We walk down a side street in Lastra a Signa, a small town outside of Florence, Italy, and my father asks me, “Why is everyone staring at us?”
“It’s your New Balance tennis shoes,” I tease him. The Italians – especially the Italian men – wear leather loafers.
Or maybe some know we’re American because we drive down a one-way street into oncoming traffic minutes after we get our rental car. We’re fine – more importantly the rental car’s fine. We now know a red circular sign with a horizontal white line means “one way.”
A 12-day family trip to Florence, Italy teaches us we stick out like sore thumbs in some cities around the Tuscan area. It’s mostly in the places where the locals frequent and Americans don’t venture – but that’s why we choose to visit those places.
Though we don’t have much to offer the Florentines, they have so much to offer us – architecture, history, art, leather, food.
The Italians are welcoming when we arrive in a new place. They’re patient when we can’t understand the language. And helpful when we can’t find the grocery store – and by helpful, they get in their cars and tell us to follow them to the store just to show us themselves.
The first authentic meal
I sit in a restaurant ready for my first real Italian meal.
The menu is, of course, in Italian. So my mother, sister and I go for the safe bet – pizza. My brother and father go for the pasta and risotto, not completely sure what will be in the dishes.
The waiter gives me a weird look when I only order one dish. But I ignore the look – I know there’s no way my 120-pound body could eat a normal four-course Italian supper all by myself.
The pizzas arrive about 10 minutes later. One by one the waiter puts them on the table.
It all looks appetizing except for one – my mother’s pizza.
She looks at it with eyeballs almost as big as the eyeballs on the full-sized, unpeeled prawns on top.
She hates seafood.
And she really hates those eyeballs looking back at her.
I quickly tell her to switch pizzas with me – I can tell from her almost-green face she wouldn’t be able to stomach it.
We finally get the hang of ordering after the next few meals.
And we learn what’s proper when it comes to food and drinks – like the chefs don’t cut your pizza for you, but they do cut your steak into strips. Like it’s not polite to ask for cream in your coffee after noon. Like the Italians eat their salads after their main course, not before like we do – it’s to help with digestion, apparently.
A handful of wood barrels big enough for all five of us to fit inside surround me in a wine cellar at Castello di Verrazzano, an elegant vineyard with a castle and hectares of land that have produced wine for a very long time.
Our tour guide explains the contraption at the top – which looks like an old oil lamp. It’s a colmatori, and it lets air leave the barrel without any getting back inside.
It lets air leave the barrel without any getting back inside.
As the tour ends, our guide leads us to a nice dining room overlooking the fields of olives and grapes.
In front of me sits a line of four wine glasses – all for me. That’s when I start to wonder if we’ll make it to the next winery tour.
Several waiters come around and fill our glasses up with rosé – a light red wine with some grapes skins – and three other darker red wines, from a bold, smoky taste to a smoother taste.
We are told to drink the wines from right to left and pair each with certain cheeses, cured meats and the most delicious, sweet balsamic vinegar.
By the end, we’re full. We hop into our rental car. And drive to another city outside of Florence for our next tour.
A walk around Florence
I keep my bag close as we walk around Florence.
The gypsies are like everyone else – they know we’re American and probably have lots of euros in our pockets.
The city’s small and easy to navigate.
The Piazza della Signoria, or the main square, sits right in the middle of Florence.
Hidden in alley ways and on street corners are gelato shops and coffee bars.
Each flavor of gelato is shaped like a mound sitting in an aluminum container with swirling designs on top.
I pick stracciatella – vanilla ice cream with warm chocolate drizzled over that hardens.
There are several palaces were the money-making, business-minded families lived during the end of the medieval time and into the Renaissance period.
My favorite one – the Medici palace. It’s known to the Florentines as Palazzo Medici Riccardi.
A stone-like bench surrounds the home. It’s where artists and businessmen sat and waited to meet inside to talk business.
The “front doors” of these palaces are at least 15 feet in the air – so the enemies couldn’t enter. A ladder would draw down for the family and friends to enter and exit.
Our tour guide tells us about the women, who were rarely allowed to leave the homes because of all the disease and filth people would just throw in the streets.
Instead, the women would dye their hair and sit in the sun on the terrace. Their idea of hair dye – urine. Yes, urine.
It was all about pale skin and light colored hair.
For make-up, women used white lead, which hardened on their faces. That’s where we get the term, “Cracking up laughing.”
Birth of Venus, David bring tears
I see it in the next room and immediately leave our tour group.
I stand on the second floor of the Uffizi Gallery, look at Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” painting right in front of me – a painting I studied three years ago in art history. It’s roughly 5 ½ by 9 feet.
Almost breathless, I stare at the beautiful colors – the strawberry blonde of Venus’ hair, the blue and green ocean, the pink of the robe her handmaiden holds.
It’s a feeling I can’t describe – I knew what it looked like in a textbook, but not in real life.
A few blocks down, I round a corner in the Galleria dell’Accademia.
And there he stands over 16 feet tall – David.
His detailed marble body brings tears to my eyes. He’s a miracle by Michelangelo.
With a slingshot over his shoulder and braveness in his eyes, he’s about to take on Goliath.
I stand there and think – if I lived here, there’s no way I’d take advantage of the oldness or history or art or food.
About 48 hours later, I’m stuffed in seat 37B for the 11-hour flight home – a flight I spent remembering all the beauty I’ve shared with my family.
Follow Hannah Louise Strong on Twitter @HannahLStrong