The elevator started in the basement, in a bland, white-walled newly-renovated hallway that made it seem like a secret garden portal if you knew what was waiting at the top.
Once when I waited for the elevator, it opened and a pile of giggling German teenagers flooded out of it, immediately embarrassed they had an audience to the end of their silly stunt of piling way too many of them inside. They slid around me in hushed tones and burst into laughter again as they ran toward their tour guide.
Normally, though, it’s empty, as it was today, and I stepped in and pushed the fancy-schmancy touch screen button and stood in the metal box. One of the few moments of city life where nothing else exists. No noise outside the window. No echo through the floor. Alone in the quiet.
Then the doors open on the opposite side, and the panoramic valley of Florence reveals itself as the doors slowly open and throw you into a view out of a storybook. The rust-red terracotta rooftops flood the valley, and the Synagogue with its blue-green dome stands prominently in the sun. The mountains rise up in the distance – so clear today that you can see their olive groves shining silver against the green landscape.
I walk the wooden ramp up to the bar. Out behind the glassed-in terrace, people sit at the outdoor tables enjoying the view and glasses full of Spritz. It looks like a graduation or maybe an office get-together. The bartender is pouring two more as I walk up to the counter. He offers a “Sera” as he pours. I patiently wait until he’s finished, and then he looks up and asks me what I would like in English.
I asked for a macchiato, saying it in Italian, more because there’s only one way to say “macchiato,” (the literal translation would be “spotted” and if explained, it’s an espresso with a dash of foamed milk).
“Would you like to have it at the counter or at the table?” He asked, switching into Italian. I told him I’d be quick and would just have it at the table. The waiter came up to take the drinks the bartender had made before and I counted out my change to pay for my coffee.
I looked back toward the Duomo looming over the side of the rooftop bar. The tower of Palazzo Vecchio shot into the sky to the left. The Piazzale spread out in its greenery above the San Niccolo neighborhood. This is a view fit for a king, even more so because it’s almost always quiet. Calm. Senza Turisti.
I turned back to a big (for an espresso) beautiful ceramic cup of coffee with perfect foam, thanked the bartender, and turned to get a packet of sugar, and that’s when he felt the need to say it – meaning he must have been musing over this for the two or three minutes it took to make my macchiato.
“I’m very sorry I spoke to you in English,” he said and started to explain. I cut him off, assuring him he hadn’t made a terrible mistake. The horror of speaking English and “assuming” an Italian was a foreigner is common. I guess to some it’d be rude, think about being spoken to in a foreign language right in your own neighborhood. Thankfully, I save everyone from their embarrassment with my truth, and if anything, it’s a compliment for me. My Italian face Rami and I see it a lot and if we’re interchanging languages while out, most waiters, etc don’t ever know what to do with us.
He laughed. “Ahhh, allora” he switched to Italian again. “But you speak well? Do you work here?” Speaking Italian already crossed “student” off of his list of guesses. I briefly ran through my history. He asks where I’m from (Boston – Sometimes people know it, he seemed to. If they don’t, I live “north of New York). I’ve lived in Florence for seven years now.
“Seven years! Then you’re just Italian!” He bellows and throws open his arms. I thank him again for the coffee as I say goodbye to him and the waiter.
“Alla prossima!” He yelled out after me. Not goodbye, until the next time. It is my neighborhood. I’m Italian enough to be a regular now.