Guest Column: Marriage Proposal & Romance 

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

by Jennifer Miller


 The marriage proposal: My friends Fia and Mila are on their road to marital bliss. Mila said… “yes” or “si si!”  I was behind the scenes along with Fia’s cohort from the Parola Italian Language School.   Fia had hired a guitar player named, Alfjo, who we discovered on the Ponte Vecchio Bridge to serenade her love. Earlier that day Fia made a perfect nest, and we went back to put the icing on the cake and gasp (again) at the view of the Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore).  Perfecto!    The only issue is it was freezing and all three of us on the proposal planning committee were freezing… well, honestly, I was cold, but not freezing (I’m hearty stock from the Midwest or so I like to think) but cohort, Hannah, and Alfjo had frozen fingers which made lighting all 24 candles impossible and the clock was ticking.  I didn’t have the strength to get the lighter to work so the ship was sinking fast. We decided to run all the candles downstairs/inside (there were many, many stairs to the top of the world including the help of a “sardine” elevator that only two people could barely squeeze into SO DON’T MOVE OR FART. 

But we all made it (Hannah was the “pack animal” along with the sardine helping Alfjo bring up all his equipment–what were all those gismos for? I just thought be played the guitar)?  And once the fingers were all unfrozen and all candles lit it was time for us to skedaddle, but first a quick pee. If I may digress, I’ve learned when in Rome…PEE!  Cause it isn’t free and it isn’t easy to find a “WC” (water closet).  That pee, however, almost ruined the surprise, but, fortunately, Fia came to check if everything was perfect.  We heard her downstairs on our way out. 

Quick, I started to tell Hannah “Run back upstairs so they don’t see us” and “put the bag over your head so they don’t recognize us,” but Fia heard us and said it was “okay”… Mila was down the street waiting.  Mila is that sort of patience, calm person that we all need in our lives.  So Fia was able to climb the tower and start the video before Mila arrived finding a well-lit balcony of deliciousness. How romantic!

Hannah and I were all set to celebrate at the gelato store a few doors down. I was excited to see what flavors they had, but after we got inside, they managed to let us know in English they were closed. Bummer! I was ready to hunt Florence for another open Gelateria, but Hannah, our pack animal who had worked all day, was understandably ready for her bed.

Back to peeing…many young readers may not understand my preoccupation with this, but next to scouting out Gelaterias, sadly, second on my list is the toilet (well, maybe third after Pizza joints).  This leads me to my list of things I DON’T like about Italy.  I mean, come on?  Don’t you want a real slice of Italy? I mean now I’ve been here long enough to SEE a few cracks. I can’t believe my trip is already half over.  At first it was going a little slow as I was adjusting to my new environment, but suddenly the clock has sped up.  

Fia and I were joking about our list when I heard from Italian Roberto (Tinder).  I decided to share with him our list of what we don’t like (I mean how else am I going to move our relationship forward?). 

  1.  It’s too cold (inside).  We can’t turn up the heat in our apt and these buildings are OLD before they even knew what insulation was.
  2.  Salad dressing.  Finding a salad is a lot more complicated than is should be and forget about your ranch dressing!
  3.  People don’t say “ciao” when you walk by (and if you say “ciao” to them or their dog they will think you are Matto or meshuga!). Trust me, I’ve done it a few times and the looks I get scared me.
  4.  Water doesn’t get hot (in the shower… and forget about a tub….so add cold building and lukewarm water and you get the point).
  5.  People will run you over in a cross walk or said another way a crosswalk is useless.  I would like to add here that Italian drivers are nuts.  They drive down these narrow brick streets like they are at the Daytona 500.  They WILL run you over.  
  6.  They charge money to let you pee (but we already went over that, but it’s worth repeating).  Pedestrian right away?  Public toilet?  Nah.  
  7. This one is new… they don’t clean up dog poop.  Now I recognize this is a universal issue (and blame the people not the dogs, people!) not just specific to Italy.  And their dogs are almost always small breed dogs, which helps, but the rest of the city is clean, so it makes the tinyballs of dungstand out more.  Besides whom wants to get run over or step in merda di cane while immersed in your gelato experience!?  Yesterday’s flavors were Raspberry Ginger, Pumpkin-Amaretto-Biscuit, and Caramelized-Cinnamon Cookie!  I don’t make this up!
  8.  Another new one…What’s up with the dead meat in the windows.  This is appealing and appetizing.  It grosses me out to see big slabs of meat that should be rotting.  I want to see flowers and fruits in the window not part of a dead cow.  Yesterday I was standing in line, and someone open a truck and there were dead pigs hanging from a hook in their truck.   I quickly looked away so that imagine wouldn’t get etched in my brain.  

Now, having said all that, of course, I’m still in love with Italy!  Which circles me back, no, not to the toilets or dog shit, but to that last meal I had.  I was debating (seriously) between the pistachio spaghetti or the gorgonzola and pear gnocchi.  The owner of the brand-new restaurant, Beccafico, suggested the gorgonzola/pear gnocchi and, Jesus, she was right.  OMG.  Who knew?  And on top of the food being insane the owners were super sweet (including, wait for it, the best biscotti I ever had (which we didn’t even order and I don’t even like). Remember the mantra: “this is the best I’ve ever had.”

Feeling welcomed in Italy is a hit or miss thing.  Some Italians are sick of tourists, or Covid, or their husband and are in a bad mood, but some of them are so welcoming and Beccafico Restaurant was one of them. Clearly to start a business (especially a restaurant because it would take you fifty years eating out every day to try all the restaurants in Florence) is a huge leap of faith and their passion for food/hospitality/creating atmosphere was in every detail.  Which reminds me of the wine shop Fia, and I had gone to earlier. I’ve tried to be a grown up and drink wine here, but I realized listening to the owner the whole thing is all about PASSION (and kindness, no snootiness here!).  He wanted to share his love of wines with her which even managed to get me interested. And it wasn’t about selling a bottle, it was about sharing the experience.  

And this is one of the things I DO love about Italians.  And that reminds me of a shop I was in yesterday on my hunt for treasures to take back home there was a guy in his cluttered music shop playing the piano surrounded by all his treasures, and at another shop a guy was teaching a young woman how to paint, and then I wandered into an antique store.  As I was looking around the owner was greeted by someone he clearly knew.  I didn’t understand a word they were saying, but they were laughing and animated, so the words didn’t matter. Then I wanted the price on a piece of art and the elderly storekeeper didn’t speak English, so he turned to his friend, the accidental interpreter. And then I got in the mix, and we ended up three happy people who had no idea what was being said and, at the same time, it was all clear. 

These are the small moments that I want to remember.  Yes, over the weekend we went to Assisi and had an amazing adventure.  It was good to get out of Florence and take the train for a couple hours and land in a whole different place.  We had a couple hours to kill before checking into our Airbnb and stopped for a meal close to our new temporary home.  Both Fia and I recognize beauty and, once again, we couldn’t get over not only how good the food was (we took photos of everything), but really the whole experience. Every detail was thought through… each plate was different depending on what dish was ordered and the charming server (they don’t work for tips here) made the whole experience for us. 

Like beauty and art matter more than making money and this theme runs though most everything.  Maybe I’m Romanizing it too much, but there is something in the elegance of everyday life that I want to pay attention to.  Like how people dress (I would call it stylishly conversative).  I do not see a lot of bright colors or anything remotely outlandish. There is something to be said for the freedom in a place like New Orleans where anything goes, but I also appreciate the understated art I see all around me.  

But somehow in talking about the food and the people I’ve forgotten to tell you about the architecture.  I didn’t mean to omit that.  I mean the churches in Assisi were insane.  The art is overwhelming and everywhere. I love capturing it on film (that’s sounds artsy, but I’m just using my phone), but in the end it’s not about the brick and mortar, it’s about the stories.  Whether with Fia, or alone, or meeting someone new there is always a story.  That’s what I want to say.  Pay attention to the stories.  Even the difficult ones have something to teach. 

Italy and I are dating so there aren’t many difficult stories to share.  I mean I spend my days walking around, getting lost, finding another gelato shop, and entering another store, restaurant, or church.  What can go wrong? Fia and I have had many meaningful conversations about life, but she is leaving tomorrow for the week to deal with some serious family issues, and I will be on my own.  She is the one that I’ve shared most of these experiences with and I will miss my travel partner. 

And that brings me to Roberto.  Let me leave you with a little teaser!   We just met today, and he was the quintessential Italian men…nicely dressed wearing a plaid scarf, but not stuffy in his sport coat and jeans.  He was wearing a ring and some bracelets which made him more approachable despite his success.  We went for tea and coffee and the conversation was flirty and fun and, at times, intimate, but then he had to text work, and it was a LONG text. I was like what am I supposed to do here?  Am I supposed to leave him alone or should I playfully confront him–maybe he wants an assertive woman who knows how to reel him in?  

I did my best to people watch, but it kind of broke the spell.  He apologized but kept texting.  Then the doubts started coming up like maybe he’s just not as into me as I think he is (he also was 30 mins late) but on the walk back he said something about stalling our departure and not drop me off.  

I decided after our date to make it really clear my interest by “demanding” (inside joke) that we go out dancing. He had told me he’s very organized when he travels (a lot), but he can’t dance so I suggested that we go out dancing where he will have a chance to get “disorganized” which is really just a polite way of saying “you’re another white guy who can’t dance,” but the place where we had tea was playing some great music and it made me realize I miss live music/dancing.

Okay… fast forward to the next day when I “demanded” we go dancing (or he could come up with something else–he was going out of town if y’all are thinking I’m being too pushy) and he didn’t text me back.  And so, I had a firm talk with myself.  Maybe he figured it was pointless to spend time with this American woman, maybe he’s not interested after all, or maybe he’s just slow, but the point is I must handle my emotions. I need to feel the disappointment without making anything up about me.  I’m in a foreign country where I don’t know much of anything– the language, the customs, the geography.  This is what I need to practice, just keeping myself open while simultaneously knowing I am a stranger in a strange (and delicious) land.

So, like me, you must wait for it, because tomorrow I have no idea what will happen. Meanwhile, time to order another pizza.