In Isolation with Lauren Cerand

Location: Florence, Italy

It was only last summer I believed I was moving to Italy for the rest of my life. But less than a year later, I’ll have to leave in August when my visa expires and my savings are gone. This has overlaid my time here with a certain melancholy as well as a tangible sweetness; the rush of juice in the last bite of the last peach of summer, hiding in the shadow of the first bite of the first one that hasn’t even come yet; licking the spilling drip of gelato that rolls down the cone; the race to satisfaction in the face of time. I don’t know yet where I’ll go from here, and even that loses a certain heft every time anyone asks if I’ve bought my plane ticket yet. Lately, I say that there are no planes. But soon, even that will give way to something new.

For now, I stay grounded in Florence, the most exquisite of cities, a butterfly under a glass bell, in which the houses seem to be the same colour as the food and the light, pink ham and rosy terracotta (“cooked earth”), a golden glow like aged cheese and dreams during naps. I had a Plan A, B, C, and D, and they all fell through, and the so longed-for home is only a resting place. I spent more than a decade in Manhattan and the last few years in Brooklyn, and never really felt like I was there to stay. Somehow, I just didn’t leave. Three years ago, I came to Florence for the first time, and as I crossed the Ponte Santa Trinita over the river that hellishly hot afternoon, I had the sudden jolt that I would live here at some point in my lifetime, a feeling I had been hoping to have about anywhere since I stopped thinking, as the train would approach New York City, “There is the City, and I live in its heart.” I just never thought I’d get here so fast.

Since I moved here on the cusp of fall, I’ve thought a lot about nourishment. Partly because this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve thought about what it means for myself, both what I have and what still feels out of reach, and partly because this is Italy, and what’s on the table is always on everybody’s mind. When I mentioned a dinner party I’d attended to an Italian friend, instead of a New Yorker’s response—Where? Who was there?—his first question was, What did you eat? With my polished anecdotes of fame, betrayal, hubris, and the usual suspects lined up, I was taken aback. Another time, I sat for hours with an American friend in Procacci, right in the centre of the high fashion shopping district, eating anchovy and butter sandwiches and quaffing Prosecco, and told a Florentine how much I enjoyed it. “I’m sure you did,” he said. “But that’s not lunch.”

All of this is to say I’m still learning the fundamentals of Tuscan cuisine, even just for myself. Lots of beans, fresh vegetables, tangy olive oil, red wine from the surrounding hills, rarely more than a handful of ingredients, and always the very best that a budget can afford. And always, and only, in season. Cooking with a new precision and attention to detail, I understand in a way I never did in my whole life in America that the results are dictated by the ingredients.

The things I miss and dream about in these days are often a one-word shorthand for my desires—scamorza, a smoky cheese slipping out of the frying pan in velvet curves; pici, fat, fresh spaghetti said to have its roots in the pre-Roman Etruscan culture, the enigmatic pleasure lovers who gave their name to Tuscany. But instead of longing—too much—for things out of reach, I make sure I have the staples for my favourite snack, courtesy of I Capture the Castle, on hand: “I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea,” the protagonist writes in her diary as the place crumbles around her. 

Cooking with a new precision and attention to detail, I understand in a way I never did in my whole life in America that the results are dictated by the ingredients.

When I returned to Florence a few months after my first visit, already sinking gratefully into the feeling that this must be the place, I was invited for Bistecca alla’ Fiorentina, the city’s iconic steak, so large that it must be shared with at least one other person, and served charred but rare. My companion and the waiter suggested a glass of wine that they described as “rude,” which didn’t translate to my American ears. “We’d say earthy,” I replied, which made them both laugh at my simple view of things. “Well, of course it’s earthy, it comes from the earth.”

I could say this experience grounded me, which it has. This beginning of a new life, I was so sure I’d grabbed on to, now feels to me like the last act of an old one. From the perspective of a New Yorker, running a thriving international public relations consultancy while also attending jewellery school full-time sounded a-okay; challenging, but I’d make it work. Visa restrictions meant I had to shut down the former, and the demands of the latter made seeking out the local part-time employment I was permitted to have impossible. By the time it all unravelled, I couldn’t imagine how I’d thought any of it would have flown, given what I value now: time for meals, not just to eat them, but to shop for and prepare them, and cultivate the relationships and settings with which to share them; deep, regular and sustained communion with art that has transmitted essential truths over the centuries; an entirely new need to sit quietly by the sea, unproductively occupied.

The pleasure and freedom to simply be, forty years old and single, living out of a suitcase, somehow existing without the resources or opportunities I once sacrificed everything else to keep close at hand. I don’t have much of what I used to think I couldn’t live without, and I don’t feel drawn to anything from my life before. I need money, of course, and I’ll have to go back to work, where and when I can find it in this new reality.

What matters to me now is so much simpler, and I wonder how it ever became so complicated. But it’s more than being grounded—it’s that earthiness I return to, and feel closest to these days. The gravity. The dirt under the nails that demonstrates you’ve had your hands in something real. The feeling, walking along the Arno River near my apartment after being indoors for almost two months, of a stolen spring, that I had missed the birth of everything, that I was Persephone, alighting to a different season. I don’t miss winter, but I wanted to watch the wisteria come into being.

Recently a thousand-year old monastery in the Tuscan countryside posted on Instagram that without the usual avenues to bring their goods to the market and fund their work, they are in need of support. I order dark chocolate, the exacting combination of bitter and sweet I like best; dried Porcini mushrooms, which I gently sauté in olive oil and torn herbs from pots on my terrace and eat with fresh pappardelle pasta. And three bottles of wine—gorgeous old reds that bloom with the dark promise of the forest, the soft, giving wood of the undergrowth, the ripened allure of fruit at the peak of its offering, and a sweet, soulful Passito that tastes of warm caramel, rich and round, and feels like walking in the rain: cleansed, awakened, almost home.

By Lauren Cerand