Firenze: Feeling at Home

I feel increasingly at home in Firenze. The streets are slowly seeming more intuitive as I get around on bike and mentally plan my circuits through town. I know which caffes are welcoming, and which are better to just skip. I can source a good, fast meal in a pinch. The comessi (checkers) at the our main grocery store recognize me now.

I was born restless. I like to be interested in things. When known quantities start to feel overly familiar, my curiosity heads out for a walk.

Does he really have a moustache?

We moved around a lot when I was a child. At one point I counted up that we had moved ten times by the time I was ten. I never underestimate the impact this had on my ability to quickly adapt to new circumstances, to feel the fear and jump in anyway. A lingering inheritance of this childhood is that I am most comfortable when I am slightly uncomfortable. When my surroundings seem to have been slightly shifted and turned to the left or to the right. When I have only partial knowledge of my surroundings, language, food, people, customs. I love to puzzle it out and then to do it right – which is to say, like a local does. I am a parrot and a mimic. I can repeat a word in a convincing accent if a native speakers says it first. It doesn’t mean I’ll remember the definition for the rest of my life, but in the moment, it is a fine skill to have.

I don’t like to be conspicuous. I like to go deep cover. I like to slip in and pass, wherever I am. Whatever they’re saying, I want to listen. Whatever they’re eating, I want to have some. Whatever they value, I too want to appreciate. I don’t want the limelight. I want to be a cultural double agent, to compare and understand what I am experiencing. They don’t need to know who I am. For today, I am one of them.

I read a lot of fiction in my early years – before ten. In many ways reading was my lifeline of consistency in a childhood characterized by frequent moves. The characters in the books I read were always waiting in the pages for me. I know now that all that early reading increased my ability to empathize, to see the world through other people’s eyes, and to know when to choose to take the perspective, or to keep my own. For what is reading to a child but a way to get inside a character’s head, to read their thoughts and to understand their motivations, to feel their fear and to get an identical jolt from their joy? In this way, I traveled as a child even when I was not traveling (although arguably, moving around at the clip we did is very close to traveling).

De Chirico always struck a chord with me.

Americans, I have come to understand, are a strange lot, but not stranger than our post-colonial counterparts in South America, especially in the Cono Sur – Argentina, Brazil, Chile. It was a shock to me when I traveled in Latin America to sense its familiarity, in contrast to my early years in Europe. In the Cono Sur, the new and the old are intertwined in ways that feel more familiar to an American. In Europe, they always liked to remind me how old and established everything was.

Our forebears self-sorted as the adventurous types, by leaving their villages and homes and casting themselves into the unknown, in the steerage hold of the SS Liverpool, as my Finnish great-grandfather did. We are the descendants of nomads and adventurers. We are the ones who feel the fear, and carry on.

A recent article out of the UK found that generational memory in lab settings lasts for fourteen generations. Imagine what we all remember, in dull pangs and pinpricks of impulse, in inherited memories from our grandparents since 1600. I don’t have logical reasons for wanting to be disoriented, in a land whose language I have not mastered, ever interested in further exploring. Certainly the itinerant childhood had something to do with it, but what of the pull of my ancestral meanderings?

Or even more recently, I read another article that found, through the genealogical archive, that the reproductive population of Finland in 1690 (alternative citation, but also useful) had been reduced to just 200,000 people through epidemic famine. That is like two Ohio State University campuses. Not a lot of people! My mother is 100% Finnish, second- and third -generation, on her paternal and maternal sides, respectively. We all giggle at her propensity to save and store food as though the nuclear winter were imminent (well, in these days..) but even I have been known to hoard food or eat slightly questionable food, driving my husband nuts, to which I retorted, “how wonderful that you have never known famine or hunger.” He looked at me like I had lost my mind, and maybe I had.

My carpetbagging nature helps me quickly feel at home. Kids and husband in place? Check. Kettle for tea, and milk? Check. Bed and clean linens? Check. A little trick I have is to move something to make it look better as soon as I arrive to a place to make it feel more like home. I have rearranged coffeemaker trays in hotels. I switched around all the things on our wall in the Firenze apartment and felt more at home. I appreciate a solid furniture switcharoo. Like a Basenji circling in tall sweetgrass, I can quickly make a nest.

Now, after a year in Firenze, things have been switched around and compared. Knowledge has been shuffled and rearranged. I am in my sophomore Florentine year enjoying a breathtaking surfeit of familiarity. I feel fortunate in that.

Since Jason and I met in 2003, Italy has become my second home, as we have traveled and worked and lived and vacationed here almost every year since then, with the exceptions of 2007 and 2010. Italy was the place we wanted to be, and where we built our communities and knowledge, even as we bided our time on the prairie waiting for the stars to align and the opportunity to present itself.

And now? I don’t want to leave.

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