by Melinda Gallo

Flashback: Setting up my daily routine

I woke up this morning to the pungent smell of citronella. I didn't hear a single zanzara during the night and finally slept through without waking up. The house is noisy in the mornings: doors slamming, plates clanging, people talking, and shower water running. I hear many voices, but still can't distinguish them all.

I sit in bed and write my "morning pages" as I do every day. I fill my notebook with all my feelings and thoughts left over from the day before. Mostly I write about things I hadn't mentally digested yet. I usually only write three pages, but sometimes, like today, I'm inspired to write more.

It's been a week since I talked to my mom back in California and I know I have to find a way to call her. I don't want her to worry about me, even though as a mother, she'll always worry about me, her baby. She is not happy about my decision to leave England, which has entailed in my closing my business and giving away all my clients. She tells me that if I were married and settled down, she'd worry less about me. But those choices are not important to me now, while I'm still in my last few weeks of my twenties.

She has good reasons to worry, but I don't admit that to her. I don't know what I'm going to do after this month in Florence. I prepaid my room and board for the month before I arrived, but I don't know what I'll be doing afterwards. I try not to think about it as it only stresses me out more.

At breakfast, I ask Claudia how I can call the US from here. She rattled off a lot of words and I had to slow her down because I only understood a few, like telefono and I wasn't sure if it was a noun or verb in her sentence. I understood when she went to her room and brought back a phone card.

I left the house early and walked to Piazza San Marco. I practiced my question in my head and sometimes saying it to myself under my breath as I walked down via Lamarmora toward the piazza.

After standing in front of the kiosko, waiting for no one to be around, I approached the old man behind the window and said, "Vorrei una scheda telefonica per favore" (I'd like a telephone card please). He looked up at me and asked me a question. I said, "Sì," in hopes that it would be a valid response. When he smiled, I knew it wasn't. He held up two cards. One marked with "10" and the other with "20." I pointed to the one with a "20" on it and handed him my money.

I walked toward the Duomo on via Cavour to the telephone place that Claudia told me about. She said it has a bunch of telephone booths inside. I don't like the glass telephone booths because I feel claustrophobic inside with no air circulating, the sun beating down on it, and people looking at you in hopes you'll be getting off soon.

With all the buses going by me in both directions, I felt like I was in downtown London with the mix of fumes swirling around me. Florence seems so alive in the morning. When I first arrived at almost 8PM the other evening, the streets were so quiet. I was wondering if people were still on vacation.

I dialed my mom's phone number and felt so happy to hear her voice. "Oh thank God. I was wondering what happened to you. I got so worried and had no one to call to find out if you were OK. I called the number you gave me, but nobody ever answers the phone. I was going to call the American consulate in Florence to see if they could help me find you." My heart quickly sank as I realized that I made her worry even more about me. "I'm sorry. I just figured out how to get these telephone cards to call you. I don't have all that much time on my phone card as the credits are going quickly. I just wanted to tell you that I'm OK and things are going well." I wanted to comfort her; I hate it when she worries so much about me.

"Well it's good to hear your voice too. When are you going back to England?" my mom asked me. "I don't know. Possibly in January. Business won't pick back up until then anyway. No use going back in November or December." I tell her, hoping that it makes sense to her.

"What are you doing there? Are you just learning Italian all day? Can't you do that back in England and work at the same time?" my mom asks me.

"Mom, I'm going to have to go, I only have a few more credits left."

"Give me the number and I'll call you back," she asks as I hear her rummaging through papers. "I can't. It's a pay phone and there's no number on this one. I'll call you back tomorrow. I just wanted you to know that I love you."

The phone line went dead and I put the receiver back. I just hoped that she heard everything I said before the call ended. I would've liked to hear her response, but I do know that all of her concerns for me come from her love for me.

I walked down the street toward the Duomo to take the bus to school. I get on at the back of the bus where it's marked, "Entrata." After watching most of the other passengers, I realize that I'm supposed to get off in the middle of the bus where it's marked, "Uscita." I know when to ring the bell so the driver stops at my stop and stand confidently at the exit doors. When he stops, I jump off. It feels good to know where I'm going without any hitches.

I'm learning a lot at school. I bought two little dictionaries yesterday: French-Italian and English-Italian. I got the French one because some of the expressions are similar in construction as the French. I also realized that my brain has two modes: mother-tongue and foreign language. During Italian classes, I have this tendency to think in French first. I thought that if I went from French to Italian, I might be able to replace the French with Italian.

A few of the Austrians are having problems with the Italian. I thought it'd be so easy for them since they all speak English so fluently. The grammar and especially the verbs are complicated for them to memorize. English, in comparison, is quite easy they tell me.

I admire the Japanese girls at school because they learn quite quickly and have a lot of obstacles to overcome, like learning the Roman alphabet. None of them speak any English and if we don't understand each other, we really have no language to fall back on. It's not like any of the Japanese words have any similarities in English or vice-versa.

Gianluca has learned some Japanese over the years at his school and can at least understand bits and pieces. he also knows enough to make them all burst out laughing when they're concentrating during the lessons. Gianluca should've been a comedian: he has this fantastic ability to make us all laugh for hours on end.

Today we finally moved onto other verbs. A few days of "sono stanca" and "ho fame" and we all felt pretty ready. Our teacher Enzo who has Neapolitan origins, but has only lived in Florence taught us the verb dire (to say). As we went through the conjugazione (conjugation), "dico, dici, dice, diciamo, dite, dicono" I noticed the first and last ones didn't sound like what I thought they would.

When it was my turn to repeat, I said, "dico." "No, no, dico," (pronounced "diho") Enzo said. I looked up at him a little puzzled. I see the "c" on the photocopies he handed out. I was pretty sure that the letter is supposed to be pronounced. "Non è così," (It's not like that) I responded. He squinted at me and said, "Sono io il professore. Si dice 'dico', OK?" Trying to be a good student, I went through the verbs as he taught us.

We weren't given much homework to do and because I'm so motivated to learn Italian, I asked Gianluca if there was a book I could buy. He showed me one that looked promising. It was written only in Italian for foreigners. I wrote down the title and can't wait to get it.

I left school alone and walked to the bus stop. I feel as if I'm destined to be alone. All the Austrians live in the same area, so they walk home together. And a few of the Japanese girls live together or know other people, so they all stick together too.

I took the bus home and felt so tired when I got to my room. It's still hot outside and I learned to keep the shades down so my room doesn't heat up too much. I plop on my cot and take a short nap. The house is finally quiet and it feels wonderful.

When I get up, I'm already hungry, but I force myself to walk to the gym to go for a run. I'm looking forward to getting back into my routine. Having a routine makes me feel like my days are filled with some purpose.

I walked to Palestra Ricciardi on Borgo Pinti, which on the map looked close to where I live, but walking it now, it seems even closer. I am cautious walking down the streets with the buses and motorini whizzing by. Just when I think I understand the one-way signs, a bus comes hurtling in the other direction.

The palestra (gym) is rather quiet and all the tapis roulant (running machines) are free. I brought my Walkman with a cassette of music to motivate me to run faster. I need all the motivation I can get since the heat and walk here tires me out.

After running, I get my "Woman Who Run with Wolves" book and ride the stationary bicycles for almost an hour. The book, which I have been putting off for months to read, brings me great joy. It comforts me at this time when many of my worries and fears play in the background.

I saw poet and novelist Ben Okri on TV a few weeks ago and he spoke with an Italian woman who spoke of writers who go to Venice to get their inspiration. There's something magical and mystical about Venice that brings back, or out, their passion to write and create. It was then that I realized that my dream to move to Florence to find my inspiration to write was correct.

Here I am in Florence and I feel like I arrived at the station a little early and am still waiting for my train to arrive. I'm here, but where's my inspiration? Should I go to Venice instead?

I go home to have dinner with the family. I still feel alone with them. Or maybe just invisible. The other girls cook their meals on a two-burner camp stove next to the bathroom and then wash their dishes in the bathroom sink. They also have a small dorm-sized refrigerator where they put their food that is hidden in a closet.

I can hear them giggling when the father has taken a breath between his rants. I long to be with the girls, to hang out with them, and to have fun, but instead I have to stay in the kitchen for dinner. I try to quickly eat and excuse myself as soon as possible.

Once I've finished with dinner, the girls are quiet. I go to the bathroom to wash my hands as an excuse to see what they're up to. Claudia's door is closed, but the light is on. I feel like I might be intruding, so I don't knock. I go back to my room and pull out my book again. I think I need a little more comfort.

I will be continuing to write about my arrival to Florence back in 1997 and will preface them with "Flashback" in the title.

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