Mangia, Bella

How do I begin to tell you about Italy in one blog post? I mean, a blog post for God’s sake? Books have been written about this country, movies set right by the Trevi Fountain and in Venice’s Grand Canal. It is the birthplace of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, and pizza. Do I narrow it down to my favorite moments? No, that would take months. Maybe the most delicious meals I ate during my three weeks here? I couldn’t. The gelato alone deserves a novel series. I won’t give you any itineraries or lists of “Things to Know Before Traveling To Italy” because there are about a bagillion guidebooks that discuss such things. I won’t say that you need to see certain basilicas or museums because maybe your trip is just about the pursuit of the perfect cacio e pepe and I totally get that. I will say that I felt honored to be in Italy. At first, I felt awkward and overwhelmed. When the airport doors opened I was very much like my high school self with frizzy hair and nowhere to sit in the cafeteria.

If Italy was one big high school cafeteria, then the beautiful villages and crowded cities are all of the most popular girls. Slowly, they opened up, made room at the table for me to sit down, introduced me to all of the cute boys, and invited me to the best parties. Play along with me for a minute. Because Italy is so large and wonderful, I will chisel this metaphor down to my top three favorite places from this trip. Let’s say Florence is the intellectual, artsy hipster who is incredibly driven, but knows how to kick off her leather boots and have a really good time.  Vernazza is the beautiful, quiet Prom Queen who likes to spend the weekend alone sometimes even though everyone wants to hang out with her. Then, there is Rome. Rome is the ultimate cool girl. She is street-smart, loud, gorgeous, paints her lips bright red, and gives zero fucks about what you think of her.

I thought hanging out in Florence would be a solo adventure of ticking off must-see sights while dodging the endless hoards of tourists and college students. I was so wrong. Post Jennifer Pastiloff’s retreat in Tuscany, several of us yogis found ourselves roaming the famous cobblestone streets together. Florence became the pursuit of one delicious meal after the next, serious gelato eating, and miles of wandering with my new friends. Mostly, wandering while eating gelato. My absolute favorite memory of the city, the one that comes to mind when someone even utters the word Florence in passing conversation, is a night that unfolded slowly and naturally. Three of us had spent the day wandering around, eating gelato, stopping for espresso, talking about the heavy, no-bullshit things, and laughing until our cheeks ached. We decided to climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo to watch the sunset. We bought a few paninis and a container of olives from a handsome Italian man who shamelessly flirted with my friend. We stopped for fruit at a tiny market, then climbed the hill to the top. To say that the view is stunning would be an understatement and I wouldn’t do it justice by describing the picturesque scene. Beauty like that has to be seen in order to be understood. I will say that there was a man playing acoustic cover songs, the steps were filled with people, the food was achingly good, and the sunset turned all of Florence a glowing pink, then a deep violet, before finally the man put away his guitar and the street lamps glistened to life. After my two sweet friends walked me to bus station, I cried a little. Because I thought the evenings would find me rushing back to my hotel before dark, worried about getting lost, sitting down to a pasta dinner a little lonely and tired. Florence was the opposite of that. In Florence, I was the opposite of lonely, the opposite of lost.

Florence inspired me to get out of town before the train strike. I caught the last one to La Spezia on a balmy Thursday and took the regional line to Vernazza. It was late when I arrived, mostly because I got off at the wrong stop twice. When I finally did arrive, the train doors opened to cool sea air, a quiet, dimly lit narrow street, and the sound of laughter and conversation down by the harbor. I followed my map to the bed and breakfast, which was next to a busy restaurant overlooking the water. I climbed the three million steps to my room in the attic, then fell asleep to the sound of plates being stacked and the loud chatter of Italian men in the kitchen below. I awoke to seagulls and church bells, then took my cappuccino and croissant down to the water. I sat on the sea wall near docked sailboats and promptly fell in love with Vernazza. I think she is prettiest in the early morning before the crowds arrive and all of the restaurants open. I sat there for a long time before buying some foccacia for lunch and eating it on the rocky beach while the waves splashed. I believe Vernazza and the sunshine saved my heart after my last friend left Florence. Naturally, I felt a bit protective of such a special place. One evening, during a particularly stunning sunset a woman in a trucker hat and Tevas stood directly in front of me and yelled to her husband, “Come on over here quick, I want to get a selfie with this little town in the background” and it took everything I had not to grab her by shoulders and shout, “The name is Vernazza. Get it right or leave.” If Vernazza really was a popular girl, then she was officially my BFF.

Rome is a different story. Rome is completely self-assured, grounded, and no one needs to be reminded of where they are in this city. Sure, tourists get lost. I know I did, but it was ok because I would just stumble upon another magnificent fountain or beautiful basilica and Rome was all like, “You lost, bitch? Good. Explore. Put down Rick Steve’s walking guide and really spend time with me.” So, I did. I did in the rain with an oversized poncho and all of my bags swaddled in plastic. I rode crowded metros, elbowed my way onto trams, and always opted for the long way home. My time in Rome is hard to capture here because it was so special. There was the night of fireworks and music, the grey afternoon spent in the Colosseum, the early morning mass with Pope Francis, and this: the sweet, old Italian waiter at Paolo’s who wouldn’t let me order from the menu. Instead, he folded it away along with the guidebook I left open on the table and brought me roasted eggplant with ricotta, pasta with tomatoes and zucchini, rich, creamy tiramisu, and as he placed each dish on the red and white checkered tablecloth he would smile, Mangia, Bella. And mangia I did.

This is what I will tell you about Italy … Go. Bring your appetite, maybe your Rosetta Stone app, and definitely your walking shoes. Go spend time without an agenda. Italy will surprise you, it will take care you, it will send you on your way with a full stomach and a brain filled with beauty. You will roll your luggage onto the train platform one rainy morning and catch yourself whispering Grazie under your breath. If you listen closely as the doors slide shut, you will hear the sweetest, softest, Arrivederci and know that you always have a place to eat your lunch in the cafeteria. So, Mangia, Bella.


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