In Florence, a legacy of learning extends to the modern day
Florence, Italy

In Florence, a legacy of learning extends to the modern day

Book author and Emmy-winning producer Stef Ferrari recounts her time living in Florence as an expat and writer.

Editor’s Note: This story is published in The Florence Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our exclusive newspaper for Life & Thyme members. Get your copy.

Florence, Italy, is the birthplace of the Italian language, the heart of the Renaissance, and a fundamental location in the evolution of learning in general. In ways, one could argue that is the very fount from which much of human creativity, intelligence and beauty has sprung. 

Packed into the city’s quartieri, there are enough masterpieces to make a case that the Tuscan capital is not only the seat of global art and architecture, but that its legacy has also given us modern science and business. We have Galileo to thank for our understanding of stars, Petrarch for indelible poetry, Ferragamo for our fashion sense, and even banking and the origins of money can be traced back to the Medici family. 

Le bellezze—the beautiesof Florence are so abundant, it is impossible to communicate them in the many volumes written over the centuries, or contain them within the city’s medieval walls. But despite the sprawling palazzi and the snaking Arno river, the mixture of architecture and influences from Greek and Roman antiquity combined with an appreciation for modern street art, it may be that the city’s inherent sense of curiosity, its interest in the future, and reverence for the capabilities and compassion of humanity that are most captivating. 

Then again, it could also be the steak. (Or the gelato, or the pizza, or the pici pasta.)

I always knew I’d live in Italy at some point in my life. I was born Italian-American, and have family there. Prior to the pandemic, I was visiting several times per year—and I didn’t just love Italy; I felt at one with it. It is, and always has been, a part of me. I was committed to loving it well, and like the best lovers, I didn’t just want to live in Italy, I wanted to learn Italy. And learn from it. 

Although my ancestors hail from a touch further south in Lazio (the region that claims Rome), my connection to Florence was deeper than good food and gorgeous vistas. When I first set foot on Via Cavour almost twenty years ago, it was, as Italians say, un colpo di fulmine. A stroke of lightning. But I don’t want to imply that my connection to the city was cobblestone-deep or simply chemistry—a sparkle and fade. What I felt was deeper. It was intellectual, which for me is always an indicator of a much more durable love affair. It was a feeling in the bones of the city, one I credit to a spirit of curiosity, discovery and exploration. It is a feeling that is present today thanks to the many universities that have campuses within the city—not to mention the cultural landmarks that play host to tourists and culture-seekers every day.

Instead of simply moving to Florence and continuing my life as a freelance American journalist, I decided to engage in the Florentine tradition of learning, to connect with this place in a way that felt in line with its legacy. I enrolled in Istituto Lorenzo de Medici in the city center. I took Italian literature and mythology. I took philosophy and Florentine history. I took drawing and design classes. Those were lessons for which I paid and took notes, the ones for which I had a syllabus and a sense of expectation. 

What I didn’t expect, however, was to learn a recipe for pappa al pomodoro from my language teacher, Beatrice. Or to sit at a table, trying to engage with fellow students from all over the world, when the only words we had in common were in a language foreign to us all. I learned what it meant to be an outsider. The isolation of not having access to my own language. I learned new cultural rules and foreign laws (sometimes the hard way). I learned the frustration of unfamiliar bureaucracy related to everything from securing a visa to collecting the mail. 

I learned to be lonely in a whole new way. Which is why, in the moments when I was welcomed into homes and restaurants, I was humbled by Italian hospitality. I learned the significance of family to this culture, and in myself, too—how deeply the people in my own life factored into my daily sense of joy and happiness, contentment and ease. 

In Florence, I learned so much more than I bargained for. I learned about history and human endurance. I learned how to treat other humans with kindness and generosity. I learned what it is to be holistic, and to be whole. Florence taught me to follow my instincts (in the streets, in the classroom, and in the kitchen), my curiosity, as well as my heart.

Which is why I ultimately left. Italy taught me about priorities. It taught me that even the most transcendent pizza is most memorable when you can share—and that above all, friends, family and love are the pillars of a good life. I took those lessons home with me, and have resolved to live by those philosophies and return regularly. 

Above all, Florence was a place where I did magical thinking. I often say I may never be able to recapture the feelings of those first weeks and months in Florence, when I was electrified by the new, humbled by the old, and invigorated by the novel all flooding my brain, drenching my receptors in so much awe it was impossible to process. 

So instead, I journaled. And I’m choosing to revisit the experience in real time here. The following are journal entries and letter excerpts from my first year in Florence—a window into the recent past as I experienced this historic city as a resident for the first time, on the many subjects of life. 

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On Architecture

I live in my absolute heaven. This apartment was made for me. It is spartan and functional and uncluttered, all of which is extremely conducive to writing and learning, in my opinion. And the building sitting just over my shoulder, which, thanks to my friend Brunelleschi, is in full view from my balcony.

On Multi-Disciplinary Learning

I wish you were here so I could tell you all about what I’m learning, about philosophy and the gods and monsters of Roman mythology, or the insane depth of history. I’m doing well in school considering it’s very different “work” than I’m used to. I exercise muscles I haven’t used in ages. Yesterday, I gave an oral presentation to my history class on Caterina de Medici. I can’t remember the last time I presented anything academic. I got a 92 and I’m happy with that. It was my second presentation this week. The first was a group project for mythology on Medea.

On Climate

It’s a gorgeous morning and I’m looking out at “le nuvole” (the clouds) in the very blue sky. Fall here has been utterly spectacular. October rained a bit more than I think people would have liked, but there’s a phenomenon here called San Martino which is similar to our second summer.

On Perspective and Awe

Living in Florence, a city that has seen 2,000 years of famine and war and biblical floods and political upheavals and terrorism and yes, plagues, it is evident that people here do not need to read philosophical texts to know they need to live in the moment. No one talks about next week or next month, let alone next year or ten years from now. No one plans for what they’ll cook next weekend, because how could you possibly know what ingredients you’ll be able to get? There’s never a guarantee that if you buy blood oranges today, you’ll be able to get them tomorrow. In fact, your fruit vendor may not even still be there by then. They might decide to retire, or take the month off (a phenomenon that happens with a regularity that would horrify the American capitalist sensibility), they might die. Hell, you might die. So the lesson is this: best to eat the blood oranges today.

School is soothing for me, even when it’s stressful. It gives me perspective, hope, inspiration. Today, I had an interesting lecture in my Grand Tour class, the gist of which is to understand Italy through the eyes of her visitors, and to understand how notions (and stereotypes) of Italy came to be. We read Goethe, but now we’re onto Stendhal, whose memory encourages a conversation about Romanticism. Florence was considered to be the “crown of the Middle Ages.” The realists preferred the Age of Enlightenment—steeped in logic and reason. Romantics like Stendhal, on the other hand, were more taken by Medieval eras, before science and fact stripped the world of its mysticism and emotion. For them, Florence—with so much profound literature (Dante, Petrarch) and architecture (in particular, Santa Croce), were products of the so-called Dark Ages. The advent of Romanticism changed the course of travel culture and the itinerary of the Grand Tour, and made Florence a much more desirable destination.

The idea of Romanticism fascinates me—that, in a way, a degree of ignorance can liberate emotion in a positive, stimulating way. To not know opens us to a sense of awe. Wonder. Curiosity.

On Technology and Unplugging

Here in Florence, I have become a technological hermit. Disconnecting has allowed me to live more, thrill in the mundane. On the cobblestones where I’m currently sitting, some broken glass is scattered. Probably left from someone’s aperitivo last night. There’s the temperature swing, which in Florence is violent. In the shade, I need a down jacket, a scarf, gloves and a hat. When I get to my destination on a sunny day, it all gets ripped off and tossed into a pile and I sweat in a t-shirt. I sit and disrobe and am acutely aware of how long it’ll be until I have to move to follow the warmth, always chasing the light. If it becomes too chilly for a gelato (never), there’s always a cioccolata calda, which is a gift from gods—the darkest chocolate imaginable thickened with starch to the point where you can stand a spoon in it. Buried in whipped cream. Basically, it’s hot pudding.

On Humanity

You’d love it here. The art, the history, the food, the confluence of it all embodied by human beings who, for the most part, genuinely seem to want to make you happy, even if you’re a stranger. There’s Daniela, my fruit lady (also my vegetable lady, I suppose, but that’s less fun to say). Her daughter, Marina, is in school for philosophy but helps her mother at their alleyway stand. There’s Christian, who runs a storefront selling the products from his family’s farm, including, but not limited to: olive oil so fresh it’ll make you cough, sneeze, then cry tears of joy, chianti and rosé, and “vino sfuso” (table wines for which you bring your own bottle and he fills fresh for around three euro), cured meats and hard, crumbly cheeses, loose eggs, apples the size of a softball or a key lime, depending on the day, honey, fresh bread, handmade spinach ravioli, and just because nothing in this country is waste, soaps, shampoos, and chapsticks made with their olive oil. One-stop shop, in a space the size of a closet.

Let’s not forget Roberta, who makes my macchiato before class on Thursday, or Romeo who provides a Saturday spritz and chips by the Arno. Perhaps my most recent favorite new friend is Davide, who makes, hands-down, the best negroni variations I’ve had in my life. I love each of his creations, although sometimes I don’t remember every sip.

Don’t worry, not all is Italian. I’ve eaten excellent sushi, and last week was introduced to a woman who hand-forms fresh bao buns (chicken, pork or eggplant) and sells them out of the back of her van for one euro apiece. She deserves an audience that would shower her with cash and adoration for these things, or at least $6 to $8 each like we’d pay in New York or L.A. What is rarely discussed when one thinks about Italy is the diversity within its borders.

On Philosophy

I started reading Seneca, and became obsessed with philosophy. He talked about time, how we always say we don’t have enough of it, when in reality we have plenty—we just don’t use it wisely. He is especially critical of putting off things we want to do. No one asks me what I plan to do here, how long I plan to stay, or what I do “for a living.” They don’t expect me to know. After 35 years trying to answer that question, it’s liberating.

On Happiness

I love my life, the whole of it. I love getting older, in general, and I’m happy I get to draw on my experiences to make sure I make the most out of this one in front of me.

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