(October, 2013–Old Blog from the Old Broad)
Dee and Barbara were my roommates in Florence the first time I came to Italy, in 2003 for a study abroad program through Sierra College. We were put into an apartment together, as “women of a certain age,” saving us from rooming with 19-year-olds who had never been away from home before. Thank God! We became friends that semester together, and have remained close ever since, always making time to get together and keep our friendship current. We had the opportunity to come to Italy together in 2006, but after seven years, both Barbara and Dee were ready to come back to Italy for a visit, to see my place in Spello, and to feed our mutual love of Italy.
I arrived at the Spello train station at 5 a.m., to take the earliest train to Florence. With about 20 stops along the way, the trip takes almost 3 hours, and arrives just before 9. I didn’t need to arrive so early to meet Barbara and Dee at the airport, but took the extra time to visit friends and do some shopping at the Mercato Centrale, where we used to stock our apartment with fruit, vegetables, bread, cheese and meats, and fresh pasta. I have made several friendships there, and wanted to have the time to see people, and pick up a few things to take back to Spello.
My first stop was to see Benita, the proprietor of “Pork’s” trattoria inside the Mercato Centrale. She and her son, Luigi, prepare coffee, lunches of porchetta panini and simple foods for their customers, with Benita in the kitchen most of the day keeping the counter cold case full of choices—grilled vegetables, frittatas, pasta, pastries, and fruit salad. She and I became friends in 2005, when a friend and I arrived on a freezing January morning to the market, and she offered us both small plastic water bottles full of hot water to carry in our cold hands. (The Mercato Centrale is concrete and wrought iron, without heat, and usually the same temperature inside as outside the market.) We were to return them when we left, but that was the beginning of the habit to always begin my shopping by greeting her, having a coffee together (if she had the time), and stopping by to tell her that I was returning home and would see her again the next trip to Florence.
I also took the time to find Labrini, the daughter of my friend Anne Boulamakis. Labrini and her husband work in one of the stands at the San Lorenzo street market, selling high-quality leather gloves, wallets and handbags. I just checked in to say “hello,” and then scanned the stalls, where I know several of the vendors by name. I once rented an apartment nearby in the Piazza del Mercato Centrale, so these stalls were my “neighborhood,” and I often gave my extra food (when I was leaving for home) to one of the young men there, “Junior” from Brazil. Being recognized saves me from some of the more aggressive vendors, who insist that I need one of their leather jackets or handbags, although I often use the sidewalks behind the stalls to avoid the congestion of the stalls, usually packed with tourists.
Next stop was the market at Sant’Ambrogio, where my friend Gennaro sells mozzarella di bufala from his home in Salerno (near Naples). He brings a truck full of his fresh cheeses each Monday, stays in Florence all week in an apartment with several other vendors, and then does a round-trip to Salerno to restock his stand. His mozzarella di bufala is the best I have found, and I always buy extra to carry to Spello for Paola and Leonardo. (That is a cheese that is not made in Umbria, but what is available in the supermarkets is especially not of the quality of the freshly-made mozzarella that I can buy from Gennaro.) The market at Sant’Ambrogio is also full of fruit and vegetables, and is where I shopped when I rented an apartment in Via dei Pilastri, nearby. It’s near the synagogue, in one of the neighborhoods of Florence under the tightest security because of the presence of the “sinagoga.” In fact, in addition to the video surveillance and cameras everywhere, there are guards in uniform armed with Uzzis at the front of the synagogue.
I passed a plaque on the wall, on my way to the station to catch the shuttle to the airport. In that location, in 1944, a commander of the partisans (the Italian underground, supporting the Allies in the war against the Nazis and Fascists) was killed violently by the Nazi Fascists. There are many similar plaques in Florence and other Italian cities, reporting the birthplaces of famous artists, leaders, singers and soldiers, as well as the level of the floodwaters in 1966 (in Florence), or visits by Popes or famous people. It only takes being aware, and looking for the plaques, to see a lot of local history commemorated on the walls passed by everyone.
Finally I was on the shuttle to the airport, carrying along fresh pasta, three bags of mozzarella di bufala from Gennaro, some porcini mushrooms and some wonderful tomatoes. Reaching the airport, I was able to score one of the few seats in the waiting area for arriving passengers (there are precisely eight, only). The doors opened over and over as passengers arrived to waiting friends and family, and tour drivers holding up signs with names, trying to connect with their arriving clients. Finally, exhausted from their three flights, Barbara and Dee appeared with their bags. We hopped back onto the shuttle to the train station, waited there for the next train to Spello, and were soon on the train and on the way back to my place for their long-awaited 3-week visit.
We enjoyed a great meal together, with the fresh lemon ricotta ravioli I had found at the Mercato Centrale, a caprese salad with tomatoes, fresh basil, and Gennaro’s mozzarella di bufala, some good wine and an assortment of cookies I’d collected from the bakery in Spello.
We three were back together in Italy—finally! Seven years is just too long between our times here together, and we were very excited to explore Umbria again, and have them become more familiar with Spello and my friends here.