I had been invited earlier to the wedding of Giorgio and Michelle, in Beirut, and just didn’t get “my act together” in time to accept the invitation and go to Beirut, in spite of the US State Department’s dire warnings not to go. I was a little ambivalent about missing that wedding until I saw the extravaganza that I missed at the reception, held at a casino for a couple hundred people. When the married couple returned to Giorgio’s (and now also Michelle’s) handbag shop near the Mercato Centrale (where I have had my rental apartment for the last few years), I got to go through nearly 3000 photos proofs with them, the ones they needed to narrow to only 350 for printing. (I guess they REALLY do things BIG in Beirut for weddings—that bouquet of 550 red roses for the bride was immense!)
Just about the time I was putting the Beirut missed opportunity out of my head, Irmy (“Irmtraut,” same Austrian home town as Arnold, our muscular governor in California) called to invite me to be her guest at a wedding here in Florence, on 20 June. She would be arriving on Friday, and staying until Monday, so I invited here to come and stay with me so that we could spend the entire weekend together. Those who have met her sometimes call her “Hurricane Irmy,” because she is a very high-energy Austrian. We met in London when she was in charge of the study abroad program that Barbara and I attended in 2007, and Barbara and I flew to Ancona to be hosted by Irmy in Jesi, where she lives, for our Thanksgiving break during our London term.
Irmy arrived just about as I expected: off the train at noon, but with appointments here in Florence until 5 p.m., when her cab arrived down the street and dropped her off. (I had not thought to remind Irmy, who lives here in Italy, that there are two numbering systems on the streets of Florence. The RED numbers are the business addresses, and the blue or black numbers are residences. I often see tourists standing in front of residences with a guidebook in hand, unable to figure out WHY this address is NOT the restaurant they came to find. It’s all the red and blue numbers, with 2 sets each street, all mixed together.) I live at Via dei Pilastri 57 (blue), and she was staring at the door of a psychologist’s office at 57 (red), a long way down the street. When I directed her here by cell phone, our weekend began.
Our first night, we took a cab to a restaurant at the outskirts of Florence, where Massimo, the owner, already knew Irmy. He poured us a prosecco to wait for the other couple to arrive, but then he heard that I liked to drink negronis—so he added Campari and vermouth to my prosecco, with an orange slice, and I had a hybrid “prosecco-negroni,” which was second best to the real thing. (Sorry!) Antonella and Marco, her husband, arrived to join us at the restaurant. She is the on-site coordinator for the programs Irmy directs for study abroad students in Florence, and they were just having a social meeting, but including Antonella’s husband and me. HE is a pianist, writes music books for piano learners, and was a hoot. He spoke only English, with the proviso that I had to speak only Italian to him.
When the first words from his mouth were “I am hot,” we ladies all started laughing out loud, and trying to explain why that was funny to us. (Of course, he is very attractive, self-confident, and said it with gusto.) It was a struggle, but we kept up the dinner conversation while we savored scampi, baby octopi in red sauce, and great salads on the side. We happened to find out that the owner of THIS restaurant is also the owner of Cinghiale Bianco, a favorite of many of my guests here, located on the south side of the Arno near the Ponte Vecchio. In particular, it has just ONE table up in the rafters, above all the other tables in the restaurant, but that table is insufferably hot in the warm months there. It is the best view of the restaurant at any other time, and I made big points with the owner, Massimo, by telling him that was my favorite table (giving proof I was familiar with his other restaurant).
Marco sneaked out on us, paying the dinner bill, and we all left after our garden dinner on the patio. Irmy and I were escorted home courtesy of our “personal taxi”—Massimo brought his own car around to the front of the restaurant, and drove us all the way home into the central city, which was a total surprise. What restaurant owner gives such personal service? HE does, if he likes you. That, and I think he was looking for Irmy’s business for big group dinners for the American students who come here in her programs, with a restaurant large enough to handle big groups easily, with a big wood oven for the pizzas, and with reasonable prices for students.
The next morning, we were in the thick of getting ready for the wedding at the Palazzo Vecchio, the old Medici Palace in the Piazza della Signoria, right beside the Uffizi Gallery. Lili, the bride, was a long-time friend of Irmy’s (and also Austrian), and she was marrying Marco, who uses a wheelchair for the mobility he has lost from his advancing Parkinson’s disease.
We arrived at the piazza to find about 30 people already waiting, with the bride and groom ready to go in when their turn was called. We watched other wedding groups coming out of the Palazzo, with flowers and happy brides and grooms and wedding guests surrounding them for congratulations and photographs.
When we were called in at 9:30, about 100 people came along to the Sala Rossa (the “red room”) in the Palace, or “sala matrimonio,” where Marco and Lili sat at the front of the room, before the official in his tricolor sash, to say their vows (I think he was the “sindaco,” the mayor—and being voted out that very day in an election for mayor).
Priceless tapestries and furniture and Venetian glass chandeliers from the Medici family’s era at the palace surrounded us. The ceremony was brief, lasting about 20 minutes, and then Marco and Lili signed the official registry and left as a married couple, out to the piazza again for photos and kisses from the guests. I took a few photos with my pocket camera, as did Irmy, and then the bride and groom left and Irmy and I went shopping together.
Irmy is an accomplished shopper—and knows where to go, whom to see, and what price she can REALLY get for something special she has found. In one shop, while she was trying on clothing, I stepped to the window and took a photo of the Arno outside, immediately getting scolded by the clerk for taking a photo when I should have been shopping, instead. Irmy came out, and was ignited into action by the comments of the clerk, and made it very clear that the clerk was rude, completely out of the farthest reaches of acceptable customer service, and would NEVER see Irmy step into her shop again. We left, Irmy caught her breath, and then found a shop where she found one item after another, always getting them for half the marked price, and the clerk even threw in a pair of necklaces that would have complimented the outfits, for free. Although Irmy spent a lot, she got several unique pieces that she could never buy in her hometown, and got the deluxe treatment from a wonderful saleswoman, who KNEW how to serve a good customer. It was a pleasure to watch, and I got a scarf to match one Irmy bought—at half-price, of course. With Irmy doing the bargaining, I could not resist. In fact, she never bargained or had to suggest her price. The clerk took her over to a small calculator and punched in the discounted price for Irmy, not to be overheard by others in the shop. It was always at least 50% off the tag price, and usually meant a sale.
That evening, we took a cab to the home of the bride and groom, and got a ride in Marco and Lili’s Mercedes wagon to the villa in the hills about 30 minutes outside Florence, where the reception was being prepared for them. That was my first opportunity to ride in a car driven with hand controls: the steering wheel had a second smaller wheel behind the first, and Marco accelerated by squeezing the two together, with the powerful car leaping forward as he zipped around Florence traffic at 6 p.m. to get out to the countryside. The brake was on the dashboard, to the left of the radio and ventilation in the center, and he just pressed the black handle down to brake. I was impressed at how well he operated the car, all the while talking on the cell phone, looking in the rear view mirror, and giving directions to cars following us to the reception.
When we arrived, the crew setting up the reception was still preparing all of the stations around the yard of the villa.
There was a trippa (Yikes–tripe!) wagon, a table of fresh vegetables and an olive oil bottled and labeled just for the wedding (with the names of the bride and groom), a table of cheeses from around the world, another with mortadella, salamis, olives and marinated tomatoes and artichokes, and a complete selection of proscuitto and proscuitto cotto (ham, to us) for appetizers.
There was a DJ with his station for playing music and his light show, a table full of wines for the night, and then, around the side of the villa, the bar.
Irmy and I enjoyed our prosecco with a mixed fruit juice added in, but clearly with pureed strawberries in the blend of pineapple and orange juices—refreshing and delicious. She knew only the bride and groom, and I knew only Irmy. We ended up meeting a couple from New Jersey who had been staying with the couple that owned the villa, and were invited to stay for the wedding. That gave us a chance to speak English, and to keep them company, too.
When we found a table to sit together, the food began to arrive. Wooden cutting boards full of cheeses, baskets from the bread table, boards of proscuitto and salamis, olives and vegetables with the wonderful olive oil for dipping in (called “pinzimonio,” the antipasto of fresh vegetables, salt and olive oil)—all began arriving at our table.
The Italians talked to each other, the Americans talked to each other, but we all ate well. We had a host from the catering team, a man about my age dressed as a woman, including his frilly cap and skirt, and he was the life of the party. He danced, talked in falsetto voice, and really had a lot of fun playing his role, although he was clearly in charge of all the servers and stations at the party.
Irmy and I shared our Chianti bottle with the other Americans, and then shared a bottle of a moscato, a sweet dessert wine. It was so wonderful that Irmy and I went to get a second bottle, just for the two of us (way more wine had been opened than was being consumed, so we decided to help out—we have SUCH generous hearts). Then, after polishing off that small bottle (half-size of a normal wine bottle), we found out that the bar was serving—negronis! We each had one, but I actually drank mine. That and the dessert wine (I’m pretty certain) were what got us out onto the dance area, modeling a dancing style somewhere between epileptic seizures and total body spasms, dancing for two hours with the catering staff, the guests and each other. No one had a partner—we all just danced together on the terrace, celebrating the wedding.
At the end of the party, when the “boss in drag” finished by cooking almond brittle over an open fire for our dessert, we were offered a ride back to Florence from one of the guests, each with a bottle of the unopened olive oil as wedding souvenirs. The young woman drove us all the way to the door of my apartment, just beating the clock on the prohibition of driving on many of the streets here after midnight (a traffic and pollution control issue that is very controversial here, especially if you own a nightclub and your patrons cannot drive home, so don’t come into the city at all). We had NO trouble sleeping, and both were fine in the morning. (No “birds stomping on the telephone wires” for us!)
Irmy spent Sunday meeting with Antonella, her on-site coordinator, and working on details of program changes, planned student outings, and all of the other details that needed to be discussed to make the student stays go smoothly when they come to Florence. Meanwhile, back at the apartment, I processed 150 photos from the wedding ceremony and party (both mine and Irmy’s), and made a DVD for Irmy to copy and give to Lili and Marco, to thank them for including me as Irmy’s guest. We polished off the last of the farro salad with arugula, lemon chicken breasts with oregano and the proscuitto and cheeses that I had gathered for quick snacks and antipasto for Irmy’s visit.
The next day, I arranged for Irmy to meet my friend, Lorenzo, who is the director of the study abroad program here that first brought me, Barbara and Dee together as roommates and friends in Florence in 2003. He gave her a tour of the CAPA facility (Center for Academic Programs Abroad), talked to her about the agreements with the universities for giving students credits for their work in Florence. I had asked Lorenzo if he would like to meet Irmy, his competitor, and warned him that he might not want to give up too much information—all via e-mail, in advance. Later, we were back to pack Irmy to catch her train home. After an electrical cable breaking two weekends before on the Florence-Bologna main rail route, injuring an engineer and leaving a high speed Eurostar train in the dark in a tunnel for hours, a second incident closed the same tracks that day. A freight train had derailed, north of Florence, but Irmy was headed south, although the station looked like a campground full of stranded tourists and residents and students headed back north to the university in Bologna, all with no idea when they could go north.
It was a whirlwind weekend, as I had expected, but we had a wonderful time together. The photo I took out the shop window (when the clerk got mad at me) was terrible (and I deleted it, eventually), Irmy left her bottle of olive oil for me (thank you, thank you!), and she left with 150 photos of her friend’s wedding, all ready for e-mailing or showing as a slide show on her laptop. She is coming to California the same day that I return, for several weeks there, and we may have a chance to see each other there, too. “Hurricane Irmy” has left the building, but we had a great visit together, and look forward to doing it again some time. I’ve experienced an Italian wedding and the countryside villa and party to celebrate, and no longer miss the Beirut experience quite so much—this was a special day that I got to observe and to be a participant in the celebration, and it was just plain fun to be there.