She stood beckoning us insistently from the opposite side of a lonely cobblestone street in Florence. The image of a traditional matronly Italian Nonna (Grandmother). About my height – just over five feet in the old language – stout, grey haired and well covered by what appeared to be an apron!
It was 1979, and I was hauling a backpack in Italy with my new husband MJ and my young brother John. Most of my travels to date had been on a shoestring budget, but this one to Greece and Italy was supposed to be more about nice middle range hotels and money for good souvenirs rather than the youth hostels and cheap bed and breakfasts pensione I was used to. I was carrying a backpack only because I prefer them to suitcases.
Just as well because MJ and I were reduced to a backpacker’s shoestring budget unexpectedly when, on arrival in Athens from Australia, we found the bulk of our travel money, that we had sent to Greece in a bank transfer, was missing.
Turned out our Aussie bank had not sent the transfer to the Bank of Greece as requested, but to another bank in Greece. It was then forwarded in a local transfer to the Bank of Greece. Too complicated for anyone to figure out at the time, despite calls back to Australia to our bank!
We were searching for our missing funds in the international division of the bank, not in their local transfer section. But we weren’t to find this out until the end of the trip.
This was a time when Aussies weren’t used to the idea of credit cards, so all we had were some travellers checks and a small amount of Greek drachma and Italian lire money.
With our time in Europe ebbing away, we made the decision to make do with what we had and get on with our trip. I was familiar with the cheap backpacking route in Greece and Italy from previous trips, so off we went on a very strict budget. On arrival in Athens, we had met up with my brother John, who was on a working holiday in Europe, and about to head to London. So he joined us en route to Italy.
In Florence, we headed to a small hotel recommended by a work colleague at home. She’d assured me it was not a costly hotel, and was well positioned in one of the most historic traditional areas of Florence. But one look at the elaborate foyer and uniformed reception staff, we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford it. I don’t think they were that impressed with three casually dressed Aussies with backpacks either. So we turned tail, and began roaming through the nearby streets searching for cheaper accommodation. When you don’t know where you are going, backpacks mysteriously seem a lot heavier!
And that’s when the Nonna suddenly appeared, beckoning us to follow her. We hesitated, wondering what she wanted. There was no one else about. It was riposa – a traditional quiet seista time in the early afternoon when businesses close down. Finally, she managed one english word – “Room?”
We voted – the boys decided to go with her. I was reluctant as the situation seemed a bit strange, but I was outvoted. We crossed the road and followed her as she slowly shuffled into one narrow, lonely alley and then into another.
I became nervous, whispering that maybe we shouldn’t keep following her. My brother was amused. ”She’s a little elderly woman. What could she do to the three of us – two big Australian blokes and you?” I remained wary as she led us into an old building and up three floors in a wonky lift.
We emerged onto what turned out to be the floor she owned. It was beautiful. Marbled floors. Jaded with age, but lovely.
From neighbours who spoke english, we would eventually find out that her grandparents had once owned the whole building. Now she owned just the one floor. If she was in her ’70’s, and she was living in the house her grandparents had, we figured this was an old florentine family indeed.
She showed us a bedroom – it was the master bedroom and once her grandparents. And, in pride of place, were two single beds dressed in pristine brocade bedcovers, with a matching brocade wall hanging behind them. The beds featured elaborately carved headboards in dark wood. Between the beds and on either side of them were matching bedside tables, also elaborately carved. Tiny lamps, with glass prisms hanging from them, sat on the bedside tables. A magnificent matching wooden wardrobe completed the set. The bedroom furniture had been her grandparents. This was better than any hotel! A taste of old Florence and hosted by an Italian Nonna. And the price? Stunningly cheap. Less than a youth hostel!
At this point, the Nonna tried to understand the relationship between the three of us. A lot of sign language was underway! Once we figured out what she wanted to know, I pointed to MJ and our wedding rings – husband, husband. EASY.
Not so with my brother. This was more difficult. We went through a lot of gesticulating to emphasise he was my brother. Friendly light thumps to his arm, a brotherly pat on my head from him, putting our faces together so that she could see the resemblance. Luckily, we looked alike, and she finally got it. She looked very relieved. We weren’t a ménage à trois!
Our ’Italian nonna’ indicated that Mike and I could have the beds, while she brought in more bedding that she set up on the floor at the foot of the bed for my brother. Well, nothing was going to go on in that bed then between the young married couple, especially with a painting of the Virgin Mary hung on the brocade wall hanging between the beds.
The Nonna brought in a neighbour to explain in broken english that there would be no meals, but we were welcome in the kitchen to have coffee and watch television. MJ took a liking to her very strong home brewed Italian expresso. And the more he said it was delicious, the more she made for him!
It seemed that half the neigbourhood were invited to the kitchen to enjoy her coffee every evening and to watch TV – which, whenever we entered, seemed to be focused on the then top rating British slapstick comedy show, Benny Hill. How could there be so much Benny Hill on Italian TV! Episodes had been voiced over in Italian, with English subtitles! This meant the neighbours and the Nonna got the jokes before we read them in the subtitles. There was much hilarity from the Italians, while we’d still have straight blank faces, waiting for the jokes to come up on the screen.
I’ve never been a Benny Hill fan, but when I now think of the show, it evokes warm memories of the camaraderie in that little Italian kitchen.
We found out that the Nonna usually rented out rooms to students during terms at the nearby University, but we’d lucked in as it was a University holiday break, so she had no one staying. Did she happen to be taking a walk when she spotted us, or was she actively hunting the streets for temporary lodgers!
Florence remains a favourite place because she found us!
Coming up soon in my blog:
HIDA FURUKAWA – A MUST VISIT in JAPAN’
Recent previous stories: FLIGHT! (a tale of ups and downs in the air) and
Kamioka – railway cycling and super space town in the Japanese Alps