A Few Fun Facts, but Mostly Mamma Mia

Fun fact, there is a Whitman College at Syracuse University. Not knowing this, Owen and I made a whole bunch of accidental enemies who thought we were being snobs for not saying we were from Syracuse. Now if anybody asks I’m from Washington State.

I’m not used to being with people from New York. At Whitman I’m pretty unique as an east coaster. Here, unsurprisingly (and yes, I should’ve figured this out before) everybody is from Syracuse or that general area. Personally, I think it’s more fun to be unique.

Also, there are a lot of Rebecca’s here. (I go by Rebecca here because Italians really struggle to say Becca). One Rebecca is in all of my classes. I keep panicking and raising my hand when they call her for attendance, so I’m probably going to end up getting her grades instead of my own and vice versa.

The Grande kitchen

The Grande living room

Some Italian words are easy to pronounce. “Ciao” is easy. It means “hey”. Other words are harder. Spoon for example, is dangerously close to the word “cocaine” and, try as I might, I just can’t master the two of them. Luckily, Enzo and Donatella have a good sense of humor about it and laugh every time I ask to have one of their cocaines with my meal.

I’m trying to keep my room clean. If I don’t clean it every day before I leave Donatella comes in and straightens up. don’t mind at all, but it feels like maybe I should just keep my room clean instead. Some morning’s it’s hard though. This morning I stumbled around trying to get ready for school (okay, so my first class was at 11:15, but I slept in until 10:30 so I still felt pretty rushed) and left my room a total mess thinking I’d come and clean it after school, only to come home and find a cleaning angel had gotten there first.

There are things here that would bother me if I wasn’t a guest in someone else’s house. For example, last night Donatella came in after I was in bed to get a credit card out of my desk for something or other. She was very nice about it, but I can see how American Becca would be irritated to have her in my space. Truthfully though, it’s hard to be mad at someone who cooks your dinners and cleans your room. I think she could probably do a lot more before I got actually annoyed.

I do wish Pauldino hadn’t figured out how to open my bedroom door, however. Sometimes he comes in at four in the morning and confuses the heck out of me.

Another funny thing about Donatella is how LOUD she is. She is awake any time from 11 to 4 am with the tv on full blast, smashing her way around the kitchen. I don’t know how Enzo sleeps through it, but I know he does because I can hear him snoring in the other room! My second night here I experimented with the white noise soundtrack of pounding rain AND the ocean as well as needing to use my eye mask because my room window opens out to the kitchen, bathroom and hallway so I get all the light funneled into my room.

On the one hand, I’d really love to go to sleep in a silent, dark house. On the other, I’m pretty amused by just how much sound a tiny woman can make. She begins every morning by groaning herself awake, with exclamations of “ay! ayyyy!” but when she gets out of bed she’s chipper as always, talking to me about dancing and whatever she did last night. I think she’s a little disappointed that we aren’t wild and crazy like other American students.

When I came to Florence, I was braced for more conventional attitudes about family and home life here. I was worried that I’d be put in a house with a total patriarch that I’d have to go along with because I was living in his house. Enzo and Donatella are not like that. As a couple, they seem to fit perfectly. She’s loud and he’s quiet, but he really seems to enjoy her noise, sometimes ratcheting it up a few decibels to join her.

Also, and this is my favorite thing – he helps her cook. When she’s out late, Enzo cooks the meals. He takes his turn walking the dogs – taking them out at night, when it’s not as safe for her to be out alone – and really really cares about her.

Last night, Donatella and I stayed around the dinner table drinking espresso and watching an Italian movie. (I think she actually likes vaguely translating for me because the position centers around talking). The movie itself was pretty easy to follow – plot wise, obviously, I don’t speak Italian. Even if I did, they were from Napoli and spoke in heavy accents that Donatella could barely understand herself – and it was silly and enjoyable, so I stayed until 11:30 watching it with her while I helped her clean up the kitchen (Owen helped with this too, before going to his room to call a friend. We both take helping Donatella clean up the kitchen very seriously. Enzo goes out with the dogs and we pick up plates and shorten the kitchen table etc. until everything’s done – in reality it’s not that much work, but I think we both really like feeling like we’re helping).

Since Owen and I weren’t going for a walk that evening, I asked if I could walk the dogs with Donatella that night. When Enzo came home from dinner with his mother, he looked me straight in the eye and asked if I was definitely going to walk with Donatella after the film. I said “si. si” (I know I’m so good at Italian) and he looked me straight in the face for several seconds, before nodding and going to get into his pajamas. He clearly didn’t want Donatella going out alone at midnight and seemed to be making sure I took being her companion seriously.

First Real Day in Italy

Owen and I are already like brother and sister. He came in while I was on the toilet to ask how to get the front door open and laughed instead of apologizing. We ate the breakfast our host mom had laid out for us and had a very serious debate about whether or not we were allowed to eat the last slice of cake (we decided that the answer was no). Pauldino and I have bonded. He came onto my bed the moment my door was open and flopped down on my pillows. The bed itself is tiny, I can get one leg around each side while lying on my stomach. Of the people I’ve talked to it sounds like my room is the “small” version of the small, medium and large Italian rooms. Yuli has an enormous room with a balcony. We all laughed this morning when she told us that her family had served box wine for dinner.

Donatella has about sixteen different bottles of lotion and salve in the bathroom, one of which I thought was face moisturizer until I actually put it on and realized it was most definitely hand lotion.

I still have no luggage. It’s becoming more upsetting as I have nothing to move in. This morning as I was getting dressed I was emotionally incapable of putting on the same pair of underwear that I’ve worn for the past five days straight so I laid them out with all of the rest of my nasty backpacking clothes on the floor to dry…so Donatella thinks I’m a slob – I am – but I wasn’t ready for her to know it yet.

My room has a bunch of antique seeming decorations like old paper fans and stuff that I really want to take down, but am afraid to touch. This morning I folded up the tiny strip of fabric that was on my desk (desk is a super exaggeration, it’s about a foot wide – also neither Owen or I have chairs) and put it on the little counter, which felt like my first step toward making the room my own. I’m going to wait a while before I make my second.

I had a brief moment of panic when I realized my computer wouldn’t start. The fact that I have my laptop with me instead of having it lost somewhere in the void was one of the most important things. I tried turning it off and on again but that didn’t work so I took the battery out and let it sit for a while. When it finally started working after that I felt like Mark Zuckerberg.

It rained intermittently today, which would’ve been totally fine – Florence is still Florence in the rain – except that I have one pair of clean clothes and they all got pretty wet walking around today.

We had a short Italian Language Meeting, which felt unnecessary. The woman was talking about which different skill levels should go in each session in case people needed to get one on one advising later, but since Owen and I had absolutely zero Italian language skills (that’s not entirely true, we each know one sentence “Il regatso mangia une melo” I have no idea if the spelling is right for that, which means “the boy eats an apple”. It hasn’t come in handy yet, but I’m sure a boy will eat an apple at some point from now until when we leave Italy.

The main goal of today was finding a gym. I signed up for the doctor to check if I’m healthy enough to go to a gym – this feels a little strange to me, since if I’m not healthy enough to go to the gym I probably really need to go workout – but whatever, I signed up anyway and will pay a whopping 40 euros tomorrow to get that done. Yuli and Owen walked with me to a list of gyms that Donatella had given me yesterday. Each gym has a maximum of two ellipticals and no more than 4 weights. I’m not sure if going to gyms is less of a thing here or of cardio isn’t as much, but they were all very small and expensive. Finally we found one that was empty (so nobody on the cardio machines) and cheaper than the others – roughly 100 euros for 3 months instead of 250.

They provided us with lunch as part of the program, which meant we went and sat at a restaurant and were served 5 pieces of ravioli, one cross section of eggplant and a slice of zucchini. From there we walked toward the Duomo to supplement our meager lunch with Nutella filled croissants (amazing!).

Since dinner wasn’t until 8:30, Owen and I bought something at the grocery store (along with shampoo and soap) which turned out to be saltines. Then we came into the living room to relax while Donatella took the dogs for a walk – she asked if we wanted to come but we’d walked 10 miles already – and Enzo listened to some cool music in the other room.

Before we came to Italy our program wrote to tell us that it was culturally unacceptable to go around in bare feet inside the house. So far as I can tell it’s not unacceptable at all it’s just really freaking cold! If I had any clean socks at all I’d have about six of them on right now. The floor is freezing – maybe because it’s not insulated and at least looks like a colder version of wood – but I don’t know.

So far the biggest adjustment has been crossing the streets. There are green lights for pedestrians and cross walks but Italian drivers only stop if you’re literally standing in front of their car.  The attitude is basically, “I know you want to cross and I know that I might have to stop, or if I don’t someone will have to stop behind me, but I’m not even going to slow down to try and help you make the decision”. It totally cracks me up – and terrifies me, I’ve done quite a bit of “squirreling” (running into the middle of the road and freezing up/panicking and trying to go all directions at once) – but in general, I love the cut and dry attitude.

I’m used to some heavy traffic in NYC but this isn’t like that. Enzo says Florence has the worst drivers in the world because “they’re all drunk”. I don’t know about that, but they definitely have a way of making it seem like there are a lot more cars on the streets. The combined fear of getting hit by a car and getting yelled at in Italian (it’s going to happen, I can just feel it and am terrified for when it does) makes crossing the streets a little difficult, although I must say there’s something sort of empowering about walking out in front of a car that has no real intention of stopping.

A woman came into a cafe that a group of us were in and stared at me. There are actually no red heads here (not that I would look Italian otherwise). I said “ciao” which means hi and she came over and started talking to us. The conversation began normally, she asked if we were from England or America. We said America. Then she remarked on how large it was, saying that Italy was small having 700 miles of coast. We were nodding and smiling along until she transitioned from there to immigration and started talking to us about how troublesome all of the African immigrants were. I think we were all pretty taken aback. I’m not sure if this was just a random occurrence or if things in Italy are different, but we would never talk about politics like that with a stranger. Most people avoid doing it within their own families. I liked it though, despite the fact that I didn’t have much to say.

There are places in conversation where it seems natural to laugh and smile along with the Italian speakers even when you have no idea what they’re saying. I’ve been working to stop myself from doing it though because it makes people think I understand what they’re saying and it only makes things confusing for us all later on. I feel bad though, when I can’t communicate with people. Everyone is so nice and I can tell a lot of them are inconvenienced or just less happy when they realized I only speak English. Because of this I’m actually really excited to start Italian classes this coming Monday.

Late dinners are an adjustment. We’re all sitting in the living room (I’m playing with the dogs – need to get one of those when I come back to the States) and I keep thinking that there’s clearly time to make dinner now. Then I have to remember that we’re actually trying to eat dinner late, which is new for me. It’s not that we don’t have time to eat dinner until 8:30, it’s that eating that late is actually the point.

I had 8 saltines and a cup of coffee around 5 to try and hold myself off.

I’m extremely wary of the microwaves here. They don’t run on as much power so there’s no assurance of when my coffee will be warm. I’ve been putting it in for about 5 minutes at a time and it comes out lukewarm. Mostly though I’m just happy that we’re allowed to use the microwave. It’s the only kitchen appliance Owen and I are allowed to touch.

Meeting the Host Family!

I got into the Florence hotel right at 2pm. My travel mate, Noah, and I chose to make the two and a half hour walk to the Delta Hotel Florence (the original hotel we were scheduled to be in went bankrupt before we showed up and we all got an email to show up at a different hotel instead), so I showed up sweaty and disgusting – actually we got rained on for the first hour of our walk so I was feeling pretty mildewy by the time we got there – and came face to face with about a hundred pretty, clean Syracuse University students.

One of the Whitties who’d gone to this program before had warned me that everybody was SU and most people were already in cliques but I was surprised at how many there were.  I feel super lucky that two of my friends are on the program because I think otherwise I would’ve felt super alone.

The photo credit for all of these photos go to Noah Young. This is the outside of the Duomo 

This is a picture of the Ponte Vecchio, a very famous bridge in Florence

This is an image of the cityscape of Florence

Somehow I ended up getting assigned to a room with my roommate from college. There was supposed to be a third girl in our room, but because we weren’t sure if she was coming or not we snuck our other friend, Owen, into our room and slept with all three Whitties side by side in the three different beds.

This morning all anybody wanted to do was meet the host families, but first we had to sit through about 3 hours of orientation. The SU speakers did a pretty good job of switching up speakers so that it didn’t feel insanely boring but the majority of the students were jetlagged and the rest of us were just too antsy to do anything but wait for our homestay assignments.

One thing that I thought was funny was that the woman speaker said that they were only going to teach us the vital things so we wouldn’t learn how to cross the street for another two or three weeks and I couldn’t help but thinking that a) I’d already nearly died trying to cross the street and b) I felt like most people in the program would cross a street at some point before that meeting two to three weeks from now.

Another thing about the SU kids is that a lot of the guys seem really “cool” in a way that my Whittie friends are not. We nicknamed one of the guys the “King of the Bros” because that’s sort of how he holds himself.


We really didn’t think that we would, because they get so many requests but they might just be really good about putting you with friends because we got put together and all of the other people I know that asked also got put with their friend.

Our family is just a husband and a wife, Donatella and Enzo Grande. I looked at their year of birth and said, “they’re so old” before realizing they were about two years older than my parents (sorry mom and dad). Donatella is 61 and Enzo is three years younger. He works at Florence University and she used to work with something related to cancer but I didn’t totally get what. She’s retired now and likes to dance. She invited me to one of her salsa classes with her.

I hadn’t bought a gift so I bought her a potted orchid at a store near the duomo and Owen gave them chocolates he’d brought from Portland.

All day I was hoping that my stuff would arrive (I backpacked so I have two pairs of filthy clothes, my passport, and thankfully, my laptop) but everything else I have is in a suitcase that my friend was going to check with her luggage to Florence. Except that her flight got delayed and somehow my bag ended up in Zurich. It’s okay though because I hear if the airlines lose your bags you get a Delta airlines t-shirt, which is probably just as good.

Our host parents are cool. Like, really cool. They went out at 9:20 when Owen and I wanted to go to bed. Enzo went to hang out with friends and Donatella went to dance class. They’re very friendly and they have two dogs! I’ve always wanted a dog and this feels like my best chance. Camilla is a bichon frize (I think) and Pauldino is my favorite. He’s a very bouncy Jack Russel terrier.

Donatella took us (and the dogs) for a walk into Florence to show us around and then we came back and had dinner watching Italian television.

On the television she taught us a little bit about Italian politics. They’re both liberals and really like Obama. Apparently in Italy they have about 40 political parties instead of two. There’s also a huge ordeal going on right now about the artwork of a guy named Miglio (or something like that) because some specialist just discovered that a bunch of his artwork had been faked by someone else. Then we laughed about a tv show where a famous biker went around trying to get cocaine dealers to dust his cake with cocaine instead of sugar. It’s probably not as funny reading about it as it was experiencing it, but it felt like a really good bonding experience with the family.

There are two separate rooms in the house. Owen has one outside with his own bathroom. It’s larger, but I’m happy with my little one because it’s in the house where it feels happy and warm. I believe they’re one of the wealthier families because they have a dryer which apparently is pretty unheard of here in Italy. They also have a b-day which stares me in the face every time I use the toilet. One day I’ll probably give it a try, but today is SO not that day.

They really like music and play cool, cultural music while they’re cooking dinner or just hanging out which I love. Also, Donatella says “Mamma Mia!” completely seriously and Owen and I have to try not to crack up each time, because it was a joke we made before we came here.


On our walk Donatella took us into this “tunnel system” which was all graffiti that people use to travel beneath an intersection. The walls were all painted, but it was incredibly clean. When I remarked on it she said there was a homeless man who lived down there and kept it clean. The city didn’t pay him, he just cleaned it which we thought was so cool.

Overall I couldn’t be much happier with my situation. We live a 15 minute walk from the campus and Donatella’s already given me a list of about 10 gyms that I can check out tomorrow morning. After so much traveling I’m happy to finally have a place that’s home, although I do wish I had a few more things to put up in it (or to change into).