Family: A Different Kind of Valentine’s Day Matchmaking

Since I was deciding where to study abroad, I have been interested in the Florence University of the Art’s Italian Family Club. Going to a school where study abroad is required, I had heard stories of great experiences of people with homestays, but there were certain perks to living in a dorm or apartment instead. FUA offered the perfect balance: living in an apartment and being paired up with a local family. It’s been difficult to have an authentic Florentine experience, especially since I live a block away from the Duomo. While living in the city center is extremely convenient, it also means I live in the tourism center. I’ve been longing to find out what the locals do and where they get their gelato.

I began the intensive process to be matched with a family the week that I arrived in Florence. First, I attended a meeting that told me more about the club. The next step was a detailed application and letter explaining why I wanted to join the club and the expectations I had for my experience. A week after applications were due, I interviewed with the program coordinator. Finally, on Valentine’s Day, I received an email that I had been matched with a family!

I quite literally had no clue what to expect. I had explained that my ideal family would have a child or children around my age, but that I understood if that wasn’t possible. I didn’t know their names, I didn’t know their occupations…all I knew was that I was to arrive at a restaurant called Finisterrae at 8:00pm on Friday, February 16.

I don’t have classes on Fridays, which made my day seem extra long–not to mention that I’m still used to a much earlier American dinner time. I tried to keep myself occupied with little projects; I finished a flyer that I was designing for a Food Recovery Network summit and made edits to a press release for an exhibition opening held by my Gallery and Exhibition Curating Class. When my roommate got home, we went out into the city. She was on the hunt for a purse, I was on the hunt for a distraction. We managed to kill time until 7:00pm. At that point, I was hungry but it seemed pointless to head back to the apartment. We decided to pop into one of the only open cafes that we could find. Even though we had already had a few bad experiences with dry cake and muffins, I ordered a cupcake. After eating half of it, I discovered that it was moldy. Her coffee came as an espresso and a glass of milk. My cupcake was replaced with one that was not moldy…albeit, it was still really dry. Our original server was eating food and drinking a beer (on break or at the end of his shift? Who knows!) Ten minutes later, we managed to flag down one of the other employees. Everything in Italy is so much more relaxed than in America–the fact that it took ten minutes to get someone’s attention so we could ask for the bill wasn’t really a surprise.

At this point, I was bubbling with nerves. I wasn’t afraid to meet my family–they wanted the experience as much as I did and also had to go through a serious application process. The part that made me nervous was that I just didn’t know how I was going to meet them! Would we be paired up immediately? Would we sit down at tables right away? Would it been like a blind dating situation where we had little numbers and had to find our match?

Emily called me out for walking really fast…despite the fact that I had been consciously trying to walk slow. Because of my fast walking, I got to the restaurant way too early. Luckily there were plenty of benches in the Piazza Santa Croce and Emily waited a few minutes with me.

Finally it was close enough to 8:00pm that I felt I could go into the restaurant. FUA students anxiously awaiting their families stood along either side of the main entry. Every few minutes, a family would enter. The young children would be so excited to see Francesca, the program coordinator, but became bashful when their student came over to say hi. Slowly, the number of students waiting decreased. Every time a family came to the door, I would wonder if they were ‘mine.’ When a family with an older son came in, I thought maybe they would be my match–I did request a child around my age and I was one of the last three students waiting. Not my match.

I kept waiting, wondering when my family would arrive…if they would arrive? Finally, a large group of people burst through the doors and I was told that my family had arrived. In a split second, I was introduced to four people, but it felt like forty. As I met them, we were led to our table. I awkwardly sat down, unsure of who I was supposed to sit next to. Before my butt hit the chair, I was tapped on the shoulder, “Come over here, this is the rest of our family!”

In true Italian style, I was already meeting my ‘uncle’ and ‘cousin’, ironically the people who I was convinced were my family when they walked through the door earlier that night. Tables were rearranged and the whole family sat together.

If there is one thing I’ve learned about Italians, it’s that when you are asked a question, you really don’t get to answer yourself. “Do you want cheese?” is asked only after the cheese plate is in your hand; “Do you want wine?” is asked after they’ve started pouring into your glass.

Dinner went so fast and I feel as though I barely had the opportunity to talk to anyone except for my Italian mom, Veronica.  I’m hoping that it will be easier to get to know everyone when I go to dinner at their house this Wednesday!

We left the restaurant and stood outside in a large circle. Veronica initiated the traditional goodbye with a kiss on each cheek, but I started on the wrong side. I tried again–still the wrong side. Third tries a charm: you lean to the right and offer your left cheek. Next thing I knew, I was going around the whole circle, unsure of when to give a handshake or kisses. About three quarters of the way through the circle, I outwardly expressed how many of them there were, which got a little chuckle.

I’m so excited to spend time with the family and learn more about true Italian and Florentine culture!

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