The invitation comes on a little scroll, rolled and tied with a yellow satin ribbon.
“You are invited,” it says in computer-printed script, “To the 50th birthday of Monica.” Followed by the date (this Friday), time (8:30pm), and location (Terazze Piazza Michelangelo, a swanky event-space restaurant overlooking Florence.) At the top, handwritten in pen, “Paulo & Nora” has been added.
Monica is one half of the husband-wife team who run Cafe mi Piace, around the corner from our first apartment in Florence.
Paul discovered their lunch special — “mixed plate,” where the options are plentiful and gourmet (seafood pasta, broccoli, chicken piccata, every day different and every day a dozen or more choices) — for 10 euros, and he’s been going every day since.
Sometimes, I join him, though with much less frequency. We fell in love with the food, but mostly with Monica, who is small, pretty, and practical woman from Sicily, and Roberto, a giant gray-haired teddybear of a man who simpers and giggles and bats his big eyelashes at everyone who comes in, chatting coquettishly.
We are not the only regulars at Cafe mi Piace, and we learn when we arrive to the birthday party — set up in a wedding-venue style tent with fancy fire-column space heaters in the center and five round tables set with silverware and a cluster of wine bottles each, with four foot tall gold balloons in a “5” and “0” anchored toward the back — that there is in fact a whole species like us at the party.
Each table holds 12 people. Without being assigned seating, we find ourselves at a table that we quickly dub the “famiglia di Via Serragli,” after the street that all of our lives intersect on. Besides Paul and myself, there are three other young-ish regulars to the cafe, the street’s tailor and her mother, who works with them, plus their husbands; the woman who cleans at the tailors and at the cafe; and Enzo, our wild Neapolitan hairstylist.
Enzo is wearing a leather jacket and drives in on his motorcycle. He is late, but Monica is even later, and we stand around, chatting and trying to find our place in this funny hodgepodge of family, chosen family, boistrous friends, rampaging children. The age range in the room us stupendous, but the fashion seems to be the same regardless of age. Lots of tight black tops and sparkles — lots of sparkles — particularly on women’s trousers.
After 45 minutes of waiting for Monica, we haven’t exactly made friends, but at least we’re bonded in our awkwardness. No one in this tent speaks a word of English, and Paul and I muddle through, rehearsing our phrases before we say them, and smoothing our clumsy speech with smiles so big that my cheeks are already aching. Enzo is eyeing the wine bottles and asking if we can just open one.
At last, Monica bursts in, her arms already loaded with presents, wearing a blue sequined dress and a black fur coat, her face shining with delight, her daughter and Roberto following like a proud entourage, carrying more things of hers, leading the waiters in who immediately start setting out the buffet and carrying about trays with champagne. Enzo takes two glasses, downs one and puts it back on the tray before the waiter can leave. Monica does something similar. I know that it’s going to be that kind of night.
There are speeches. Monica thanks us for coming to her “compleanno matrimonio” (the wedding resemblance makes more sense, though whether she is being sincere or ironic is unclear.) There are toasts. The white and red wine are poured. Monica bustles around the room hugging everyone, thanking them for being there, her friends grab her and make her stay with them, shouting and whooping like teenagers. Roberto, unable to help himself, picks up dishes from the buffet and carries them to the tables, serving people even on his night off.
People give gifts. Paul has painted a dancer and spent the better part of a day finding and adapting a frame to fit it. The tailor and her mother give Monica a necklace and matching earrings.
The friend group and Roberto have come together to present Monica with an elaborate gift in the form of a series of riddles accompanied by increasingly strange and formally wrapped presents (funny sunglasses, a pair of rubber gloves, a ridiculously ugly watch, a syringe), accompanied by uproarious laughter and refilling of glasses. Paul and I are confused and think that we must be missing things because of language, but our new friends at the famiglia di Via Serragli are just as confused as we are. We laugh along good naturally, and somehow, three hours later, Monica solves the final riddle, although she has had enough wine that we’re surprised she can read, much less crack a code. The final, real gift is a trip to Vienna, and Monica screams like a girl one-fifth her age and runs around the room holding the tickets above her head like a prize, tottering and hugging, and nearly pulling friends into the towers of flames in the center of the room. She tells us she's never traveled out of Italy before. She doesn't know why Vienna has been her dream for her first foray out, but it always has.
Suddenly, one side of the tent is rolled up, and we see a huge three-tiered cheesecake on a table outside. Cheesecake is Monica’s favorite, so that makes sense, but why is it outside? That soon makes sense too, when two giant sparklers, the kind they have at the ends of fashion runways, blast into the air and we all warble tanti auguri a te in our wine-loose voices. Then… there is the dancing. The music blasts, as it has been all night— a strange mix of Abba, Eminem, and American oldies. The Italians sing along, mouthing nonsense words without shame, and for once we can understand something they don’t. It gives me a little boost, like the playing field has been ever so slightly evened.
We dance until the first few people have started to leave, half past midnight. The party is still going strong, but our bodies are tired from the dancing and our brains are warped from trying to keep up with the Italian that flows faster and louder with every round of drinks and gifts. The night outside is cold and feels good. Monica grabs my face as she thanks me for coming, and tells me that people come into our lives for a reason. I agree.