I remember the first time that I went to Dante’s. My friends and I had heard about it from past study abroaders. “Stop right there,” We said collectively one Skype session, our friends relaying to us details of a place in Florence that served free wine to students, so long as they ordered an entrée. “You had us at ‘free wine’.” And so we ventured out onto the darkened cobblestoned streets one night, dressed in what-we-thought-were Florentine essentials: black skinny jeans, Italian leather boots, a flouncy sheer tank and topped off with a leather jacket. We were giggly clientele. We flirted with the wait staff, winked at the table of students next to us, stumbled on home, stopping in on a few discotecas and pubs on our way. We woke up the next morning with clear heads and bright eyes. We laced up our sneakers, went to classes and did it all over again. Every day, every week, every month passed like this until it was time to pack up my pink suitcase, board a plane and cross the Atlantic.
It is eight o’clock in the morning on September the twenty fourth. Florentine traffic pounds by outside of the open hostel window. The room is musty, the smell of mold so faint that I wonder if I’m only imagining it. It is silent in the sixteen-person dorm. The four girls lay face down on their bunks, legs peeking out of white sheets, escaping the heat while maintaining some sort of imagined privacy. The two boys in the half-empty dormitory flout the small amount of privacy we are afforded, sprawled on top of their sheets in their tight boxer briefs. The room is illuminated by the dusty sunlight that manages its way inside, tumbling over buildings and twisting around windowsills just to touch the dirty concrete floor. The glow from my laptop screen casts a slightly garish blue light onto my face and the wall behind me. I click the small sun icon on my keyboard to turn the bright blaze down to a dull burn. I begin to write: “Oof. What a night out in Florence…” Hoping that the gentle pattering of my fingers on the keyboard wouldn’t lull any of my roommates out of their hungover snoozing.
It was my first visit to Florence since the time I had spent studying here, back in 2013. I turned to my travel partner, who had only ever been to Florence on a short weekend trip, and asked her an all-important question, “Have you been to Dante’s?” As she shook her head, my heart soared. I loved showing people elements of a city that I knew well and that they knew nothing about. It is akin to letting someone listen to a song that you love, it has a certain weight to it, a certain personal attachment that makes it carry much more meaning than an Italian restaurant that serves free wine to students should have any right to carry.
So after a day of walking for miles and miles around the small city, touring around the Pitti Palace and gazing longingly at the €12 Boboli Gardens, of window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio and contemplating taking the window out of window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio, of longingly staring at crepes and giving in and buying crepes, of running through the rainy cobblestoned streets and turning down the offer of ‘Umbrella?’ on every corner, we finally made our way to Dante’s. I wore a short white dress with my white lace up sandals and a black trench coat. I led my friend through narrow alleys and over hilly streets, taking brief refuge from the intermittent rain under striped awnings, until finally we made it. The restaurant was packed and the two of us could barely be squeezed in to a table framed by the kitchen and the toilet. I smiled in anticipation, the memories of flirting and winking flashing fondly through my memory.
“Students?” The cute Italian waiter asks knowingly. We nod expectantly, grinning and affirming, “Si, si!” The man claps his hands and smiles back, turning around briefly and returning with a flagon full of sparkling white wine. We order the necessary entrées, though the wine would likely be enough for us. The loud table next to us catches my attention; it is the table that I used to sit at as a student. It can seat ten people comfortably – and fifteen people uncomfortably. Tonight is the uncomfortable fare. There are fourteen people stuffed hastily around the table. They are loud, unselfconscious, American. They signal at the waiter and wave their student cards under his nose. They stare at us as the night goes on and our full flagon of wine is joined by another – the waiter winking – while theirs sit empty on their table. The boys wear cargo shorts and the girls wear that oddly familiar uniform of skinny jeans, flouncy sheer shirts and leather jackets.
Suddenly I’m greeted by something I can only call déjà vu. I am back in Dante’s, it is 2013, I am in a leather jacket and skinny jeans. It is our last night in Florence and my eyes are bleary from the constantly refilled pitcher of wine. Wow, I think, I am twenty and I am traveling, I am cultured, I know so much, I can say thank you in another language! I sit contentedly among a bubble of Americans in a foreign city, thinking that I was perhaps at the tippy-top of the cultured ladder.
But now two years and countless plane rides later, I come to another conclusion. I am in Dante’s, it is 2015, I am in a short white dress. It is my last night in Florence and my eyes are bleary from the constantly refilled pitcher of wine. Wow, I think, I am twenty-three and I am traveling, I am lucky, I know so little, I can’t say so much that I want to. I sit contentedly across from my friend in a foreign city, thinking that I have a long journey of learning, seeing and doing ahead of me.
The prospect of knowing so little has never delighted me so much.