Squawk Radio

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


So...here I am in Florence. My husband's Italian, and this is my fourteenth summer in Florence, not counting a semester or two spent here thrown in the mix: nothing about it should be alien, right? We make our way through the Parisian airport, tracing the same path from one terminal to the other every summer. My children greet each step of the way with ecstacy. "No, mama, we go to D2," they cry, dancing in front of the TV screen when their poor tired parents take too long to find the flight from Paris to Florence. "It's always D2!". Well, geez. Who would remember that? But to them, having made this trip to Nonna's house in Florence every year of their life, it's unimaginable that I would be confused at any moment.

We arrive at my mother-in-law's apartment to the sound of much rejoicing. She has everyone's favorite food ready. The dog has gained weight; otherwise everything is exactly as it has been. The children tear from room to room, re-discovering their forgotten toys.

So what's alien about it? That's the odd thing: the more years I go to Florence, and the more affectionate I grow about this scruffy, lovely city, the more I notice how incredibly alien the culture is in small ways. It's not just that my mother-in-law puts out wine at lunch and would be a) surprised and b) rather displeased if adults didn't have a glass or two. It's not just that MacDonalds serves wine too. It's the little things.

When we landed at the airport for example, there's the control tower. But the Florence control tower is topped by an enormous soccer ball -- a fitting symbol of the national obsession: not, as in America, with safety, but with soccer.

We went out for gelato, or ice cream, after dinner. Sure, we get Italian ices, or gelato, in the US. We might buy a lemon flavor, or chocolate. But in Italy, gelato is made by small neighborhood gelaterias. Their ice cream isn't delivered in big trucks: they make it by hand. Any given day they offer perhaps forty flavors. Sure, there's a lemon one. But you know what was most popular last night? Rice flavor. I watched the crowd. Rice, and then melon. My husband got Vin Santo, which is flavored by the sweet sacrimental wine they serve at Catholic communions. My daughter got "After Eight" -- you guessed. Probably to the surprise of the Nabisco Corporation, this ice cream is made with After Eight mints.

One final example: we went home after ice cream and leaned out the balcony. Down below us and across the road, the triperia was going great guns. All the 20-year-old males were out there, flexing their muscles (and their mopeds), while girls roamed around wearing garments that resembled bras with about half the fabric. The little shack was surrounded by chairs -- and every one was taken up by a beautiful, hip young Italian (and sometimes I think there is no nationality quite so beautiful). Triperia, you ask? Tripe. This hip hangout makes sandwiches with TRIPE. Look that one up, if you don't know...

Alien culture? I think so!

Who else has an example of a foreign country with a little alien custom that you noticed and never forgot?
Eloisa James, 10:09 AM