. Especially because in the south, they speak in different dialects of Italian, like Barese. If you put a Florentine in the same room, they would have no idea what anyone was saying, either.

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I started picking up on voice inflections, tones and gestures in attempts to follow. It was then I realized, whether you’re in Italy or America or probably anywhere, the way friends interact is always the same. Maybe I couldn’t understand their words, but I felt like I knew what was going on. And as soon as the pizza delivery guy came, everything made sense..

He came down the stairs and started greeting everyone by kissing them on the face then they started chatting and laughing. So I had a better sense of just how small the town is – when even the pizza guy is an old friend. Then Peppe explained to me that he actually has an economics degree. So I had a better sense of just how few job opportunities existed here.

This experience was like seeing another side of a person I feel like I know so well. To witness firsthand the places and the people which formed the man I love was really enlightening.  I, myself, came from a small town similar to Palese. Granted, it wasn’t on the sea or in Italy, but it’s a place that feels like home and people make it that way.

It’s a small place you may to escape, but down to the roots, this place won’t escape you.

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adventure is out there

Yesterday Peppe heard about a festival in the Cascine park with lots of people and animals. It seemed the perfect way to spend a lazy Sunday evening, which turned into my favorite day in Florence so far.  After some confusion with buses we were on our way and decided to take the tram, a first time for both of us. I was eager to reach the park before sunset.

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There isn’t much vegetation or trees in the city center so entering the park, we were overcome with peaceful feelings. Peppe mentioned a specific smell in the air that was different from in the city. We weren’t quite sure where the festivities were, but, naturally I wanted to chase light which led us through the trees to the edge of the Arno.

DSC_6860 copyJust in time to enjoy the sunset, we sat near the river and drank some wine. I love this about Italy, seriously, you can walk down the street or sit in a park drinking beer/wine and nobody cares as long as you aren’t belligerent.

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DSC_6889 copyPersonally, I would venture to guess that not much feels better than being bathed in warm light from a setting sun over a river in Florence and sharing that with my Italian boyfriend. I’ve encountered my fair share of stress since coming to Italy (which is a story for another post) but being here means the world to me and brings a happiness better expressed in photos like this. Peppe has expressed interest in getting a camera, so I’m making a point to let him get his hands on mine some more.

DSC_6900 copyDSC_6918 copyI so desperately wanted to climb this thing, but settled on living vicariously through this little guy.

DSC_6921 copyWe walked down the road in search of this festival, which we never actually found. Instead, I saw this ivy covered staircase behind a fence and smelled an adventure. Luckily, after some searching, we found a hole to access it.

Untitled_Panorama2smallIt opened up to a platform with a view of this completely empty horse track and breathtaking views of distant mountains and buildings.

DSC_6930 copyI just couldn’t get enough, the excitement of discovering something so unexpected took over. I ran to the edge of the platform, wondering what else we could find.

DSC_6936 copyTo my delight, an abandoned playground. So obviously I had to get a closer look.

DSC_6939 copy“I don’t think you can get down that way”

I just laughed and continued on, the overgrown staircase going down the opposite side was basically begging me to venture onward.

DSC_6941 copyI’d like to thank the explorers who came before us, making it easier to find a path. Explorers or maybe drug addicts or maybe both in the same?  We actually passed a few sketchy characters on our way to the swing set, totally worth it.

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DSC_6968 copyNeither of us knew anything about this place but it seemed under construction and the grass was still well groomed. It was so so so green we couldn’t resist fence-hopping for the sake of running and jumping and cartwheeling.

DSC_6972 copyWe took to the empty stands and noticed the Duomo peeking over the trees in the distance. Here, we sat and finished the wine, watching the final moments of sunset, feeling like the whole entire place was ours.

DSC_6977 copyHeading back down the way we came, I was feeling a rush of excitement and more alive than ever.  All I can think is this is everything I’ve ever wanted, this is the kind of stuff I live for.  The unexpected discovery, something that caught my eye and led to an adventure I couldn’t have imagined. It kept unfolding piece by piece and as we pushed forward each moment was that much more rewarding. I live for that feeling when my heart is racing, on the farthest edge of comfort to be rewarded with new experiences.  I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who seeks out adventure and goes forth without (or despite) fear and for the first time, I think I have finally allowed myself to do that pretty much constantly. I said before and I’ll say it again, Florence has shown me what makes me feel alive and has marked the beginning of the rest of my life.

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creatures of the night

Since I arrived in Florence, I’ve been working with an American painter and performance artist who lives in the city. Friday night, we attended a vampire themed party hosted in his beautiful studio which has an incredible location right near the Uffizi museum. The invitation called for all black attire and vampire teeth.

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Of course, we had to have a little drink before heading out to the party. My roommate Luca offered me a sip of absinthe, which I’ve never tried. It was so strong but super delicious, it tasted like black liquorice. The four of us shared a roomie shot of tequila (my drink of choice) before taking off. Meet Luca and Ziba –

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As we were walking to the party, Peppe kept saying he felt strange wearing only black. He works in a bank, is pursuing an economics degree and let’s just say, he doesn’t have too much experience with us “artist types”. I honestly didn’t know what to expect either, but I assured him because it’s a party of artists, there would probably be people there sporting full face make up and costumes –  we weren’t let down!

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A table in Giovanni’s painting studio was set up with costume make up and as soon as we got there, guests had already started getting a little freaky. I tried leaving in my vampire teeth but they made it pretty much impossible to speak clearly or take drinks, so they ended up being mostly just for pictures.

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Giovanni’s costume definitely took the cake, keeping a cape on in 80 degree weather is a feat and he had garlic strung around his next but as far as my knowledge goes, vampires hate garlic. I asked him about it and he claimed to be strong, it was a show of his ultimate vampire power.

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There were boxes of wine, which I automatically associate to college parties with Franzia and slap the bag – but Peppe explained that it was in a box because a farmer made it, assuring it was actually fancy and fresh.

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By 10:30, the party was in full swing. Plenty of introductions and interesting people, plenty of drinks and snacks to go around. There was a huge range of people, young and old speaking different languages and from all over the world.

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One of my favorite people I met was an Italian man named Flask who noticed the lens on my camera was old, a film lens. So we had a really great conversation about photography and how the only way to really make money in the industry is to work in a very commercially prescribed way.

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Peppe made a comment about how different the atmosphere of an art party is. To him, a boss’ party would be men in suits talking about making investments. He said his favorite part of the night was “The air, the artistic waves in the air. For me it’s a new experience.”

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For me, it’s tradition to take mirror selfies in bathrooms at parties once we are feeling good and tipsy.

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Not many people were dancing, so me and the studio manager, Anna wanted to break the ice. She’s from Colorado and is studying here in Florence. We hung out with her and her friend Luigi for most of the night.  Shortly after, a few more people filtered into the dance floor. I love dancing and if music is on, I can’t help but shake it just a little. Creds to Peppe for this blurry dancing photo.

DSC_6691 copyAfter maybe one too many shots of tequila, we headed for home and I was desperate to prove to myself I wasn’t too drunk to take pictures.

This was definitely an ideal way to celebrate my first full week in Florence. It feels great to be making so many connections and it already feels like I have a place here.  I am definitely missing all of my friends from Ann Arbor – nobody parties like they do. Coming from an art school, this event really hit home for me and sort of opened a whole new world for Peppe.

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buon appetito

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Last night Peppe’s coworker, Francesco, invited us to a “small dinner” with his family at their home just outside the city center. (Pictured above is his other coworker Nicola) I wanted to eat gelato earlier in the evening and Peppe told me not to, so as to save all the room in my stomach for dinner, and I’m so happy I did. It’s inevitable that only a short matter of time passed before a food related post came up!

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Francesco’s parents and his girlfriend Katia were preparing panzerotti – a dish from the Southern region of Puglia, which is basically a small, folded, stuffed and fried pizza bread. Classically, it is filled with mozzarella and tomato but we also had onion with olive and my favorite was eggs and cheese.

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While the panzerotti was frying they served us tuna sandwiches, rosemary potato chips, and sundried tomatoes in oil (I was obsessed with these, they were so sweet and tangy!) From the moment we arrived, our mouths were occupied.

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Of course, I was the only American, and the only one who didn’t speak Italian. I’ve been slowly yet surely learning the basics, but because they were all from the South of Italy, everyone spoke using dialects that Peppe describes as almost a completely separate language. Francesco’s mom pointed around the room “Lui Italiano, Lui Italiano, Lei Italiano…” and so on, saying that everyone there was Italian and speaking Italian and that was the best way to learn, by listening. I picked up a few words here and there and I could understand the general context of the conversation. however, the extent of my speaking was “dov’è il bagno??” and “il cibo è buonissimo, grazie!” I was mostly quiet, studying the pacing of conversation and where enunciation was placed on words and in sentences.

This was my first experience of a fully authentic Italian family meal, and obviously I was no where near disappointed. I couldn’t appropriately express my gratitude, though I’m sure clearing three plates and munching endlessly means a lot to an Italian mom.

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casa dolce casa

DSC_6310 copyIntroducing the guy who made everything possible –
I met Peppe nine days before the end of my trip at the Piazza della Repubblica, the square in Florence with the carousel. He’s from Bari in Southern Italy, living and working in Florence. We hit it off pretty much immediately, had our first date at the Oblate where he taught me how to order “due birre” and I surprised him by being an American who also smokes cigarettes. Of course I joked about needing to marry an Italian man so I would never have to leave. I was impressed by his skills in English, which is essential considering the only Italian I knew coming to Florence was “ciao” and “grazie”. He made me laugh more than almost anyone I’ve ever known.

That night we went together to one of Florence’s fanciest clubs – Flo at Piazzale Michelangelo, which sits on a hill overlooking the city and has some pretty incredible views.  From then on, we spent pretty much all of our spare time together.  The week felt like forever, an entire lifetime, like a movie. He’s one of those people that I met and felt like I’ve known for ten years.

I didn’t have a hostile for my last night, so he graciously let me stay in his apartment. I was supposed to wake up at 4:30am the morning of my flight back to the States, which left at 7:05. We woke up at 5:55 and after a very speedy cab ride and anxiously waiting in the bag check line, I narrowly made it to my gate as they gave the last call. For an hour I really wasn’t sure if I would make my flight – I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

So I had to say good bye to this wonderful person I had totally fallen for, and we never knew if we would see each other again. That’s a really shitty feeling.

DSC_6312 copyWe continued skyping and texting daily, struggling with the six-hour time difference. So, when I had the thought to come back to Florence, Peppe was of course totally supportive and pretty much made the entire thing possible. I’m sharing an apartment here along with him and two other roommates in the historic city center only a few minutes walk to the Duomo. He’s opened his heart and his home to me along with lots of help figuring out what needed to be done on the other side of the pond. I couldn’t have done this, I probably wouldn’t have done this without him. It’s a huge leap for both of us, obviously, but I can’t describe the surreal feeling of kissing someone who’s been trapped behind a screen for 40 days.

So here we are in Florence, the city of romance and art, the birthplace of the renaissance. It all fell together in a very “Under the Tuscan Sun” sort of way.

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