by Kimberly Wainscoat

This past summer I scooped up my two young daughters and flew us to Italy so we could watch the Italians change seasons. That’s right. Extravagant, I know. But I had my husband’s blessing and he’s a very sensible man, even if it appears otherwise.

To be very honest, I was so desperate for style after driving to Target for eight years and fighting my way through lines of overstuffed shopping carts, that I was ready to go anywhere, just someplace new and different. I wanted to get out of my car. I wanted to relearn how to live! I craved a connection to people, art and civilization. A connection to something rooted to the earth, connected to the seasons, a place with a deep history and magnificent style.

August and the bikinis rolled past pretty fast (no complaints, just another story entirely!), and suddenly tall autumn boots and smoky wild pork stews graced the streets and cafes of Florence. My daughters and I were at once fascinated by the swift change from bathing suits (topless for young girls, mostly) to boots that went practically up to ones chin-but always in good taste. We were also quickly growing cold.

We were in Italy for three months, just long enough to see one seasonal change, and I did not have a lot of space to pack two seasons worth of clothes. Plus, I thought it would stay warm throughout fall. Not so, Italy. As a result I was tasked with urgent buying of autumnal clothes for three people. You might think this fabulous? Of course, shopping is always fabulous until you pay the bill, or send it to hubby back home.

It was tough because yes, I did have a budget, a pretty tight one, and as I mentioned it was getting very cold very quickly. And yet what I had to live up to on the streets of Florence was unlike anything I’d ever seen in San Francisco, New York or even Paris. August we were all practically naked at the beach. September first is kind of like an Italian Groundhog day. On my first day back in Florence, as I wandered out to get bread, my first beautiful person came out of his apartment. His hair was gently tousled, he was wearing lavender sunglasses and lavender suede loafers and a gold jacket. Of course, I stared. I could not believe how stunning he looked. He simply smiled back, graciously taking my open mouth as a compliment.

I turned the corner and walked into a café with my girls in tow. A woman smiled at me and stepped back out of my way. Boots up to there, a coat with fur cuffs, hair piled high, sunglasses, sipping a quick espresso. My mouth hung open again and again I got a smile and a beautiful hand placed on my four year old’s head. “Bellissima,” the gorgeous woman cooed.

I chuckled and said grazie. I mean, really, who’s kidding who here? How can you be so gorgeous and be so nice at the same time? You are just trying to live well, aren’t you! And the Italians were unfailingly gorgeous, gracious and nice-living extremely well in this regard. How was this possible? Style with a smile. And I think that’s what I liked best, the way the Italians smiled at my kids, ruffled their hair, nodded at me, all on their way to what appeared was a Vogue photo shoot.

Getting back to the new wardrobe thing, I needed warm clothes for all three of us pronto. To add some spice (stress) to the problem, the stage would be shared with all these smiling, gorgeous people. And the Italian kids? Forget it. Best dressed kids on the planet. It was time for humble pie and cheap market clothes. “Well, at least we get to see them!” I said aloud to no one in particular.

Down into the outdoor markets we went. Boots, socks, leggings, coats, sweaters, more sweaters, tops, skirts..only this stuff wasn’t cheap. It was nice and well made and very reasonably priced. In fact, there were some pretty fabulous bargains at the outdoor markets! There wasn’t much in the way of boring, boxy-cut tops with tons of fabric, a la Target. This stuff had an edge. There was nothing ordinary, plain or boring about it. Women from their twenties to their eighties were digging it, browsing with their Gucci bags but behaving extremely thriftily. I had to keep myself from diving in and buying up way too much, as is the custom in my country.

I plowed through tables as sunshine sparkled down while my girls laughed and played next to me. I found not just clothes but books, vegetables, eggs, underwear, linens. I was in Heaven! I paused each morning during my shopping to appreciate shopping next to Brunelleschi’s Church of the Santa Spirito, to say hello to the vendors I was quickly getting to know and to just smile at my kids. I tried things on right there on the street, thrilled with what I was finding, thrilled with everything around me. I took a break for espresso and chatted with guys at the cafes.

Target? Ever again? Shudder at the thought.

Kimberly Wainscoat lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and her favorite travel moments include riding an elephant through the Thai jungle, celebrating Buddha’s birthday in South Korea and drinking Rosano’s wine and Pasquale’s limoncello in Tuscany.