Benvenuto a Firenze!
I stared at the sign for a while, my eyes burning from all those movies I watched instead of sleeping, trying to decipher why it said Firenze instead of Florence. Because that’s where I was supposed to have ended up, but my mediocre Italian didn’t cover “hey, I might be in the wrong part of the country.”
“Scusa,” I called toward one of the flight attendants as she zipped by, her roller bag trailing behind her. The woman turned for a moment before registering that I was lost. “English?”
“Yes,” she said, her accent barely noticeable.
“Firenze is Florence, yes?” I asked, pointing toward my ticket that said Florence. She gave me one of those looks that said my question was completely moronic, but she nodded anyway. “Grazie.”
Ok, so I wasn’t the greatest world traveler. If we were being completely honest with one another, the most I’ve done before was sit on a Mediterranean cruise with my mom and order room service in between excursions to temples and beaches. I mean, I knew the basics: don’t talk to strangers, hide your passport, stash money incase you get mugged. But I may have been entering uncharted territory with this one.
I checked my watch, thanking every lucky star I had that it was barely noon here, which meant that I wasn’t showing up to Nonna’s place in the dead of night. What little research I was able to do directed me to a SITA bus that would take me from Florence to Siena, but even then, I would need to find a way to get to Nonna’s farmhouse in the southern part of the province.
Walking out of the airport was disorienting as I gained my bearings, but I had a notebook with my Italian phrase cheat sheet and a reminder of the euro conversion because I didn’t want to get ripped off.
Stazione degli Autobus
I smiled up at the sign, knowing that my chances of actually getting to Siena were getting better. I slid over a few euros at the ticket counter before saying in atrocious Italian that I was going to Siena. The woman rattled off a bunch of words I didn’t recognize before giving me that look that said she didn’t want to deal with the stupid American today.
“Scusa signorina, you speak English, yes?” an older gentleman asked as I stepped away from the counter. He was a tiny little thing with stark white hair, a worn grey cap, warm brown eyes, and the brightest smile I had seen all day. It was like he was actually happy to see me, which instantly made me think that some travel guardian angel was watching out for me.
“Yes,” I said with a smile as he gestured toward me to come sit on his bench. The gentleman folded up his newspaper so that it rested in a perfect rectangle on his lap before turning toward me.
“She is no good with the tourists,” he said, gesturing toward the woman behind the counter, who was shouting a stream of directions toward two doe-eyed backpackers as she gesticulated with sweeping motions toward something in the distance. Well, at least I wasn’t the only one. “Giacomo Gaspari.”
“Sophia Penn,” I said as I smiled over at him. “Would you happen to know which bus will take me to Siena? I’m surprising my nonna.”
“Fantastico! My nipoti are off in Roma on holiday. Say they are going to find handsome husbands and bring them home for summer weddings,” he said as he laughed and shook his head. “As for your question, Signorina Penn, we are heading in the same direction. I’ll help you find your nonna.”
“Really?” I asked, watching as he took the extra second to translate my meaning. I was fortunate that his English was so good, even if his accent was richly Italian. “Thank you, Signor Gaspari. You’re an angel.”
The old man just smiled and returned to his paper as we waited for the bus to arrive.
Our shuttle arrived sooner than I expected because within a half hour, I was on my way to Siena, my duffel tucked beneath my feet. Giacomo pointed out a few buildings on our way to the southern province of Tuscany, or, as he called it, Toscana, making the hour-long trip go by rather quickly.
“So where is your boyfriend, signorina? My nipote just returned from university, and he’s very handsome. Tall and strong, too. Maybe you’ll wish to stay in Siena, yes? He purchased a farm in the Crete Sensi. Very beautiful.” He paused as if attempting to pique my interest. “He’ll be meeting us at the drop off.”
I forced a smile, trying not to look completely shocked that this cute little old man was pimping out his grandson to a stranger.
“There’s someone back in America,” I said, not lying but not really telling the truth either. I would need to work through a few elements of my backstory for Nonna, but people didn’t need to know that one of my reasons for leaving was a devastatingly handsome and sweet Italian businessman. I felt like that wouldn’t go over so well.
“I see, I see, but if that is the case, why has he not come with you? Had I a beautiful tesora, I would not let her leave without me,” he said with a smile.
The bus rumbled and then stopped, thankfully ending this conversation and revealing the southernmost stop on its journey. We were the last people on the bus, but the driver didn’t rush us as we went to leave.
Giacomooffered to grab my duffle for me, but I waved away his generosity as we left the bus and stood by the dusty curb as the bus did a u-turn before driving back toward the airport.
“Nonno,” a voice called from a dust covered, red Fiat that looked like a matchbox car. The grandson got out of the car and walked over to us, his stride determined. He rattled off something in rapid Italian, his hands gesturing toward me and then toward the sky, but Signor Gaspari’s responses were slow and peaceful, as if he were just on a leisurely stroll with nowhere to go.
“This is my American friend, Sophia Penn.” He spoke in English for my benefit, but I could tell that the grandson didn’t immediately like me.
I looked the man over for a moment, taking in his deep tan, chocolate-colored locks that flopped over his forehead, and the determined gray of his eyes as he watched me with a look that said he wasn’t pleased. Granted, had he been a tad nicer, I may have thought him good looking, but something told me he wasn’t a big Sophia fan, so I pretended he didn’t have that hot Italian farmer thing going on.
“Why are you following my grandfather?” the grandson asked as he stepped protectively in front of Giacomo, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Angelo!” Giacomo said as he thwacked the tall, grumpy grandson with his newspaper. “That’s no way to speak to a signornia.” Then he rattled off some more in Italian that sounded a lot like “your mother raised you better than this.” Well, it also could have been “where’s the nearest gas station,” but I wouldn’t know because my English to Italian in Ten Minutes book lied. I didn’t know Italian any better than I did when I was twenty dollars richer.
They went back and forth for a moment, giving me time to appreciate where we were. Just off the outskirts of the red and pink colored town of Siena, we were left with gorgeous views of deep rolling hills freckled with Cyprus trees and a breathtaking view of the farmlands that seemed to stretch endlessly distance.
“Wow,” I said as I tried not to cry. It was one of those moments where you stand there in awe as you watch life happen. I felt like I was being rooted to the land where I stood, my body connected to the beauty as if somehow just being here made me apart of it. “Have you ever seen something more beautiful?” I asked as I looked toward the feuding Italians, causing them to pause in their argument. “I’m not looking to cause any trouble. If you could just point me in the direction of this address, I’ll be on my way,” I said as I held out my notebook with the general location of Nonna’s farmhouse.
“Nonna Lucia’s?” the grandson asked, seemingly appalled that he knew where I was heading. “She’s our neighbor.” He ran his tanned fingers through his hair, trying to figure out if he should help me out or make me walk.
“Then it’s settled,” Giacomo said before climbing into the back of the Fiat. “Andiamo!”
Angelo shook his head as if to say he had little choice in the matter before strapping my duffel to the top of the car and speeding off down the road.
The car ride wasn’t as awkward as I expected, and to my surprise, American songs were played on the radio here, so as we meandered along the dirt roads, I helped Angelo with some of the lyrics as we sang along. He seemed to know most of the words, but every once and a while, he made a few errors that had me fake coughing so not to be rude. Let’s just say he didn’t always know the difference between love and dove, so when a particularly cheesy song came on, he would profess his undying dove to me.
We drove for what felt like a good half hour, but I didn’t mind. The windows were down and the July air was balmy against our skin, but it felt like summer and freedom, which was already better than the sticky streets of L.A..
“Baby or babe?” he asked, trying to get the hang of this one song in particular.
“Baby. It’s basically the only line in the whole song,” I said as I laughed, trying to understand why this crap was even playing. “If you want some real American music, come find me this summer. I have songs that are way better than this. Do you have Spotify? No? Total game changer.”
My offer seemed to pique his interest because he pursed his lips in that I’ll-consider-it way.
“See, Angelo! I like her,” Giacomo said as he thwacked Angelo’s shoulder lightly with the paper.
“I know, nonno,” he mumbled as he turned down a long, dusty lane that ended at a quaint, two story farm house with russet-colored roof tiles, white plaster walls, and a vineyard that stretched into the horizon. “Give Nonna Lucia my best.” Angelo said as he parked and helped unstrap my duffel.
“I will. Thanks for everything,” I said as I waved to Giacomo, who was smiling like he’d won the jackpot. It was clear he thought his grandson hit it off with me.
I watched the little red car back down the driveway quickly before speeding off toward the farmhouse on the hill a few miles away.
“Sophia?” Nonna’s voice called from the front door as she walked out, her bright brown eyes sparkling. “Che bello! Come hug your nonna before she dies of happiness.”
I dropped my duffel and embraced my grandma, enjoying the way she always smelled of sage and lemon. When I was a child, I remember wondering why. Now, I didn’t care. I was just so happy to see her.
I stood back for a moment, taking in her ankle-length sundress covered in flour and what looked like cheese as she gestured for me to quickly follow her into the kitchen. She was cooking.
The house was simply decorated with dark wood furniture, a rustic wooden ceiling, and two wide open doors that led to a gorgeous outdoor area that overlooked the vineyard.
The sound of children caught my attention as two little ones rushed in toward the kitchen, their squeals of delight hitting a new octave in my heart. I always felt like I was so far away from being a mother, but for a moment, I had this flash forward where this was my house, and I was the one cooking for the two dirt-covered rug rats as they played tag around the dinner table.
“Nipoti, fuori!” she shouted before shooing them toward the patio. “So you know some Italian, yes?” Nonna went back to making what looked like fresh pasta as she slowly worked a metal crank that produced long golden ribbons as she spoke.
“Actually, no. I know a few of the basics, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Nonna looked me over for a moment as if finding it strange that I wasn’t proficient in what was supposed to be my native language, but she shrugged and went back to her cooking. After finishing a few more of the ribbons, she stirred a pot filled with some homemade red sauce, and I mentally high-fived myself for choosing Italy and not just some random country to hide away in until my money ran out.
“So where’s your mother? She’s coming too, yes?”
I shook my head, trying not to notice how Nonna’s shoulders slumped a little.
“No, she doesn’t know I came. I’m sorry I didn’t call to let you know, but it was pretty spontaneous. If you don’t have room, I can head back to Siena and find someplace to stay,” I said, but the sound of a wooden spoon being dropped told me that that’s the last thing that would happen.
“Nonsenso, piccola. You stay here for as long as you want,” Nonna said before gesturing wildly with the red-stained spoon. Katie would have loved her.
“Nonna, stiamo lasciando,” a beautiful brunette called as she walked into the house from the patio. She wore a bright yellow sundress covered in tiny white flowers and held one of the twins on her hip as she walked. “Oh, buonasera!”
“Buonasera,” I said, giving a brief wave as I looked over the picture of whom I suspected was a long lost cousin I didn’t know about. “I’m sorry, my Italian isn’t very good. I’m Sophie.”
The girl turned her head for a moment as if not understanding before a bright smile swept across her tanned face.
“Is it really you, Sophia? My goodness, it’s been forever,” she said, her English perfect. She still had a slight accent, but it was a relief that I wouldn’t be using Nonna to translate.
“I made a spontaneous trip to Italy and stopped by,” I said, not revealing that I’d basically put all my eggs in one basket when I thought I’d just live with Nonna until I got my life together. “How long has it been?” I hoped that I had enough time to stall before I rolled through the few Italian cousins I remembered.
Unfortunately, Nonna was a busy woman and had five children, meaning that even though I was an only child, there were a whole lot of other Italians continuing the Martinelli bloodline.
“We were just girls when you visited last. It’s been forever.” She set down the boy who looked slightly displeased, but she said something rapidly in Italian before she rushed toward me, dragging me into a close hug.
I wanted to apologize for smelling like airport and whatever that airplane breakfast was, but my cousin didn’t seem the least bit deterred.
“Oh, you must visit us tomorrow. We’re having a small party and Massimo will be home from England. Say you will.” Nonna gave me a look as if to say we all had little choice in the matter, so I just smiled and nodded politely.
“Yes, of course.”
“Che bello! We must be going, but I’ll see you tomorrow. Nonna, you too.” To my surprise, she rattled something off in Italian before returning to her cooking.
“Ok, is it me or does she seem upset?” I whispered to my cousin.
“Oh that? Massimo’s grandmother is off in Capri, so she won’t have her usual gossip buddy,” my cousin whispered before her toddler wandered over to us.
“Dante, this is Auntie Sophia. Say hi,” she said slowly, emphasizing the English words so that he could hear the change in language. Dante looked from her to me before hiding behind his momma’s leg. “Sorry, he’s still very shy. I’ve been trying to speak English and Italian so that he gets comfortable around both, but it’s not as easy I hoped.”
“I think it’s wonderful,” I said, wishing my mother had done the same when I was growing up.
“Well, we must be going. Adelina, andiamo.”
The little girl poked her head out from around the corner before tottering over to her mother.
“Ciao, Mirabella,” Nonna said before dusting the noodles with flour and continuing the process. It looked like she was cooking for an army. “So how long will you stay in Italy? Last I heard from your mother, you were working for Oscar Belvida. Did something happen, piccola? Was it a boy?”
Leave it to Nonna to dig for the root of the problem straight away.
“No, Nonna. I just wanted to visit and enjoy some peace and quiet before I go back to work,” I said as I stood by the counter. She was one of those lucky few who seemed to be frozen in time, her smile and complexion as radiant as ever.
“Good, good,” she said as she continued the pasta process. “Go upstairs and pick a room, rest a while. Dinner is at seven.”
I smiled and kissed her on the cheek before grabbing my duffel and heading up the wooden steps. The top floor wasn’t as big as I remembered, but there was a room that held a four posted bed with frilly, linen curtains, a plush cream quilt covered in embroidered flowers, and a wide open widow that overlooked the rolling hills of the vineyard. The room itself was small, with only the bed and a side table, but I didn’t bring much with me. It was part of the whole “be spontaneous” thing. I wanted to do it in minimalist fashion.
Plus, it was an excuse to go shopping. And judging from the sundresses and leather sandals, I was going to be enjoying that aspect of my life makeover.
My phone alarm went off fifteen minutes before seven, leaving me just enough time to brush my hair and change into something a little more Italy. I threw on one of my favorite sundresses—the sky blue one with spaghetti straps and a sweetheart neckline—before slipping on my gold sandals and strolling downstairs.
To my surprise, the sound of different voices assaulted my senses as I peered around the corner. Nonna’s kitchen was filled with people drinking wine and mingling over a variety of meats and cheeses, all of them speaking in rapid Italian and smiling.
“Oh there you are, Sophia,” Nonna called as she handed me a glass of white wine and a cracker with some pancetta. “Eat, drink, dinner is soon.” With that, she rushed off, leaving me alone with a house full of strangers.
“So you are her granddaughter,” a voice said from behind me, bringing a smile to my lips.
“I thought Italians were supposed to be warm and welcoming,” I said as Angelo took a sip of wine and looked around at the others. Like I said before, he would be cute if it weren’t for the whole, I scowl-like-it’s-my-job thing.
“Perhaps, but I’m not one of them.”
I smiled and shook my head before trying the hors d’oeuvre. It was salty and when paired with the wine, actually tasted pretty freaking amazing for something so simple.
“But that doesn’t explain why you’re here,” I said, trying to keep the conversation light. “I didn’t realize there was a party, but you did, and everyone here is friendly. Might not be your crowd.”
“Nonno sent me over with his best olive oil. He’s not messing around.” Angelo flashed me a rare smile. “But don’t worry. I’m not here to ask you to marry me. I don’t have time for things like that.”
“Trust me, I’m the worst person he could have picked for you,” I said, trying to make him feel like there was zero pressure to be nice to me.
“You’re Italian and female. Those are his only requirements.”
“Then you should’ve been married off years ago,” I said with a laugh, enjoying the way the wine made me feel.
A dark look crossed over his eyes for a moment before he gave one of those fake smiles that said to leave the topic alone. A few people started off toward the patio, which meant that the food was likely being served soon, so we started moving toward the open doors with the others, following the sound of laughter as we went.
“I spent a lot of my time at university. I studied business so I could improve Nonno’s olive oil sales,” he said with a noncommittal shrug. “We’ve hit some rough patches in the past, but my five-year plan should change that.”
To my surprise, Angelo held the chair for me as we neared our seats by Nonna, and I paused, completely caught off guard. Was he flirting with me? I know I wasn’t intentionally flirting, but that’s because he seemed so against the idea of being considered interested in me or anything remotely close to that that I didn’t pay close attention to it.
“Thank you,” I said before he took the seat beside me.
Nonna smiled over at us as a few of the other women brought in the antipasto. Three long plates covered in cured meats, olives, roasted garlic, and various Italian cheeses made their way to the oblong dark-oak table, reminding me that this was a huge group to feed. By my count, there were at least fifteen adults and almost all brought their children who were currently off running through the fields. I presumed they’d be coming over when hungry.
“Sophia, dear, these are my neighbors,” Nonna said before gesturing toward the lively table filled with people of all ages. She rattled off their names so quickly I lost most of them, but everyone was more than friendly when it was their turn to be introduced. “And you seem to know Angelo well. It’s a shame his nonno isn’t here. He’s quite the character.”
I smiled before enjoying a piece of prosciutto along with some fresh provolone.
“He sends his best,” Angelo said before raising his glass toward us.
“I didn’t realize you were having a party today,” I said as more wine was offered around the table. Nonna just shrugged.
“It was last minute.” She waved her hand in that it’s-no-big-deal way, but I knew how much trouble it was to organize a party, especially last minute. “I sent word that my American nipote was visiting, and everyone wanted to meet you.”
“This is all for me?” I looked at all the food and smiling faces. It was surreal.
“Of course,” she said with a laugh. “Now, eat up. You’re all skin and bones, and you’re so pale you can’t tell you’re Italian. This summer will be good for you, piccola.”
“I’ll have you know that I’m considered an average weight where I am.” More like above average by LA’s standards but I didn’t want her to worry.
I looked over at Angelo who was watching our interaction with disinterest. He seemed preoccupied.
“Bring them here. I’ll feed them too,” she said before standing to serve the pasta. Immediately, three of the men and a few women stood, telling her to sit, drink, and that they’d serve the table.
“It’s nice that they’re speaking English for me,” I said as I watched heaping bowls of pasta come out of the kitchen.
“They want you to feel like you belong, Sophia. We’re all family here.”
A huge portion of pasta with a light drizzle of sauce was placed before me, and I couldn’t fight the huge smile that came across my face.
“This is amazing, Nonna. You’ll have to teach me how to cook like you.”
A few of the other women piped up at the table, joining in on my interest to learn her secrets, but she just shook her head and smiled.
“You live with me, you cook with me,” she said as she twirled a bite of pasta. The others just laughed before turning to their significant others and nudging their elbows.
“My Matteo says he can part with me for a few days if we learn how to make your ribollita,” a woman wearing a cream colored blouse and white linen skirt said as she set the final bowl down in front of herself.
“Come any time, Giana.”
For a while, the conversations died down, a sign of good food I suppose, but soon, everyone wanted to know why I was visiting and what I had planned. I went over the basics, but there were quite adamant. It’s like they could sense a secret not being told.
“You’ll come see us, yes?” Giana asked after she set aside her bowl. “You must see the how the wine is made from your nonna’s grapes. It’s quite exciting, actually. If you give notice, we can have one of our sons give you a private tour. Lucca is normally quite busy with the paperwork, but he’s the most knowledgeable of the three.”
“How about tomorrow?” I said with a smile, not wanting to appear ungrateful. “Is that ok, Nonna?”
“Yes, of course. Enjoy yourself,” she said as she reached for my hand. “I’m glad you’re here.”
A warm breeze settled over us as my wine glass was refilled and the desserts were served. It appeared that the women were in charge of cookies because we had more types than I knew were even possible.
“Oh, try the shortbread cookies,” someone said toward the end of the table. “My mother’s recipe.”
“And mine too!” another brunette said, physically pushing the plate toward my end of the table. “Before the children get them all.”
“If I eat another bite, I’ll burst,” I whispered to Angelo, trying to see if he knew how to make it stop. I took a cookie from each plate, adding to the pile before me.
“That’s Italy for you. You should see my nonna. She even gets a hint that someone might visit, she prepares a full meal, no matter what time of day.”
“It isn’t always like this, is it?” I asked as I looked around.
People were laughing and joking about their children, who were all covered in spaghetti sauce and noshing on cookies like it was their life support. None of the parents scolded them for being messy and giggling and enjoying the evening out.
“Actually, this is pretty common,” he said with a shrug. “You know, you should stop by our olive grove. I’m sure it would make nonno happy.”
“I’ll have to pencil you into my schedule,” I said with a laugh. “It appears I have many new places to visit.”
“But none produce olive oil like my nonno.”
For a second, I swore he smiled, but then he was back to grumpy Angelo, brooding and staring off in the distance.
“Fine. You’ve worn me down with your enthusiasm,” I said as I watched a few of the others stand and gather their children. It was nearing nine, which meant that it was going to be someone’s bedtime really soon. Hell, it was my bedtime, but all the excitement was giving me just enough energy to say my goodbyes and confirm the days I’d be visiting.
“So tomorrow, yes?” Giana said before Euro air kissing me. I guess over here it was just air kissing. Funny how a plane ride changed everything.
“Yes, and I’m to ask for Lucca?”
Giana nodded before wrapping her arm around her husband’s.
“He’s a good boy. Works too hard, but he’s good,” Matteo said before excusing themselves to say farewell to Nonna.
“I should be leaving as well, but perhaps I’ll see you at the party tomorrow? Mirabella’s husband is one of our best buyers,” Angelo asked as I looked at the sky. We could actually see the stars.
“You know you don’t have to pretend to hate me,” I said as I nudged him. “I’m sure your nonno didn’t tell you, but I’m not looking for a husband. If we’re being completely honest, I was seeing someone who very well could have been the one for me, but he was moving too fast. So, don’t worry, ok? I didn’t take what your nonno said to heart.”
Angelo just shook his head as if to say I didn’t get it before giving me a soft smile.
“It’s not like that at all, Sophia. He did tell me. It’s why I’m being careful,” he said as he leaned in and kissed each of my cheeks ever so lightly. “He knows my type well.”
I froze for a moment, trying to recover. It was flattering to be thought of as his type, but the whole point of my trip was to be attachment free. It seemed like he could sense this, but I knew that mishandling the situation now would mean I’d lose the only semi-friend I’ve made so far.
“If it helps, I can be super mean to you for a while until you want nothing to do with me,” I said as I playfully pushed his shoulder. “See. Marriage-material women don’t shove. It’s completely rude of me.”
Angelo released one of his rare smiles before looking away.
“I should be going, but I’ll look for you tomorrow.”
“You better. I don’t want to be that person who knows no one but family.”
“Didn’t you hear Nonna Lucia? In Italy, everyone’s family.”