I exited the plane in Rome, jet-lagged with a gaggle of fellow college coeds headed for customs and immigration, my passport in hand. I was twenty years old, and it was my very first time abroad. My exchange program from Wesleyan University to Syracuse University in Florence had begun.
In the terminal, I got my first sounds and smell of an Italian bar. It was teeming with morning patrons downing espresso and eating cornetti. I went up to the pastry case, put my hand on the warm glass, and then pointed like a preverbal child when the barista asked what I wanted. I held up three fingers. Three different cornetti in a bag for the road. One plain, one with cream filling, and one filled with marmalade. I didn’t know yet that a version of this bar existed on every street corner in Italy. That what I had in the bag was as common as ketchup in America or, more to the point, a doughnut. I was just happy in anticipation of the first bite.
Italy had never been in my grand plan. The only grand plan I had at the time was becoming a professional actor after college. I had wanted to be an actor since I remember being conscious. It was the big-picture plan of my life as I could see it, even if I had, as yet, no specific road map as to how to achieve it. It would be a leap. Nor had I planned to leave Wesleyan and its sleepy college town along the Connecticut River, except that I had stumbled into an Art History 101 class at the end of a difficult freshman year. The class was taught by Dr. John Paoletti, a world-renowned Italian Renaissance scholar. On that first day of class, when the lights dimmed in the auditorium and the first slide came up, a Greek frieze from Corinth circa 300 BC, I found myself spellbound. Two semesters of college finally came into focus. Within three weeks, I became an art history major. The next semester I was studying Italian, a requirement to complete my major. By the end of my sophomore year, I had taken up a tepid but steady affair with my Italian TA, Connor.
Connor was a senior and New England blueblood who had family in Italy. After one late-night romp in his bedroom on the top floor of his frat house, I helped him clean up beer cups while he helped me decide to take a semester abroad in Italy.
He assured me it was the only way I could achieve fluency, and I could also take a much-needed break from the confines of small-town Connecticut and still graduate on time. He suggested Florence. He had a sister there, Sloane, who had cast off the idea of an undergraduate degree from Vassar College in favor of life in Italy as an expat. She was a few years older than I was and had a long-term Italian beau, Giovanni, with whom she had gone into business, opening a bar called No Entry. Connor assured me that she would take me under her wing. His instructions were simple: “Find the nearest pay phone when you arrive in Florence and call Sloane—she’ll introduce you around.” Her number was tucked inside my passport when I boarded the Alitalia flight from New York.
The reward of jet lag is a new set of coordinates, a new language, and local delicacies. Italy did not disappoint. Eating my pastries as I looked out the window, on the bus ride from the Rome airport to Florence, I watched the passing cypress trees, hills, and farmhouses. It was like seeing a place for the first time that you felt you had known your whole life. When we finally made it to Florence under the midday summer sun, we stumbled out of the bus near the church of San Lorenzo. By then I realized I couldn’t wait to get away from the bulk of the girls on the exchange program. One transatlantic flight and then a two-hour bus ride was enough.
Unlike them, I wasn’t in Italy to shop and hang out with my sorority sisters. I didn’t have my parents’ credit card in my wallet, and I wasn’t looking for a tryst with an Italian boy and trips to Paris once a month. I had a semester’s worth of modest spending money, and I actually wanted to study art history. There was more I wanted, too, from my three-month stay. It was a yearning I couldn’t put into words yet.
After I gathered my duffel bag from the luggage compartment of the bus, our large group was divided and shuttled off to a series of pensioni near the train station for the first night or two until we would all be assigned and delivered to our Italian host families. The first thing I did after walking up three flights of a narrow stone staircase to my three-person room was put my duffel down and get into line to use the telephone in the main entrance. I did what every other girl did: I called home. Or two homes, actually—first my mom’s and then my dad’s—and assured both of them I had arrived safely. Then I called Sloane.
“Ciao, Tembi!” Her voice rang out as if we had just seen each other a couple of nights before over an aperitivo. “Connor told me about you. I knew you’d call. Where are you?”
“I’m near the station at a hotel.” I didn’t say pensione because I wasn’t sure I’d pronounce the Italian correctly.
“I’m coming to get you,” she said in a smoky New England lilt overlaid with an Italian cadence. I knew in an instant that she was more European than I’d ever be. “Let’s have dinner. I have to be in the city center tonight anyway for work. Pick you up at eight.”
It was sometime after lunch when I hung up the phone, as best as my jet lag could tell. Time enough to nap and then shower and be ready for my first real Italian dinner. When all the other girls began joining up and making plans to explore the area around the hotel, perhaps window-shop and get something to eat, I declined their offers to join them.
“I have a friend who is picking me up later,” I explained. It was the kind of understated brag that didn’t win me any friends.
Sloane whizzed up to the pensione at 8:45 p.m. in an old bluish white Fiat Cinquecento. It was a car I had seen only in I Vitelloni, a movie I had watched in my Italian Neorealism film class. She pulled it up onto the sidewalk, hopped out of the driver’s seat, and came around to throw her arms around me. Apparently, we were long-lost friends who had been dying to get reacquainted. She had curly auburn locks that fell at her tan cleavage, which she managed to somehow have even though she was braless. Her smile was as bold and bright as her pastel Betsey Johnson floral minidress. But it was her infinitely long legs that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Connor had mentioned that she had been a theater major, and that made perfect sense as she carried herself as though she were stepping onto or off of a stage. Standing next to her I felt like a troll in Gap jeans, V-neck T-shirt, and lace boots, a look that had seemed so cool while walking across the lawn back at Wesleyan.
“Hop in!” she said when she finished hugging me. She opened the door on the passenger side and crawled over the gearshift to take her place behind the wheel. In the process, she threw her fringed leather purse into the back seat, then, on second thought, reached back, put it onto her lap, and pulled out a joint.
“No, thanks.” It looked as though she had already had a few drags. There were lipstick stains on it.
“Later then, there’s time.” She turned the motor. “We’re going to meet my friends near San Casciano first. Dinner at their house. He’s a painter, she does the window dressings for Luisa. Then we’ll all head to the bar.” She took a long drag, then extinguished the joint on the floorboard of the car.
“Put this in back,” she said, handing me her bag. “And yours, too,” she added, lifting my maroon canvas backpack from my lap.
I did as I was told and we set off, summer city wind blowing through the open windows of the car. She drove us through a labyrinth of timeless passageways and narrow cobblestoned streets lit by amber streetlights. I stuck my hand out the window, and Florence moved through my fingers.
When we finally arrived at Massimo’s house, a Tuscan villa somewhere near Niccolò Machiavelli’s childhood home, I was fighting carsickness and nerves.
“Does anyone here speak English?”
“A bit, but I’ll translate. Come on.”
With that she turned the knob of the unlocked front door and immediately charged through the house like a tornado that had just touched the ground, following the sound of jazz and chatter that seemed to originate from some far corner of the first floor.
I trailed behind, timid and awestruck by the sights around me. I was convinced that I was walking through what was surely a Merchant Ivory film set. Stone floors, exquisite tapestries, mahogany bookcases. Sloane looked back to grab my hand just before we entered the outdoor terrace, where I could see at least ten to twelve Italians gathered in a smattering of duos and trios. Every conversation seemed intimate and theatrical, all happening behind a scrim of cigarette smoke.
Sloane squeezed my hand and leaned in for a whisper. “I’ll make Massimo show you his art collection before we leave.”
I anxiously tugged at the back of my T-shirt, pulling it over the backside of my jeans. Self-conscious, I was unable to conjure up a response.
“He has a Picasso in his bedroom.” With that she thrust me onto the center of the terrace.
“Eccola, Tembi! Un’amica americana.” Then she gave me a dramatic kiss on the cheek, pivoted, and left me. Were people doing tiny lines of coke off a farmhouse coffee table?
I turned to join the impossibly cosmopolitan and bohemian group clustered in conversation. I knew enough to decline the coke. I never did ask to see the Picasso. Frankly, I didn’t know how, and I wasn’t ready to ask a man I had just met to take me to his bedroom. Still, even through my jet-lagged haze, a self I had never known was beginning to come into focus. The energetic pulse of the evening took over me, and I vowed then and there to welcome the unexpected. This new me would embrace every part of the adventure. I was open, for better or for worse, to whatever might come. Like an egg with its yolk exposed, I was vulnerable but jolly. Sloane would point the way, and I would follow—within reason. I already liked the feel of this new country on my skin, its language taking root in my mouth. And over the course of the night, as I fumbled through my kindergarten Italian, I stopped blushing, growing more and more confident with each conversation. In one day, Italy was already making me easy with myself. My expectations were few. After all, I told myself, I would be here for only a few months. When I looked around the terrace, I couldn’t imagine that any of the people would ever be lifelong friends. Italy was just a quick adventure, a time apart from time. A perfect interlude.
By morning I was back in my three-person room at the pensione, staring at the ceiling and seriously considering pinching myself. The smell of coffee from the breakfast room below rose up through the stone floors. The clatter of cups hitting saucers, spoons clinking against porcelain, plates being stacked, the aroma of coffee and fresh pastries, seduced me. Full of delight, I couldn’t wait to take on another day.
Two months later, Sloane found me scrubbing the toilet in her bar, No Entry. It was in the heart of Florence’s historic center, near Piazza Santa Croce and a stone’s throw from the Arno. As was typical, she had dropped by in the afternoon and found me, scrub brush in hand, Billie Holiday mix tape on the boom box. My friend had by then become my boss, so I was cleaning the place. Despite my early promises of discipline, in six weeks I had blown through a semester’s worth of spending cash. It had disappeared in the form of belts, purses, dinners, and weekend trips to Rome and Stromboli. I was broke but refused to ask my parents for more. As a result, I cleaned toilets at No Entry off the books, before or after my classes.
“We need vodka!” Sloane pronounced, dumping out a bowl of day-old maraschino cherries. Her bar was almost out. In a flash, she decided we should drop everything and head to another bar, MI6, immediately. She was friends with the owner, and they borrowed stock from each other when liquor was running low. It was just a few blocks away and presumably fully stocked with vodka, plus her sure-thing joint connection would be there. The promise of an afternoon hit made her already fast pace that much more brisk. I trailed behind, struggling to keep up with her long-legged stride and drug-induced urgency. I had never liked drugs, but in Florence I was trying to be open to the light stuff. A puff here and there can’t hurt, Tembi. Come on, don’t be such a dork. I imagined Sloane had tried everything, which was exactly what I was thinking about when we rounded the corner of Via dell’Acqua and I collided with a man. “Mi scusi,” I mumbled.
As fate would have it, Sloane knew him. Of course. She knew everyone. She introduced him: Saro.
“Ciao, mi chiamo Tembi. Sì, Tem-BEE,” I said in my best classroom Italian. I sounded stilted, as if I weren’t sure that the words were coming out right. My saving grace was an accent that wasn’t totally embarrassing and the fact that I could say my own name with relative ease.
“Sono Saro. Tu sei americana?” he asked, smiling. He wore a black leather bomber jacket and white pants. In October. His jacket was open, and underneath I could see a white T-shirt with the word DESTINY written in big orange bubble letters across the center of his chest. Its design was a mélange of graffiti complete with random illustrations including a rocket, a slice of pizza, an amoeba, a guitar, a constellation, and the number 8 floating randomly and all topsy-turvy in hues of blue and yellow. It struck me as a cartoon of someone’s unconscious. I hoped not his. And why do Italians wear shirts with random English words emblazoned across them? I turned away, but not before I saw his shoes. They were ankle-high black boots. Instantly I thought of elves.
I looked at him and smiled. “Sì, sto studiando la storia dell’arte.” Bam! I had run out of all of my Italian. So I let Sloane carry on the conversation without me. We were standing in front of Vivoli, which, I had been told, made the best gelato in all of Tuscany. I turned away from Sloane and Saro to get a better look at the crowd spilling in and out. When I turned back, I really took in Saro, all of him. A blind person could see he was handsome. But the way he had kept his eyes on me made me suddenly aware that I wished I had worn a better bra. His gaze was sultry and focused. It made me conscious of my own breath. It made me take note of his brow line and the length of his eyelashes. I had to focus to listen to them talk. I began to gather from the exchange he and Sloane were having that he was leaving work at Acqua al 2, a well-known restaurant popular with locals and tourists less than a block away. He was a chef. He was a sexy black-haired, brown-eyed guy with a beautiful olive complexion in a country full of handsome, black-haired, brown-eyed, olive-skinned men. But this one put my body into a tumult.