How Italians Relax / Come si rilassano gli italiani

Today I’d like to address a topic that inevitably comes up with Americans in Italy, one that is deeply embedded in culture and cultural expectations: how does one relax?

This issue is brought to the symbolic fore by the most American of furnishing institutions, the sofa (divan, couch), which ironically makes me think of Greek dinners with Socrates and the vast storied banquets of the Roman Empire.

Socrates at dinner, right before he downed that goblet of hemlock.

I preface my discourse by saying this: the Italian cultural expectation I will explain is deeply traditional, steeped in centuries of agricultural subsistence farming, but also the urban bourgeois – think either farmers in the countryside, or well-to-do Italian merchants in well-off city X in some bygone century.

Italians have three main modes of relaxation, available to all on a daily basis: the dining table, the public park, and the passeggiata, or daily stroll each evening before dinner through your neighborhood.

Upon entering an Italian home, you may note that the dining table is the largest visible feature. It is huge. In our modest apartment, the table is enormous, and can easily seat eight or even ten in a pinch. Our owner’s table in their dining room upstairs has been known to seat 24 or more family and guests. Italian culture values the meal, and the pleasure in relaxing around a table, over leisurely apertivi and wine, enjoying the courses that come our from the kitchen as they are ready.

This is a chief relaxation strategy of Italian culture (and Mediterranean culture in general, I’d wager, as a former resident of France and Spain, and lay anthropological researcher into, the French and Spanish cultures). Mediterranean culture will never give it up. There is no television to distract. Laptops or tablets at the table are rude. Smartphones are often forgiven if not obtrusive, because work, and also, you got a life to keep going at your personal socio-logistics switchboard. It is relaxing for Italians to gather over food and drink and chat, with no definite beginning or end point. The more anxious among us may mark beginning and end points, if desired, with the polite production of a glass of prosecco (beginning) and, hours later, the equally polite production of a cordial or espresso (end).

The cordial (in English) itself, as a sincere offering of cordiality (cor, from the heart), gains semiotic heft when it is considered as a nonverbal way to say “your time here at the table is drawing to an end… as soon as you finish this tiny, sweet jigger.” In Italian, it is more accurately called a digestivo. As in, “drink this, and go happily digest, but not at my table.”

But a meal is not even necessary to enjoy the relaxing mode that a large table in an enclosed community can offer, a place to pay bills, read the paper (laptop, tablet), catch up on the news of analog people living in the home, fold laundry, assist with the stream of compiti (homework) if children live there, planning trips or vacations to see the extended family community in the generous holiday periods that are enjoyed by Italians. Simply being at the large table is relaxing, because things happen in an unhurried way. It is impossible to run around like a headless chicken when you are seated at a table. For heavens’ sake, sit down, have a coffee or a glass of juice, and thoughtfully consider what you need to do next.

This is the first way in which we may note that Italians relax. This may also link back to a deeply Catholic culture, the familiarity with the Lord’s Supper, and the general popularity and significance of a scene at a supper table. In addition, the long roots in monastic tradition that continue to inform Italian education and higher education may still be sensed in this tradition – think refectory table, long meal, and calm. Prayer and community, interaction, and bond-strengthening. I always notice the dining scene in a home because we very rarely ate together as a family when I was a child. It was something I missed then, and is a value that I actively sought to discover, and cultivate now as an adult.

Greek Orthodox monks in a refectory,
deep in thought over pita bread and probably a lot of other delicious things.
Makes up for that male wimple.

Secondly, the public park. Imagine a huge and well-kept public garden, generously furnished by the community with benches, leafy plane trees spreading their branches overhead. You need not mow the lawn, or plant and weed flowers, or wade into an algeous fountain to clean the pump mechanism. This point of relaxation could also be a on a piazza with stores and perhaps parking spaces around it. In the park in front of our building, Piazza D’Azeglio, there  are easily 80 to 100 benches, which can fit five people each (as I learned in Ognissanti in January when one Florentine nonna politely reminded another Florentine nonna of the official Italian cultural marshall seating capacity of each church pew.)

It is relaxing to be outside in pleasant weather, on the bench with your paper, or doing a crossword, or simply people watching (cute kids, what people are wearing, the progress that little boy has made on his bike, or that little girl riding her scooter). It is relaxing for Italians to be in community and to see other people, and to be acknowledged as a member of community. This provides a deep assurance and a sense of rest and well-being.

The drawback to this second option? Weather does not always cooperate, but fortunately this is Italy and not the Arctic, so we have many many months of pleasant outside park time in which to relax.

Row of park benches, Piazza D’Azeglio.
This is such a true to life and lovely picture that I am reposting with credit.
(c) Juls’ Kitchen

In all seasons excepting pouring rain or snow, Italians will get dressed to go outside for a stroll, thereby calmly and casually encountering all their friends, neighbors, and often family without needing to make any specific plan to see people. This is the third mode of Italian relaxation. The passaggiata is more diffuse in a city the size of Florence, just because it is so big. But people will still get out in their nice clothes to go run a couple of nominal errands (pick up a bottle of wine, get something at the pharmacy), and enjoy an ice cream or a cocktail before they go to dinner. This was very noticeable as a custom in a much smaller town like Arezzo, where we lived in 2012-2013. Arezzo has just one main drag, the Corso Italia, and literally, with no planning at all, you could walk out the door around six in the evening and run into 8 people you knew and have a few nice chats. The flowing throng of people filled the street, up to its narrow banks of tall buildings. The passeggiata is still on in cold weather, but if it is raining, nope, no way. Being social is fine and all, but under no circumstances should you ever court death.

(Note: if you are an older Italian, the park bench in #2 becomes the passeggiata in #3, as your younger compatriots fulfill their cultural expectation of parading by for your review and appraisal.)

Back to America, and American culture, and what it means to relax and be at home. In general, American culture is much more homebody and privacy-driven than Italian culture. We return in the evenings and weekends to our house on lots with yards we mow and gardens we work in. We sit in our houses and eat dinner quickly, unless we go out to eat. We watch TV while we eat dinner. The dining room table is not a place to gather so much as to eat, and quickly. I think, for many Americans, it is not relaxing to be in public in community, as opposed to Italians. A passeggiata cannot exist in the US because there is no culturally agreed-upon set time for it, and anyway, we’re all driving around. (I am suddenly reminded of ‘cruising’ in high school on the weekends, endless loops up and down Broadway in cars in Edmond to yell things out the car window at people, but, uh. Not really similar.)

Where do Americans want to relax? We want a nice, comfy sofa in our living room from which to watch a really big flatscreen TV. Italian apartments often do not have such sofas. There are small hard loveseats with springs. There are old tiny loveseats with blankets thrown over them. But they are not big, they are not comfortable, and they do not face a TV.

All this being said, it is true that all three apartments that Jason and I have lived in have had large, comfy sofas. I do not know why. They have all been filled with down, generously cushioned and thickly upholstered. In our apartment now, it does face a TV that we put there, but which we rarely watch. In Arezzo, five years ago, our very comfy sofa faced a TV that we purchased for the purpose. I watched a lot of Italian news that year and it really helped my language. In Florence in 2005, in that adorable apartment up in Le Cure, we had an incredible yellow sofa stuffed with the feathers of a city of geese, and the sofa faced the dining room table, an amusing arrangement in itself, suggesting that the meal at hand was the actual show.

Meanwhile, so many other locales that we have found and rented, or that we have stayed in ourselves, had the hard, springy loveseats that remind me of the bench in our old VW van that my parents used to unbolt for long roadtrips, or to move something across town, like a new purchase – perhaps a sofa. These VW-type benches are not comfy. But you know, should you find yourself in such uncomfortable circumstances, it might be best to scope out your closest dining room table, park bench, or ask around to learn when and where the passeggiata happens.

Firenze: Antica Farmacia Santa Maria Novella: Baroque Charm, Post-Industrial Customer Service

We are fortunate to receive a generous gift box from the Antica Farmacia Santa Maria Novella each year from an Italian business associate of Jason’s, stuffed with lotions, potpourri, soaps, candles, and more. I have been a fan for years. I love the stuff.

The tea room is tucked away, behind a warren of small rooms, hallways, specialty dedicated rooms with marble counters (dietary supplements, room fragrance). We stopped first in the small chapel to the right on the way to the tea room, admiring the medieval frescoes up close.

Free art with your purchased hedonism.

I had brought my friend Nahyeli to the officina profumo when she was in town last week, and staying with us for a few days. I’d never been to the tea room before, but had heard and seen a bit about it, and marveled that I had not yet been in for the tea and cake. We agreed that we were in no shape to shop premium fragrance and skincare until we fortified ourselves with tea, cake, and medieval liquor.

After we had carefully examined as many historic flasks, pipettes, and huge bottles as we could stand, we waited for a bit for a table to clear. The tea room was bustling at all six of its tables. We were ushered to a tiny marble-topped bistro table, where the capable hostess took our orders for tea, cordials, and cake. It all came out moments later, the tea steeping in beautiful tiny porcelain teapots with matching cups, the cordial in tiny vessels of pressed glass, a generous slice of cake atop a saucer with two silver forks. I felt like I’d stepped into one of my beloved Russian classics, perhaps Gogol or Dostoyevsky on a grand estate, minutely detailing the habits of a landowning family.

I ordered one loose tea for Nahyeli, and another for me (cinnamon and spice), to go with our almond sugar cake. Both cordials glowed russet in the afternoon light that filtered in through the windows looking onto the courtyard. We sampled each other’s teas, as both of us are dedicated tea aficionadas, and shared the cake, then sipped on the cordials to finish – I had the stomatico, and Nahyeli the traditional Medici alkermes. The latter is no longer being distilled from the rosy carapaces of some desert beetle, but none the less surprising in its taste.

Tea, cake, cordial. Missing only a dowager duchess.

I love how in Italy I am still able to taste (and smell) completely new things, and have added alkermes to my short list of “wow! totally new Italian flavors!” (Kaka mela, sun-warmed ficchi, castagnaccio, grifo, biettole, valeriana, and now, alkermes.)  As we paid, the comessa complimented us on our mix of Spanish, Italian, and English, saying that she was Russian. We compared notes on language and language learning, and deploying acquired languages in situ. Our nerves relaxed, our bodies hydrated, we made our way into the dietary supplement room.

I took a few more pictures and admired the lawn of the cloister.

The lush lawn of the Dominicans.

We had carefully perused the product list over tea, and so had a few specific questions before we made our choices. Nahyeli selected a draining supplement, while I opted for a borage-based skin supplement that purported to also be useful for fair skin when exposed to sun (hand shot up). I have many fond memories of picking borage flowers for the dinner salad on Lummi Island, in Washington state.

The esteemed farmacia antica is less antica now, in that you receive a tessera, or a small card with a magnetic strip, which each comessa (sales associate) swipes at each of their grand marble counters to add your items to your shopping list. You take the tessera to the cassa, when your shopping feels as complete as it can possibly be in such an emporium of time-tested luxuries, and they have your bag waiting for you. Only there do they swipe your credit card to pay the unholy sum that is your ransom fee, worthy of the Medici themselves.

After the apothecary/dietary supplement room, we progressed to the main attraction: the grand foyer where the perfumes, soaps, and skincare are arrayed, underneath frescoed ceilings, the mahogany woodwork buffed to a deep shine. Innumerable commesse stand at their posts, ready to dab or spray you, or to proffer samples to sniff at. They are impeccably attired in smart blue suits with the SMN stemma, or logo, on the breast pocket of their blazer. It is impossible to overstate how busy this place always is. It is a Destination for every female tourist over the age of 14 who is visiting Florence, and many a father and husband in tennis shoes and cargo shorts trail behind, looking awkward and/or bored while their womenfolk make their selections. It is also popular with tour groups, and frequent groups of 30 to 40 or more (often Asian) file through, swiping their credit cards before they leave. This place has got to be so profitable. The commesse, in addition to being suited and beautiful, must also be hired on the basis of their prodigious language skills, because it feels like the UN in there.

Nahyeli and I approached the perfume dais, where the high queen of profumo that day was a striking young woman from Buenos Aires, with skin as flawless as tiny teapots we’d just served ourselves from in the tea room. Her stylish, owlish glasses perched perfectly on her straight nose. Her poise was commendable, and I am certain that that post for a commessa is a pole position for only the most professional associates with steel nerves, since the perfume dais is the most mobbed of all counters. Nahyeli and I spent a good twenty minutes spraying and sniffing. I’d bought a bottle of the profumo vaniglia in 2005, and enjoyed it. I’d been following their Instagram account for a few months to make sure I got all the public input on their profumo, which comprises at least 50 or 60 single note and blended fragrances. As soon as the co
heard Nahyeli’s Spanish, she switched too, and we dominated her time a bit longer before we made our decisions. Nayheli took a pass, but I was moved to purchase a 100 euro bottle of the Tabacco Toscano, about which I had read so much, its popularity well justified.

One more stop, for tonic water for the complexion, because what could be a more medieval and  solid choice in such an institution. I chose one that was promised to make my skin smooth and supple (yes please), and it too was swiped onto my tessera. Under normal circumstances I am an impatient and very decisive shopper, but it was pleasant indeed to be there with a fellow member of the Tea and Fragrance Appreciation Society. We beelined into the cassa room where they swiped our credit cards, and left the officina profumo with our heavy white bags of gorgeous traditional products.

(Important: I was chatting with Nahyeli in Spanish most of this time, and read none of the fine print.)

I returned home with my purchases and applied the perfume. What? What was this smell of wet dog? Steely wet dog. Maybe my nose was wrong.

I recapped the bottle and put it aside. The next day I smelled it again. Come again? what was this smell? This made no sense to my nose. I am a very nosy person. I could not believe I would have bought this.

I checked the bottle but did not see the name of the perfume. In the small bag, the receipt remained tucked into a paper flap. I lifted it up to read it and was shocked to see I had gone home with a nice, big bottle of Wool. Liquid wet wool. Hence the doggy smell. There is no way I was ever going to use this fragrance. I carefully replaced the bottle in the box with the receipts, put everything into the bag, and returned with it to the farmacia on my bike yesterday morning.

I know this part of town better now, as it is halfway between our home piazza and St. James Episcopal. Not wanting to brave the one-way traffic coming up Via della Scala, I chained my bike on an iron pike at the south end of the piazza, and took my bag to the officina profumo, feeling confident an even exchange would be quickly effected.

The cassa room was packed, so I returned to the perfume dais, where the commessa held court. She was the same one who had dabbed me with various tonic waters and serums the week before. I explained my concern. She was unmoved, and quickly went into legal defense mode.

“It is written in numerous places that we will not exchange or refund. All our products are handmade; we cannot accept them back, even for an exchange.”

I was floored. Really? I did not want this bottle of wet woolly dog, no matter how prestigious or medieval the fragrance.

“But the Lana fragrance was formulated for Valentino. It is a designer fragrance.”

I stood there, not knowing what to say, in the High Court of beautiful smells. “I don’t like it,” I said. “I did not mean to buy it. I wanted to buy a bottle of the Tabacco Toscano.”

“You must check when you pay,” she insisted. “We are not responsible for incorrect selections.”

I like perfume, and a lot, but even for me a hundred euros is steep for a nice smell. It is way too much for Soggy Wool in a bottle. Maybe I should stick to L’Erbolario, where a mistake at the cassa would cost just 20 euros, and in any case, I can select and verify my own product before I purchase.

“It is a winter smell,” she forged ahead. “It is not meant for summer. Perhaps that is why it does not appeal to you.”

“But I did not even select this fragrance,” I said. I remember telling Buenos Aires that the Lana was not for me, and her reassurance that all fragrance is so personal, there is no math or logic that can be applied.

“Wait until winter and use it,” the commessa suggested.

I continued to stand there not knowing what more to say.

And, finally, “You can spray it on all your wool coats and scarves in winter. It is very nice.”

Of that I have no doubt, but that season is now six or seven months away again … wait, did she just tell me to spray the Wool perfume on my wool items in six months to mitigate their mistake?

Yes, she did. I entertained for just a moment a threat of a verbal tell-all blog post, or to say I was done tagging them for free advertising on Instagram, or bringing visiting friends by to load up on their product. I thought I’d say how I might advise our business associates to purchase our gifts from the competing farmacie antiche in town – Santissima Annunziata, or Inglese. But I could tell by the look on the commessa’s face that she didn’t care. The tour buses would come and unload more tourists who would pay and leave and never come back.

At that point, I sighed, and said, “Then please give me a bottle of the Tabacco Toscano, because that was the only one I wanted when I was here last time.”

She sighed back at me, pursing her lips, put the request on a tessera, and I went back to the cassa again to stand in line behind three middle-aged American women who were bemoaning their luggage weight limit in light of the impressive heft of the glass bottle containers of the Officina Profumo. I did spy at least four placards in six languages of their stern exchange and refund policy. Sigh.

At lunch a few minutes later, my falso italiano husband suggested many things I could have said in the very French l’esprit de l’escalier to the commessa, or to anyone who would listen to me. (The French spend a lot of time living in past conversations, formulating perfect retorts that will come in handy the next time such a conversational configuration occurs.) My Italian is not up to his level, though, and I certainly do not boast his steely nerves. Come to think of it, he would be a great Dio di Profumo for the dais, if he liked fragrance as much as I did. The man is unflappable. He could give that Argentine a run for her money.

“The client care is as medieval as their product recipes,” I said, spooning the broth of my pork ramen.

He thought a moment. “No,” he said, “that kind of a defensive response is very industrial. Anyway, they don’t care; they cater overwhelmingly to tourists they’ll never see again. They probably had too much Wet Wool fragrance on hand as they moved into summer months. Perhaps they were advised to discretely move the Wet Wool onto some tourists to make space for the summer fragrances.”

“Actually,” I added, thinking, “I think the response was very postindustrial. Profit over client.” He nodded. “I don’t know if I can bring myself to return.”

“You probably will,” he said.

“For the tea,” I said. I made note to bring our daughter Eleanor and Jason’s mom to the tea room.

He took home both the bags with the perfumes after lunch for me.

This morning, I applied the Tabacco Toscano, and it was as pleasant and multi-levelled a fragrance as I remembered from the week before. I carefully put the Wool perfume away, for the colder months that will start again in November, to use on my woolen scarves and coats to make them smell more woolly.

I will work on making more positive associations for Wet Wool, since it is not going to appreciate sitting in its box in my perfume cabinet. (Yes, I have one of those.)

Now that I think about it, it does smell a bit like a terrier who’s been out for a walk in a gentle spring rain, and that is a nostalgic smell I do love.

Firenze: Concert in Palazzo Tornabuoni

Sophie had first mentioned it in a fairly offhand way.

“Can you come to a concert on Monday? It’s free.”

“Sure!” I said. The timing was perfect for my workday, and the Palazzo Tornabuoni is just around the corner from my rented office space on Piazza della Repubblica.

Sophie asked me if I would like to invite Jason too, along with Claudio and Francesca, our upstairs neighbors and the genteel owners of our palazzo.

“Yes, I would like to invite them,” I said, but given logistics and perpetual prior commitments, they were very likely unable to attend, or worse, would confirm first but then have to bow out the day of, with short notice. “Let me just come,” I said. “I can promise I will be there.”

“Superb,” she said. The Palazzo Tornabuoni is next to the Bulgari shop, across from Palazzo Strozzi.

“I know it well,” I responded.

I have come to learn that Firenze is first and foremost a city of constellations, with the large piazze interconnected stars, and the smaller piazze (Peruzzi, Pier Maggiori, as examples) and named palazzi smaller dotted stars among them. D’Azeglio, Liberta, San Marco, San Giovanni, Repubblica, Signoria, Indipendenza, della Stazione, then Santo Spirito and Tasso in the Oltrarno. Donatello, Michelangelo. And on and on. The streets change names so frequently, every tiny block or so in some places, that it is easier on my bike and on foot to simply plan my route by piazza-hopping.

The day of the concert was Pasquetta, literally “little Easter.” The Monday after Easter that is a federal holiday in Italy. All Italians were off work, strolling on sunny streets and eating gelato in the warm air. I was not eating gelato in the warm air; like an American schmuck, I was holed up in my second-floor office overlooking the festive piazza, watching the world swan by. But I was sustained by the prospect of a live concert. My singing with St James has quietly opened up for me a network of live music and musicians, dilettante though I might be, and I find myself here and there about town for performances as they come up, which I love. They are most often classical music with vocals and a few instruments. I do not think I am truly a symphony or philharmonic type, or even grand opera. Give me a small venue, let me feel the chords in my chest, let the singers hit their notes in close proximity. I need to be tucked as solidly into the middle of the music as possible.

At the entrance of the Palazzo Tornabuoni I realized it was a hotel managed by the Four Seasons, and a timeshare. Hundreds of such entries exist in Florence, and you never really know what they are until you are invited and can legally snoop. A liveried doorman stood at his podium, “Nome?” and let me in after confirming I was on the short list.

A palazzo? A timeshare? A luxury hotel?
A locale of historic operatic import?
All four.

Lost to Florentine history are a few political events and turns of fortune in the 14th and 15th centuries that resulted in families changing their names so as to ensure a fresh start on the PR – what some of our less savory political families in the US might prefer to be called, and in two or three generations, no one would remember the crimes of their antecendents, in fact believing the conceit of a positive-sounding last name. (Think of Javanka renaming their kids “Goodpeople” or something like that.) When I find the original name of the Tornabuoni, I will post it back here, because I remember this was a very funny fact.

I bumped into Sophie’s parents, visiting from England, in the elevator, and we made our way upstairs into a grand salon where we were immediately offered flutes of prosecco by the hostess, an ebullient blonde Brit with a beautiful piega (I always notice, and Italians do too). Her mother and I caught up on the month prior when I had last seen her, in early march

Sophie’s parents and I all settled into the leather-upholstered furniture and admired the space as more and more people trickled in. As it happened I knew quite a few people at the event, so the small talk did not induce in me its normal anxiety. Despite being a social person, small talk gives me hives, as I am thoroughly allergic to disinterested, prescriptive banality. Sophie was nowhere to be seen, but I did meet her amiable pianist, Martyn, also from England, and out of central casting (see: Young Musical Prodigy).

The high ceilings were covered in bookcases, a hearth glowed with candles in hurricane lamps, and we remarked on two urns so oversized as to be vulgar, and possibly stash holes in plain sight for contraband and people. A well-groomed bartender was busy pouring more prosecco.

Lovely venue for an after-work prosecco. The bar in Palazzo Tornabuoni.
Check out those urns. Got anything to hide? Better be big.

“You know,” Sophie’s mother said sotto voce, “the Four Seasons got in a heap of trouble with the commune after they remodeled the space, because they scraped it down to the stones and boards.”

I looked around, and agreed with the comune. The space did carry more than a whiff of Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn, especially with those gigantic cement urns, which seemed so out of place. There was very little of the dusty, formerly brightly painted woodwork that is so often seen in historic palazzi here in Florence.

The hostess came back and brightly announced that it was time to come through to the recital hall. I trotted in with the group, which also included, as I came to know, many residents of the palazzo, also out of central casting (see: Well-Heeled August European Petty Nobility), offered cultural events in the palazzo by the Four Seasons by way of in-house Florentine entertainment.

I gawked at the symbolic hat of the Belgian woman, worthy of the Windsor Derby, a huge ivory affair held to her forehead with a headband, and her giant owlish glasses with ivory frames. She was accompanied by an older gentleman, and a younger man with a waxed handlebar mustache over a three-day beard, clad in kneesocks and knickers.

I took a seat in front of Sophie’s mother, who thanked me for doing so, as we are roughly the same size. The room glittered in glass and white marble, and a photograph of the larger hall through the doors behind us gave the impression of an even larger space. The hostess welcomed everyone, and noted that we were in the same room where the first opera was performed eve
r, in private – “Dafne,” by Jacopo Peri.

Copy of original program for Dafne.

Sophie and Martyn came out and set to making their music. Mozart and Poulenc filled the air first; then Martyn owned that priceless grand piano as he furrowed his way thoughtfully through Chopin’s “Raindrop” – “Prelude in D Flat Major” (breathtaking).

Sophie came back and sang more! Debussy, a beautiful operatic excerpt from Charpentier’s “Louise,” and finished with a round rendition of “Tonight,” with a nod to the appreciate Yanks in the salon.

I remembered the accomplished pianists I have been lucky to know in my life, and though of how glad I am to be in the presence of our Riccardo when he plays at St. James, sweeping down the aisle after with his sleeves billowing behind.

The hostess returned to applause, and invited the appreciative private audience back into the bar for further drinks and what is called an “aperitivo abbondante.” I partook as I was able, but then had to slip out to get back home to Jason and two children with sniffles.