A Café in Florence
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A Café in Florence

Looking up through the tight, tan-colored canyon walls of the ancient houses of Florence …

, you could see a slice of the cold, late-winter sky. This, I thought, is why Italy is for designers, the blue and gold of the houses and sky look to be plucked deliberately from the color wheel. Here in Tuscany, design and beauty just … are.

My eyes were brought back to the street by the urgent, demanding roar of a scooter, Impossibly loud and stern between the tight walls, this silver missile blasted down the slick cobblestones. A trim woman in her forties stared through the windscreen of the bike, on through me and out into the distance as she roared past. Her commanding demeanor matched the shout of the bike’s exhaust as she scattered pedestrians with a squeeze of the throttle.

To my left was a rough, mustard-colored wall dotted with the ubiquitous green shutters of central Italy. I wondered who had the contract to make these metal shutters found on seemingly every old house in the country. This must be an absolute empire of business if someone was able to lock down the patent.

To my right stood the austere, floor to ceiling glass wall of a bustling café. The smooth, modern facade would suggest an art gallery in the States or maybe a high-end clothing store, but here in Firenze it is a café. The long table inside the black-framed windows was dotted with tousled, nervous beings who seemed already too twitchy to need any more caffeine.

These were the students.

Deeper in the shadows you could see the curt, busy movements of the baristas. They carried out the tasks of the morning with fluidity and expertise suggesting they had no feeling of their movements … their bodies were doing the job on their own. All mental effort was reserved for a perfect, delicate disdain of the students.

Here, tucked away on the Via dello Sprone were the girls rich families sent to college back in the States. They were sent to school for fashion design or architecture, maybe against the pragmatic, fiscally-minded wishes of their parents. The colleges then sent the girls on to Italy to study abroad for a semester. Even with Facebook and Instagram, those parents back in Ohio or California have no idea what the day-to-day life of their daughters looks like.

I felt almost like an intruder. I had stumbled on a surprisingly intimate view of these young students having their once-in-a-lifetime moment across the world. I thought of all the parents who would trade places with me for just a moment just to make sure their kids were really ok. They had held back reservations and let their precious children tell them it will be fine and safe … it is only one semester, anyway.

Neither the students nor the barista’s noticed me. I am not of particular interest to either set. I approached the bar and tried to order in something that seems like Italian. The barista locked eyes and gave me a slight smile of gratitude and recognition. She asked loudly if I wanted it for here or portare via. She spoke hopefully in Italian, almost daring me to have learned more than the word “macchiato.” I nodded and said I would take it here. I pointed hopefully at a pastry. “e anche quello?” It was likely a painful butchery, but she smiled and retrieved the tantalizing morning treat from the case.

The inside of Ditta Artigionalle was dark and comforting in that most Italian way. It was all comfy chairs and elegant lighting and sudden hard edges of stone and black painted steel. This seems to be Italy in its spirit, though. Dignity blended with confusion. Love and art draped over old stones. Hospitality backed by a hard edge,

Upstairs the students, like little birds, nested in tiny circles of chairs and oversized hoodies. Piles of papers like autumn leaves covered the small tables. Each group seemed to have one German or Dutch girl added in. These were usually the serious ones who typed at laptops and looked a little tired while everyone else talked. I settled into a corner bench and moments later my macchiato arrived with the pastry. Grazie, grazie mille.

I opened my laptop to start a morning’s work. This was one of the only cafes near the Pitti Palace where you can sit at leisure. The other bars and cafes in the area were, in true Italian fashion, for grabbing the espresso as it was meant to be … a pause, a light laugh at a dark joke with a friend, a moment standing at the bar and then back to your day … in those cafes it is just an instant in the warm, fragrant smell of coffee and the hissing steam of the espresso machine. Just a bit of the pounding of the coffee grounds and the clink of tiny mugs on saucers. Then comes the clack of a single euro hitting flat on the bar and you are back out in the brisk, damp air while your feet take in all the subtle angles of the cobblestones.

No, this cafe was different. Here they had come to tolerate the students and their long mornings over one espresso and a shared sandwich for the table. Here the girls ask each other if anyone has money left for this weekend, somehow penniless yet brought here by such a tremendous outlay of wealth.

I watched the harried waiter scavenge for empty plates. He cleaned the tables regularly in a futile attempt to goad the little flocks of students into flying away, but his efforts had no effect. The girls were buried in their phones and piles of drawings of buildings or pant suits they would show to their professors on Monday.

Through the open windows behind me the buzz of motorcycles and the gentle rustle of conversation rose from the street below. The waiter came by on his rounds and I ordered another macchiato and a bottle of sparkling water. The water came with its tiny glass, which I filled once to wash down the aftertaste of bothersome emails.

Eventually the girls shouldered their enormous backpacks and swarmed like starlings down the stairs and into the street below. It was time for me to move on as well. My tiny espresso cup sat empty, and the water bottle would go with me in my bag as I headed off to find somewhere to buy focaccia on my way home for lunch.