Before Our Flight Departs…

Here we go...into the wild blue yonder...

Before I tell you what “I Speak American” is all about, please indulge a brief intro:

If you’re reading this, you probably already know the gist of the story: David and I recently embarked on a 16-day tour of (mostly) Italy and (a petite bit) of France. We’d been saving for a “dream trip” for about five years, but it wasn’t until we hit the Delta flight voucher jackpot during an overbooking snafu at La Guardia last summer (Thanks, Mom & Dad!) that this trip started to become a reality.

David did all of the booking, and we had some great suggestions from friends (Many thanks to Gary and Jane Treater, Selena, and Bill). David left the additional planning to me. This was a tactical error. I mean, I did book us museum tickets, and looked into a few sightseeing details, but we all know that planning is not a skill I’d list on a resume. Neither would I describe myself as bilingual, or heaven forbid, trilingual. I’m just barely lingual!

That being said, let me explain the title of this blog. We had boarded our Air France flight from Atlanta to Paris, and the stewardess wheeled her cart up to welcome us with a glass of complimentary champagne (oh yeah, by the way, Air France ROCKS). So she leans over to me and says, “Parlez-vous francais?”

The sad thing is, I took four semesters of French in college. I know the proper response is close to “Je parle Anglaise.” I can even go plural — “Nous sommes parlons Anglaise.” Or negative — “Je ne parle pas Anglaise.” But at that moment, my mind blanked, and all I could verbalize was a panicked “I … speak … American…?”

I. Speak. American. Oh my God.

David chortled. I turned a painful shade of beet red. Our French seat-mate just rolled his eyes and went back to reading his Le Monde.

And this pretty much sums up our European travel experience. But despite our international hiccups, we prevailed. We ate some delicious food (eventually), figured out public transportation (sort of) and had some wonderful adventures together!

My mom gave me a travel journal, which to my surprise I completely filled up with reflections, notes, and stories from our trip. This blog features semi-edited excerpts from those notes, as well as just a sample of the beautiful pictures that David took. We hope you enjoy them both, and that they help paint a picture of our experiences. Oh, and please forgive my ramblings — sometimes I rant and wax poetic-ish. Ciao for now!

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Day 1, Florence: Are We in New York?

[Editor’s Note: I was too stupified by our flight and overwhelmed by the city to write in Florence. I recapped this on the ride to Naples.]
Our first day in Florence was a travel day, meaning that we had been up since 5 a.m. the day prior.  We arrived at noon, so that means we were up for how many hours? I took football math in college (along with my well-retained French) so I have no idea. Anyway, we got a taxi to our apartment, then headed out to explore the city and avoid the post-flight day-wasting crash.

Florence defied our expectations, in both positive and negative ways. First, our apartment. From the pictures on the internet, we were expecting a tiny terrace, if at all. Instead we got, amazing views, vine covered trellises, red brick pavers, window boxes and planters filled with color.

Our Florence Apartment Terrace

Josh doing some yoga on the terrace.

It was definitely our oasis in the middle of chaos.  I say chaos because that’s how it felt.  Imagine the frantic pace and drive of the New York Streets — combine that with the condensed feel of Charleston & New Orleans, then up the ante by throwing in a foreign language (or 12) and thousands of Euroteens on holiday.  Oh, and add Vespas, careening cars, and cyclists.  Let’s just say that Florence should not be described as peaceful.  That being said, it was not without it’s merits — and major ones at that.

First and foremost — the Duomo.

Big Red, Herself!

It’s absolutely incredible in person.  Stepping out of our doorway was like arriving at the bottom of a canyon, with walls made of four story palazzos.  But peering down the canyon, where you’d expect to see a bright splinter of blue sky, instead looms the Duomo in all its red-tiled glory.  Seriously, that sucker is HUGE!  We’d be meandering down side streets, turn a corner, and WHAM!  There’d be the Duomo, rising in front of us like some theatrical parody of the moon.  I totally gasped every time I saw it.  I will never forget that.

You can't see it real well, but you get the idea.

If I recall correctly, our first foray into Florence involved stopping at a supermarket to buy some snacks.  Hello language barrier.  My altercation at the deli counter was a perfect Squirrel storm of communication dysfunction.  The language barrier and metric system combined in a magnificent clusterfuck that resulted in me leaving with well over a pound of mystery cheese.  At least it turned out to taste good.  We retreated back to the terrace to enjoy our spoils, which included a $3 bottle of Prosecco (WORD!), foccacia, Sicilian tomatoes and some meats.

Recovering from the flight.

A room with a view.

Our resting spot.

Needless to say a nap was on the horizon.  I think we slept for 2 hours then got up to find dinner.  We tried in vain to find a restaurant recommended by our apartment guy, Emanuelle, but we were unsuccessful.  Finally, hungry and tired we parked ourselves at a street-side ristorante to eat.

I can’t recall the menu but I do remember ordering mussels.  Not sure what kind of Ambien-haze I was in thinking that mussels would be good in land-locked Florence but they were wretched. David ordered best, his lasagna was delicious.  I panic-ordered risotto with porcini mushrooms — delicious — cooked absolutely perfectly, but lacking in punch and texture.  Not awful, just not awe inspiring.  I chalked it up to panic and jet-lag.  After dinner we made our way to the Duomo, which was awe inspiring, especially at night with its red roof muted but fantastically up-lit.  I’ll say this about the Italians, there may be poop in the street and chaos around every corner but they do know how to up-light a church.

Nighttime wine and Peroni on the terrace, then off to bed with our windows open to the terrace and the sounds of the night. Make that cacophony of the night.  We forgot about the Irish pub downstairs.  Cobblestone streets + stone buildings = megaphone.  Fortunately we were so tired it hardly mattered.

Florence, Day 2: Culture and Chaos!

We awoke the next morning with a pre-set agenda.  I reserved tickets for us to the Uffizi Gallery (home of room after room of medieval art including several Boticellis) and The Arcademia, home of Michaelangelo’s “David.”

Josh outside the Uffizi

The Uffizi Gallery was fantastic, totally worth doing, if a bit redundant in there. [David: “Oooh, another ‘Adoration of the Magi’, look there’s another ‘Annunciation’.] But what really impressed us was the David [David Brothers would say, ‘Well of course you’re impressed…it’s called “David”’]

David replica outside the Uffizi...no photos allowed of the original.

Seriously though, it’s so big, so much bigger than I had imagined. Feet, legs, hands, arms, torso, face — all in such detail, from one block of stone. Unfathomable. The delicate veins in his lower hand and bicep were some of the most arresting details. And the sling that he’s holding in his left hand? It goes all the way down his back. Who knew? I just circled and circled until I got a little dizzy and David B was starting to get jealous. 😉 Magnificent.

After viewing the David, we headed back to the Duomo, where David suggested we go inside. The line was HUGE, and I was hesitant, but it seemed to be moving fast so we stuck with it.Less than ten minutes later, we were inside, and the views were stunning. We admired the sunlight streaming through the windows, quietly marveling at the beauty of the space.

"Quicker than a ray of light she's flying."

This is where I lit my first candles…one for David’s mom, one for mine (many others came later).

Josh lighting candles for every woman in his life.

Outside again, we decided to climb the adjoining bell tower.

The view from the bottom.

OMG…what a climb! Tiny, tiny corridors, barely wide enough for two-way traffic — that’s with one person climbing, the other plastered against the wall.

Italian Stairmaster

Level after level, winding stone stairs, a little stinky from all the Euroteens on holiday…but so worth the breathless ascent. Panoramic views of all of Florence…a sea of red-tiled roofs flowing out below.

The view from the top.

After we made it back down we headed over to the other major Florentine landmark, the Santa Croce church.

Santa Croce

Another beautiful and imposing church.  We had a great view of this church from our apartment terrace.

View from our apartment's terrace.

The inside didn’t disappoint either.

Santa Croce

After our city tour and a brief respite on the terrace, it was off to find the best dinner in Florence. We were so excited…

Ready for some grub!

The Worst Meal in Italy

Dinner that night — [sigh] — I’m sad to report that it was a fiasco from start to finish! The good thing is that it was so bad it was comical and we had a good laugh about it. We had set out to once again find the restaurant our apartment guide recommended. FAIL. Starving, we settled on a place tucked down a quiet street, with nice, flickering lanterns and great outdoor seating. It looked promising, and our waitress spoke great English, so we were ready for a fantastic meal.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

First, she brought out the bread. I call it bread because it looked like bread, and was served in a basket like bread often is. But this was no normal bread. This was the stalest bread in the entire history of baking. It’s perfectly plausible that this bread was baked during the Middle Ages, sliced during the Renaissance, then served to us 700 years later. Even an obscene dousing with olive oil couldn’t resuscitate the stuff. But we choked it down (like a snake trying to swallow a gopher) because we were starving. The waitress brought our  bottle of prossecco (Yay!!!) which didn’t pop when she opened it (Boo!!!). Normally, this is a cause for immediate concern, but she acted like nothing was amiss. David  and I exchanged a concerned glance, but we decided to follow her lead. Until we tasted it. One sip, and it was obviously flat. After a short debate, we decided to bring it to her attention. This however, turned out to be a two-fold agony, since A) I hate doing that kind of thing in the States, much less where I don’t speak the language, and B) we couldn’t very well drink any more of the prosseco if we were sending it back, so there was no assistance easing down the bread boulders lodged in our esophogi.

Thankfully, she was very apologetic, had another waiter bring a new bottle, which he opened and kind of slammed down into the holder. By the way, that one was flat, too, but we didn’t say anything, because what do you do at that point?

Our appetizer was good, spinach and ricotta gnuddi (I don’t know if it was really good or if we were just thankful for something soft to chew). As for the main course, I think I had some kind of a wild boar Bolognese…I can’t recall. David had veal, which was not what he ordered, but by then the whole thing had  become a black comedy.

The highlight of the evening was a trip to their restroom, via a glass-walled elevator tucked next to their kitchen. You actually had to hold the button down to lower yourself. When I got back and reported this to David, he asked, “Are you sure you weren’t in the dumbwaiter?” To this day, I’m still not sure.

Florence: More Churches!

Our next day in Florence was definitely more low-key. I finally got my nerve up to venture downstairs and have a cappuccino, which was a fun and completely different experience from strolling into Starbucks (which is ironic, because Starbucks was inspired by Italian coffee shops). In America, we are so solitary. We get our food, go to our tables, sit down and do our thing. Not in Italy. Here you drink your coffee right at the bar where they make it, standing up, with strangers packed in on both sides of you. Definitely different.

We did some more sightseeing today, more churches, a palazzo or two. I lit some more candles, for Jen and SuSu this time, and extra one for David’s mom because they were traveling.

I'm not sure if he has a really big heart or just likes to play with fire.

We crossed over the River Arno and tromped up about 87,000 stairs up the side of a hill and we rewarded for our efforts with a fantastic view of Florence.

Another day of stairs!

Florence

I think we were at the Michelangelo Piazza? We had a another lackluster lunch…pizza this time. But we soon added another rule to the Italian Dining Handbook: If there’s a view, that’s what you’re paying for. 😉

Back across the Arno, this time via the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge bedecked with jewelry shops and gelato parlors.

The Ponte Vecchio

After that hike, we decided to take a break back at our apartment. I managed to get in a few yoga stretches, which was nice after all the walking and traveling.

Ahhhhhh tranquility.

Meanwhile David was able to work in some of his post-exercise stretching, as well.

Dinner time again. We gave up on the fabled restaurant and decided to go in-search-of Giubbe Russe, the restaurant where our friends Selena and Nathan celebrated after their wedding. We had spotted it earlier, so we felt pretty confident about getting back there, which we finally did. The food was definitely better than our previous night’s dinner debacle, but still not quite what we were expecting in Florence. Of course, we could have been ordering wrong, but regardless, it was definitely much better!

We ended the night like we did most in Italy, a little more vino, and a nice gelato nightcap.

Tired Squirrel

Florence, Day 3: Peace Out, Flo!

The trek to find a taxi begins...

Though frankly terrified by the prospect of driving in Italy — seriously, David couldn’t eat, bless him — we were ready to evacuate Florence. A cab ride to the airport did little to ease our nerves, as we witnessed first hand the chaos of the streets. Our driver actually hit someone on a moped, and just kept on going. Yeah, terrified is not an exaggeration. After ramming the language barrier (and very nearly crashing into the rental  car gate barrier), we got underway.

OMG we are totally about to drive in a foreign country!

After several false starts with the GPS (Kevin, from Australia), we made it out and on to the “interstate.” After that, it really wasn’t that bad. We got lost once (probably more my fault than Kevin’s) but otherwise we made it safe and sound to our destination in the Tuscan countryside. So if you want to know how the driving was in Italy, we can say (or David can, because I was just a passenger) that it wasn’t that bad. In the country. Cities, on the other hand, are a different beast altogether.

I am officially the WORST navigator EVER.

On a side note, we stopped at an Italian gas station, where we marveled at their plus-sized sweets.

That's a sucker. Not me, the lollipop, fool!

And folks say America’s got all the fat kids.

Tuscany: Bliss at the Borgo Argenina

[Editor’s Note: The following words are the first I wrote in my travel journal. I didn’t even think about writing in Florence — there was too much going on. But after less than 10 minutes at the farmhouse, I felt compelled to write. This is when I really connected with where I was. These words reflect my experience in real time. This is what I warned about earlier when I alluded to poetic waxing. Normally I wouldn’t share it cause it’s too much, like a cupcake with a three-inch frosting hat. But this place took away all my wit and sarcasm, leaving me reflective.]

After three days in Florence it feels like we’re in another world.  Florence was like an Italian New York City – full of hustle, bustle and noise.  Here, as I sit perched on a stone ledge outside our “Piccolo Villa” on a Tuscan hillside, all I can hear is the wind rushing through the cedars, the droning buzz of bumblebees, and the occasional hoot of what can only be a cuckoo bird. It definitely sounds like one, at least.

It’s warm here — probably around 70 degrees — and the sun is bright but kind. From my perch I can see countless rows of vineyard grape vines just beginning to leaf.  Fairly young vines, from the look of them, with tiny green leaves clustered in tight petite bundles.

The courtyard outside our villa is half walled with old stone and a lone tree rises from the center.   Two lounges wait to be sat in, as do two café chairs with their accompanying table.  Even though it’s just barely spring, the Borgo Argenina is surrounded by green and growing things.

Piccolo Villa

In the garden on the hill above us, rows of thyme, lavender, rosemary and oregano are already growing while freshly tilled earth awaits more plants. I mentioned the bumblebees — they’re excited about the wisteria, which is hanging like bright lavender grapes from almost every trellis.  It’s almost like it’s taunting the stark grape vines on the hills below.

Wisteria

I’ve already met 2 dogs and 1½ cats — the ½ because I just saw him but have not pet him yet.  This is a truly magical place.