My Italian immersion consisted of living in the cool Oltrarno neighborhood in Florence this past fall for two glorious weeks. The Oltrarno is where the locals live on the other side of the Arno River opposite from the Duomo and the major tourist attractions. If you like absorbing the culture of a place you visit, I highly recommend staying in an apartment in a local neighborhood for more than a few days. It. Was. Awesome.
Every day I would notice how the Italian lifestyle differed from the US lifestyle I am used to living. One Sunday, with the windows wide open to enjoy the sun after a rainy morning, I sat writing and listening to the bustling street life. Families were out in force socializing in the public park nearby. There was a sports clinic for kids taking place with loudspeakers rotating groups of kids from various interactive stations to try out everything from karate to dance to basketball to wresting to soccer. Add in the frequent church bells, loud motorbikes screaming down the cobblestone streets, the guy on the accordion serenading the neighbors and generally loud animated Italian conversations and taking that afternoon nap was not going to happen. So, when you can’t beat them, you join them at the gelato shop!
Visiting the local gelato stand was a religious experience, serving so many delightful flavors. But for us, it was salted caramel for me, and blueberry infused chocolate for Thom. Really, best gelato/ice cream I have ever had in my travels around the world. One local gentleman rode his bike to grab some gelato with his 4 (?) pooches piled into multiple baskets (see picture below). They were quite the stars with people taking pictures of the loaded bike. Beware of the many “tourist” gelato places in Italy. If the gelato is piled high on display with vibrant colors beware-it’s not authentic gelato. You want to look for the local shops where the gelato is in metal containers with lids to keep in the goodness. Trust me. Also, if you walk buy a cafe offering $1euro take away wine, go for it. There is no bad wine in Italy.
We loved to walk the park on the next block and enjoyed seeing all the kids playing and the parents chatting while the older folks sat on the benches and chatted. Unlike in American where everyone pulls into their garage and you never see your neighbors, here in Florence everyone is very social and engaged with their community. At the cafes, you see the families eating together at big tables enjoying food and conversation versus looking at their phones constantly. Imagine having focus on a person rather than an electronic device. How refreshing!
It was still hot when we were there in September. Most European apartments don’t have air conditioning but ours did, though just wall units in the bedrooms because, as my ARBNB host said, “You are American so you will probably want a/c, but we Italians just open the windows.” The a/c units ended up leaking when we tried to use them on a hot day, so we lived Italian and just opened the windows. I worked remote while were there but didn’t mind because with the shutters flung open, the view certainly beat my home office back in Idaho.
Every day the lovely lady across the street would put a rug over the windowsill and lean on it watching the neighborhood come alive. The windows were large, letting in beautiful light, but none had screens (screens on windows are very American-but I wonder about the safety with kids???). Wooden shutters are on every window you see in the local neighborhood, which you can close and still get some breeze through when there is bad weather. You can open both the glass window AND the shutter to get the breeze. We got such a strong cross breeze when we opened all the windows that doors were slamming in the apartment and floor lamps were tilting so we had to monitor window openings based on the breeze strength.
With an apartment, we were lucky to get a washer but, as in most European countries, no dryer. I packed a travel clothesline with me and strung it up between the shutters in our spare bedroom. Many apartments have clotheslines on the outside of the building. You lean out the window and pin your clothes up to dry. (see picture above of my sister when we visited Florence a year earlier) Be careful hanging up your items securely or you’ll rain panties down on a passerby. The buildings are old in Italy and the electrical systems are just as old. We were advised not to use two appliances at once or risk blowing a fuse in our apartment. For example, if we were using the toaster, we wouldn’t use the microwave. We forgot once, of course, which set off a hunt for the fuse box, which was in the lobby not in our apartment.
I often wondered how the elderly or physically challenged manage their lives here in Italy. There are rarely elevators except in modern buildings. Rarely have we ever had an elevator at an apartment or small hotel in Europe. The stairs are usually stone, steep and sloping. We are in fairly good shape but hauling our suitcases (carry-on only!) up the stairs is never fun though you do get a good workout. Bear this in mind when booking accommodations.
I can’t wait to go back to Florence. I plan on renting the same apartment, eating the same amazing gelato, drinking cappuccinos at the cafe and exploring the beautiful streets of Florence. One afternoon we were crossing over the Arno and happened upon a drum corps in full regalia celebrating a local holiday (see picture above). These are the type of experiences that I will always cherish when I remember our Italian life in the Oltrarno.