The single best bit of advice I can offer for truly enjoying Tuscany is that you’ve got to know someone. A friend will open the door to an Italian world normally unseen to the average visitor. If you don’t have a friend, this would be the time to dust off those social skills, practice that smile, appear a little-but not too-sympathetic and make a friend. Not as hard as people think. I’ve done very well by that gift-of-gab Ana says I get from my father. For Americans it can be a fairly big hurdle to get over, given our culturally imbued suspicion about other people and cultures. In the States we are bombarded with terrifying tales of pickpockets and thieves, terrorism and all manner of criminal masterminds out to victimize wayward Americans. The truth is, in every country, the vast majority of folks are decent and honest and as curious and hospitable towards you as you would be to them-how you answer that question will mean a lot for your international travel experience.
Rick Steeves I think has done the greatest dis-service to travelers with constant warnings over thieves and crimes in his books and videos. Truth is, Europe, and most of the world is far less dangerous than most of the US. It comes down to a simple rule; If you have your head up your ass, church can be a dangerous place.
So, as I was saying, Ana and I had spent a couple days wandering around Venice. Well off the beaten paths we were curious over folks gathered at these little bars-not like American bars, but sort of cafes that serve wine, beer and cocktails and something to eat. Neighbors and friends would gather at these dark-wooded bars, snacking at small plates of appetizers or finger sandwiches, having a drink and chatting up the afternoon. We passed curiously, unsure just how that all worked, settling at cafes where we could more familiarly be waited on at a table, as we are accustomed.
For a friend anywhere, but particularly in Tuscany we could hardly have done better than Shevko. In Mostar, barely 18 years old he knew everyone and everyone know Shev. How could anyone imagine that 8 or so years in Italy that anything would change? Leaving the hotel that first night in Caprai, we headed back across the river into Montelupo Fiorentino to his favorite bar, the Cafe Centofiori, comfortable hidden from view in one of the new apartment blocks along the bright and spacious Viale Cento Fiori.
We followed Shevko inside, like a court to some blue-collar King, leaving the afternoon heat behind. Instantly, amid Shev’s riotous entrance, greeting friends, flirting with counter girls, Ana and I were engulfed by the smells of humbly prepared gourmet sandwiches and snacks. Our would-be sovereign directed us to a corner table and returned to the bar, laden with platters of mouth-watering food. Returning a moment later with fat goblets of a local red wine and a plate of food, Shev proceeded to pronounce the obvious, that everyone knew him there. Indeed, all that was missing was everyone shouting “Shev!” when he enter, ala Norm from Cheers.
“Sort of Italian, how do have in the US, happy hour,” he said. Shev explained that the food was free for the taking if you were having a drink. Most folks would congregate at the counter, catching up with old friends or chatting the owner up. He was a young guy, who, I was told worked the counter dawn until late into the night 6 days week. Helped by a couple of counter girls, all the pastries and sandwiches were his own recipe, hand-made there in the café. Nothing went to waste. Whatever was left from the day was cut up for the afternoon crowd.
Taking in the crowd, smiling and stumbling through Italian introductions Ana and I savored every bite as if our lives depended on the fresh and simple flavors before us. Lifting a thin wedge on homemade Italian bread, adorned with a bit of prosciutto and fresh mint leaf, sitting with friends and Ana with a lusciously dry glass of red wine, I wondered how it could get any better than this.