The ritual begins every evening when Alessandra gets home from work. It’s sometime between 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock when the lock of the front door clicks twice, announcing her arrival. “Ciao, my girls!” her voice rings out, its distinctively resonant Italian timbre infused with British formality leftover from time spent in England. From our respective bedrooms, Gabby and I call out in reply. In three unique, cheerful octaves, the effect is that of a bell choir. And all at once, the house is full.
Then comes the inevitable period of inactivity: I can only manage to superficially distract myself as the minutes tick by slowly and my stomach grumbles in cadence. Mich shuffles to the front room and then back to lie on his bed. Some unintelligible Italian TV show blares. The clattering of plates being set just across the hallway in the kitchen heightens my restlessness; and when some rich, steaming aroma finds its way up the short flight of steps to my bedroom, settling around me and demanding my willing attention, I know the call will come any minute. My anticipation grows accordingly. And suddenly, there it is: “Girls!…Mich!…Pronto!” Gabby’s door slides open, I thump down the stairs, Mich rolls over into his sandals and we converge for an instant in the hallway before descending on the brightly lit kitchen, three happy victims of the Pied Piper’s tune.
We find our places around the table and exclaim over the dish placed in front of us. Alessandra beams as she turns from the stove to the table to finish serving. We settle down and begin to blissfully entertain cream-drenched gnocchi, or dense spinach lasagna, or maybe intricately seasoned bean and rice soup. For a time, only the sounds of greedy forks bounce off the tiled walls. And then slowly we begin to look up, to meet each others’ eyes, smiling as sauce drips down my chin or as Gabby reaches for another piece of bread. “Com’era il tuo giorno, Mich?” “eh…bene bene. E tu? Che cosa hai fatto?” There are always bits to offer, anecdotes that Alessandra loves to hear. Often times, our “babbo” just has to shrug as the three ladies gossip. But he usually gets his two cents in somehow, more often than not in the form of a cheeky American quip plucked from some obscure cultural vignette. “Yeahhh, baby” and “gorgeous” are recurring favorites. Alessandra makes a face, calls him an idiot, catches our eyes, and bursts out laughing. Plates have been scraped clean by now, and we push our chairs back to help clear the table. Before Gabby and I withdraw to our rooms, we turn back to blow Alessandra a kiss and thank her. “Ma, for what??” she returns, with feigned indignation, before breaking into her signature smile once more.
Ritual: the term is inextricably linked with Italian culture. The order bestowed on all things is not a matter of efficiency or even merely habit, but is instead reflective of a reverence for life’s consistencies. This reverence is conspicuously missing in our native culture of indiscriminate expendability. Experiences, social causes, iPhone models are tossed before they even have time to gather a layer of dust. Yet here in Florence, I have felt the wisdom and compassion of tradition, the deep calm that is born of routine. Almost as if there is a secret here, one nestled in window box gardens, hidden in the shadows of ancient cloisters, one that we have missed while spinning our American hamster wheels. Being here, I have been let in on this secret. It has allowed me to slow my spinning wheels and in doing so, I have been able to participate in my own beloved slice of ritual. I will forever consider this one of the greatest joys of discovering Italy.