Every Wednesday afternoon for the past few months, I’ve ridden my bike from my house down to Piazza San Marco – famous in Florence for being a bus hub and where the mayor cut down all of the trees last year (because they were “dangerous”) and made Florentines extremely angry. I park my bike by the church, walk across the piazza now filled with roses instead of trees, and into Pugi – the best bakery for schiacciata bread in town.
I fell in love with schiacciata once I met Rami and his parents would bake their own for lunch at their house. It’s a really simple bread to make, looking mostly like pizza dough without toppings, and it’s buttery, and salty, and melts in your mouth. I wait my turn at the counter and the girl quickly slices off a small piece of the large, flat “loaf” that has usually just been taken out of the oven. She wraps it in a cute little bag and hands it over (another one of my favorite Italian mannerisms – everything is packaged beautifully – from medicines at the pharmacy to decadent cakes from the pastry shops and everything in between). I never spend more than a Euro or two.
With the break tucked into my bag, walk through the crowds of Italians and tourists waiting for buses, past the building of the Accademia that holds Michelangelo’s David as it’s centerpiece, and down Via Battisti to Piazza Annunziata. If I’m early, I’ll sit under the Roman archways that Brunelleschi designed after studying the ruins of Rome – bringing back an incredible asset of architecture that was almost lost in history. Here is where you can people-watch forever. Recently, my favorites have been the young Asian couples normally on an engagement shoot, I’m assuming, from their beautiful outfits and carefree nature. The photographers always place them in the same spot – the gorgeous piazza surrounding them and the picture-framed Duomo sitting in the background at the end of the street.
When it’s time, I cross the open expanse, past the two fountains spurting water out of mouths of the strangest looking creatures, and under the shadow of the bronze statue of another Medici: Ferdinando I, as he sits on horseback, facing the Duomo rising above the city.
I am heading into the Istituto degli Innocenti. Originally a children’s hospital in the 14th century, it has always been dedicated to the children – also working as an active orphanage for years. It has a museum inside containing the “Marks of Recognition” or the little trinkets or pieces of jewelry that parents would leave with their babies as they left them at the orphanage – hoping that they would have some way of eventually returning and finding their children.
Instead of a museum visit, I leave my ID at the front desk and walk through the courtyards to the back garden – where I grab the folded-up stroller and head to the second floor Nido, or nursery, which is entirely renovated and one of the cutest little places I’ve seen. I’m picking up Giulio, our friends’ little boy that will turn two this summer.
Once I pick him from the classroom, we head back down to the stroller, and I give him his after-school snack I had picked up earlier. No fruit roll-ups or frozen pizza-bagels here, guys – these kids get freshly baked bread or pizza or something else delicious. He munches along happily as I push the stroller out of the piazza (of course, not before always WHOOSHing down the exit ramp at top speed – a highlight to the ride home) and down the sidewalk another few blocks to home in the neighborhood that is known for the Jewish Synagogue – one of the largest in Europe.
In the hours I spend with this little man, I am doing more than babysitting. We’re learning from each other – and its tiring, and awesome, and frustrating, and incredible all at the same time.
I speak a garbage mix of Italian and English when I’m with him. The Italian to get his attention – the English to follow up so he get’s used to it. Sometimes I still can’t explain myself to him in Italian (the mastery of all the words to explain why we don’t throw dirt evades me) so sometimes I hope the intonation in English is enough. When we go to the park, he is scared of the big kids. I am scared of speaking at length with other parents. We cling to each other like antisocial best friends at first that have made up our own secret language, but eventually, I’ll make it into a conversation, and he will muster up enough courage to take turns on the slide with the other bambini.
Sometimes we get along great, like when we walk down the street and I ask him colors of things. He’ll respond in Italian, sometimes. Other times he’ll make up a word, wrinkle his nose and giggle because he knows it makes me laugh. Other days, when I try to get him to actually say “si” or “no” in response to a question, he gets upset, frustrated that hand-signals aren’t being accepted, and starts to cry, and I want to cry with him because I know the feeling of being pushed to speak before you’re ready – I just wish people would’ve accepted little hums and meeps as response in the past few years I’ve been learning Italian – it would’ve made things much easier.
A lot of the time, when I know he’s tired, or I am, we don’t speak with words, but we do with our hands, and our actions, and we’ll dance around the living room and build up blocks and push them down and color with the redrosso crayon and then the blueblu one and then the yellowgiallo and we learn (If you haven’t caught on, colors are a big theme we have going).
Sometimes I have to ask him something three times – because the first time I can hear that I conjugate the verb wrong, and then I didn’t make something else plural, but he doesn’t care as I fumble over myself to have a very one-sided conversation – he just tells me what he wants in our own little language we’re developing, of faces and smiles and hand motions. We will sit on the couch and I read to him from his books, and I don’t even feel embarrassed when I can’t pronounce a word right the first time – he doesn’t care – so while he’s listening to me stumble through the pages, I practice my pronunciation – away from the world of judgement, comfortably mumbling through my own language lesson with a two-year-old professor that graciously doesn’t make a face when I mess up, as long as I don’t turn the pages too fast.
I know that this time is short – this moment when we’re on the same page linguistically, and soon I’m sure he’ll be correcting Zia (Auntie) Lisa when I forget how to say something right. But for the moment, we’re doing pretty ok just the two of us, in our own little language, me stumbling through Italian, and he just trying to get the words out.