There have been a few points in Grace Torreggiani’s life when she had the very tangible option to pick up from Italy and go home to British Columbia, Canada, but something always made her stay. Over a cup of cappuccino, she tells me why Florence has remained her home for the past 34 years. “Italians have an innate love of everything beautiful, and this permeates through every aspect of life here,” she says.
I’ve met Grace for coffee just past Porta alla Croce, one of the old entrances to the city. She has just returned home from her job as a traveling tour director; a recent career change which gives her longer lengths of free time to enjoy her home in Tuscany. Like me, she was seduced by the beauty of the region the moment she set foot here.
Grace now resides in Ponte a Ema, a cosy hillside neighborhood covered in olive trees just outside of Florence. She discovered it on a backpacking trip. “You know how it was,” she laughed. “The big rugged backpack with the Canadian flag stitched on, living off of $10 a day, all before internet and GPS maps.” Grace met her future-husband in Florence during that trip, and soon, her life moved to Italy. Though they always pondered the idea of returning to Canada, where they visit frequently during the summers, Grace and her husband believed that Italy was the perfect place to raise a family.
“The community here is incredible,” she explained. “Teachers have such close and caring relationships with their students, and you feel safe in your neighborhood. When I used to work in the city center of Florence, everyone had time to stop by or grab a coffee at the local bar with you. It’s such a social atmosphere and the culture is so focused on family and food.” It helps that Florence is one of the smaller of the popular Italian cities, with a population estimate of just over 700,000 in 2018—whereas Rome has an estimate of 3,700,00. This small-town feel truly emanates throughout the community if you live here long enough.
Grace’s children have taken a page out of her book and have since spread their lives throughout the world. But when they do come home for the holidays, life still revolves around food.
“One is going to a aperitivo (happy hour), another is going to a food festival. It’s always some event focused around eating,” Grace laughs. The most popular festivals, known as “sagre” (roughly translated as “local food festival”) are held in tiny towns throughout the region, and boast whatever food the town is known for: anything from polenta to porcini mushrooms, wine to fresh fish. Local residents will team together in pop-up kitchens to churn out heaping portions of incredibly delicious (though usually simplistic) dishes from recipes handed down for decades. These festivals are predominantly for locals, so the costs are low—most plates being under €10 ($12).
When away from work, Grace spends much of her time enjoying the historic culture of Florence, and adventuring outdoors. “The Apuan Alps are only two hours away and are just breath-taking,” she says; though she has trouble deciding on just one place to choose for a favorite hiking spot. “Of course, you can’t ever tire of Chianti.” After taking a hike of the vineyards and olive groves surrounding the Tavarnelle Val di Pesa municipality just this past autumn together, I can attest that winding past golden vineyards and through numerous hill towns is magical (even without touching a glass of wine). Grace has even taken on parts of the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route connecting Canterbury to Rome.
After multiple recommendations, she settled on Maremma, a coastal area on the southern edge of Tuscany known for its stunning sunsets, pine forests, sandy beaches, and rich archaeological sites dating back to pre-roman Etruscan civilization. However, Grace frequently finds herself being pulled back to the infinite pleasures of Florence. “Just yesterday, my friends and I booked a tour of the Uffizi [a prominent art museum in Florence] with another friend of ours who has been a tour guide there for over 30 years,” she says. “I was crossing Ponte alle Grazie (a Florentine bridge) and looking down the river at the Ponte Vecchio in the sun and I just felt…euphoric.”
Even after living in Florence for years, that feeling never fades for Grace, and I don’t think it will for me. That’s why expats like us stay. We live in a place where pausing to appreciate innate beauty is just a part of everyday life.
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