Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Viaggiare (v.): to travel, to journey, to tour, (by plane) to fly

It’s just after nine on a warm summer’s night and I’m sitting comfortably aboard a Delta Air Lines flight to Paris, France, waiting for the engines to accelerate and the wheels to leave the ground. For me, it seems a miracle of human technology, this ascent into the heavens, and no matter how often or how far I roam, it never grows old.

As I crane my neck toward the window, eager to see the street lights and the chain of cars along the highways disappear beneath a dark canopy of clouds, the world inside the cabin feels as small and as ordinary as the universe is large and mysterious.

I break my gaze for now, knowing there are minor tasks to be accomplished, and these must occupy my hands. I reach for my iPad and noise-cancelling earphones, reset the time on my watch, inflate a foot rest to make myself more comfortable for the long flight ahead, and laugh as the safety video on the screen in front of me explains about emergency exit rows and oxygen masks using a 1980s theme featuring Alf, break dancing, leg warmers, and Rubik’s cubes.

I’m sitting next to a charming older couple in row thirty-four. They introduce themselves as Mary and Bob, and as we tuck into dinner they announce that they’re celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with a vacation in Paris and a Viking river cruise. I’m going on to Italy, I say, and for a few minutes we chat amicably about our itineraries and we wish each other well. The flight attendants clear our trays and dim the cabin lights, and soon there is only a patchwork of TV screens, laptops, and smart phones to illuminate the dark.

It’s then that Mary falls ill.

Whether with airsickness or anxiety, she is nauseous and shaking, and I’m struck by the quiet way in which Bob holds her hand and strokes her back as she leans forward, her head resting upon the small plastic tray table. It’s a strange thing, to be forty thousand feet above the earth in so confined a space. As passengers, we are so close to each other that we can’t help but be privy to intimate details in one another’s lives, and yet we sit stolidly facing forward, row upon row, pretending we do not see.

All of the sudden, I feel like an intruder in a story that is not my own. There is nothing I can do to help, and so I’m willing (and grateful even) when the flight attendant motions me to a new seat in the rear of the plane. By now I’m wide awake and restless, so instead of curling back to sleep, I scroll through for a movie to watch, settling on a new film by Richard Curtis, called About Time. The premise is that a socially awkward young man named Tim is able to use time travel to woo the woman of his dreams. It sounds silly from the start, but before long I’ve embraced it.

By the end, the man’s father, who is dying of cancer, has shared his secret formula for happiness: “Part one of the two part plan,” says Tim, “was that I should just get on with ordinary life, living it day by day, like anyone else. But then came part two of Dad’s plan. He told me to live every day again almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be, but the second time noticing. Okay, Dad. Let’s give it a go.”

It might be a better movie than I thought. Or, maybe I’m still thinking about Mary and Bob and the simple beauty of life-long love. Perhaps it’s because I’m on an airplane, and people tend to get overly emotional on airplanes. Whatever the reason, the moral of the story resonates, and as I lean back into my seat and pull up a blanket, I stare out the window into the endless dark of night and think about how this year’s adventure feels very much like traveling back in time.

A year ago, I was anticipating a well-orchestrated trip to Italy—my third in six years—but a string of bad luck, including health problems and a stolen credit card, derailed the entire first week, and I was forced to simplify the rest. I would miss the pope on Corpus Domini and the annual infioriata in Spello. Gone, too, was the trek to the coast to wander about the pastel fishing villages of Liguria. All that remained were Venice, Florence, and Rome—an off-kilter itinerary from the start, run in reverse.

A year later, what I want more than anything is a do-over.

I’ve rebooked the same hotel in Rome, with its stunning rooftop terrace, from which I’ll see the pope in a candlelight procession between the basilicas of Saint John Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore. I’ve snagged a room in Spello to see the floral carpets that weave through the streets of that tiny Umbrian hill town on the Sunday following Corpus Domini. And I’m bound once more for the sea and the sun of Liguria, where I plan to sail by ferry from Santa Margherita Ligure to Rapallo, San Fruttuoso, Portofino, and Camogli. And there’s more, too. So much more that I can hardly contain my excitement.

For the next month, Italy will be mine. And my home will be in Florence.

I reach over and pull down the shade on the window, so that the rising sun doesn’t wake me too soon. I close my eyes and try to empty my head, but I’m still thinking about the heady possibilities of time travel when I finally doze off.

“Okay,” I’m ready. “Let’s give it a go.”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Andiamo (interj.): let’s go, hurry up, come on already!

Last fall, in the excitement of preparing for another trip to Italy, I decided that it was time, at last, to improve my pitiful Italian. I bought a set of Rosetta Stone CDs and signed up for an “Italian for Travelers” class through CCV, the Community College of Vermont, which offers evening courses for adults. The text we used was a slender volume with the overly ambitious title Conversational Italian in 7 Days. It was an unfortunate book, the kind that prompts you to memorize inane dialogues, including one in which a tourist asks a hotel clerk for the price of a room (Qual è il prezzo della camera?) and receives his answer in lira, an outdated unit of currency that was replaced by the Euro more than a decade and a half ago.

Months later, I’m still struggling with basic vocabulary, but as I stare out the window at the morning sun and feel a familiar rush of adrenaline in my stomach as the plane begins its descent into Paris, there’s one word that bounds back into my sleep-deprived skull:

Andiamo.

Let’s go!

I have just two hours at Charles de Gaulle airport before my connecting flight departs Gate F23 for Florence, but I’m determined to use it wisely. I log in for fifteen minutes of free wifi to send a text message to my family in Pennsylvania, and then grab a quick lunch at an EXKi café, but once I spot a familiar pastel awning on a kiosk nearby, I’m far more interested in dessert. I haven’t been to France since 2009 and I’m craving a Ladurée macaron. I do my best to push the Italian I’ve learned temporarily back into my brain and ask for a trio of delightful flavors, s’il vous plaît: rose petal, peach, and pistachio. Like Proust’s madeleine, the taste sends me tripping back in time, and for a few moments I sit quietly in a crowded row of airport chairs under the glass roof of the terminal, thinking about Paris and a rainy day I spent there once, many years ago, antiquing on the Left Bank of the Seine near the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It’s nice to be back, if only for a moment in transit.

The small Air France flight that takes me on to Italy is short and uneventful, but when I spy the massive dome of Florence’s cathedral out the window, rising high above the red-tiled roofs of the city, I know that I’ve arrived. Andiamo, andiamo!

Back on the ground, there is some minor housekeeping to be done. I collect my bags and pop a SIM card into my phone so that I can text Cristiana, the “greeter” at my apartment building, to let her know that I’m here, then I wait in line for a taxi, staring down at the business card provided by my rental agency, Italy Perfect. I practice the address over and over in my head before I finally speak it out loud: Lungarno Torrigiani, trenta-tre. Per favore.

It’s half past three in the afternoon, and the airport is just a few kilometers from the city center, but traffic is congested and it’s pushing my driver—a young man with dark brown hair and a relaxed disposition—into fits of causal profanity. Italian culture dictates that he be angered when a motorcycle veers directly in front of his cab while merging lanes, and he seems happy to oblige with a howl of indignation, a pump of the horn, and a rude gesture out the window, but there’s little relish in it. He’s does what he is expected to do, and then leans back and turns up the radio.

The ride is taking far longer than either I or Cristiana expected, so I pass the time by puzzling over a decal on the window of the cab that reads: Scendere lato marciapiede. This is translated helpfully into English as “Please get down on side-walk,” which is either an instruction to passengers on how to safely exit the vehicle, or a commandment to pedestrians to get out of the way of Mario Andretti, who by now is thumping his fingers on the steering wheel, and accelerating like a rocket at the smallest hint of an opening. Florence is a maze of small cobbled streets, and the pavement is choked with tourists walking obliviously down the center of the road.

By the time we reach the address, it’s a quarter past four and Cristiana has been called away on other pressing business. The doorman, an affable gentleman named Mauro, introduces himself and kindly offers to load my luggage into a vintage birdcage elevator, which clicks and clacks charmingly on its way to the fifth floor.

The double doors to my apartment are tall and carved of a deep, rich wood, and there is a polished brass plaque that reads “Bardi 2.” Mauro opens the door and hands me the key, saying that Laura will be by soon to walk me through the particulars on the air conditioning unit and the washing machine and so on, but my brain is hardly paying attention. I am standing on the threshold of a year’s worth of planning and suddenly I’m reminded of that Booking.com commercial on TV, the one where nervous travelers arrive at their destination, their hopes and dreams pinned on a reservation made sight unseen. As the narrator says: “The door opens, you hold your breath, and then you realize: YOU GOT IT RIGHT!”

I step inside, survey my surroundings, and think: “Yes!” Without a doubt, I got it right.

I sprint across the room to a large window, hung with cheerful floral drapes, open the levers, and gaze out. It’s a pleasant city view, with a hodgepodge of stucco buildings and shuttered windows, bathed in a warm afternoon light, and as I lean out and crane my neck to the left, I can see the church of San Miniato al Monte perched high on the hill behind a cluster of trees.

For a fleeting moment, I fancy that I am Lucy Honeychurch, the disappointed heroine in E.M. Forster’s classic novel, A Room with a View: “I want so to see the Arno. The rooms the Signora promised us in her letter would have looked over the Arno. The Signora had no business to do it at all. Oh, it is a shame!”

And I suppose it is.

Throughout the long, dreary winter in Vermont, had I longed to open the shutters on my imaginary windows to see all of Florence at my feet — from the red-tiled dome of the cathedral, to the sturdy and crenellated tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. Alas, the proverbial “Room with a View” is expensive. I’ve paid €1,990 for a four-week stay, but it would have cost €1,190 more to stay in a similar apartment facing the river, which I couldn’t justify to my practical brain and my limited pocketbook. In the end, I opted for a tiny one-bedroom apartment facing Via dei Bardi instead, with lemon yellow walls and lime green trim, tall ceilings, and big, bright windows. By the time I hear a knock at the door and circle back to the entrance to meet Laura, who smiles broadly and greets me with a generous hug, I’ve decided that I love my “Room with(out) a View.” It suits me well, and feels like home.

I relax for a bit, unpacking here and there. I hang my clothes in the walk-in closet, place some maps and brochures in a basket on the living room table, and spread out my toiletries on the glass shelf above the bathroom sink. There is a tall cabinet to explore, filled with cups and plates and pots and pans, and I take stock of what I have at my disposal while making a grocery list. After years of hotel rooms, it feels good to spread out and settle in.

By the time I venture out onto the street in search of a meal, it’s just past seven, and the late day sun feels warm and inviting on my jet-lagged body. After a long day in transit, I’m in the mood for a walk. The Uffizi Gallery is just across the river, and within minutes I could be crossing the Ponte Vecchio and back on Via Porta Rossa near the Hotel Davazanti, which is where I’ve stayed on all of my previous trips here. Those surroundings are familiar and enticing, but for now I’m far more eager to explore my new neighborhood on the Oltrarno.

I turn left and then left again, heading towards the Pitti Palace, but then instinctively veer right on Via dello Sprone, a narrow alley which spills out into the tiny Piazza della Passera. I wandered here once before on a shopping excursion. It was the perfect summer’s night—my last in Florence before moving on to Lucca—and the ceramic plaque I bought that day from a friendly woman named Tiziana, hangs in my library at home, where it gives me great pleasure. Coming back to this little square feels natural, a bit like picking up where I left off.

My stomach is growling for dinner and the menu outside of 5 e Cinque looks inviting. I order a fizzy glass of pignoletto wine, and then dive into a cećina, a flatbread made with chickpea flour, which is followed by a covaccino con capocollo di cinta senese—a thin Tuscan bread heaped with local salami.

Afterwards, I wander to the Ponte Vecchio, where my old friend Claudio Spadi is entertaining the crowd, and then stop for a dish of ice cream at Cantina del Gelato on Via dei Bardi, which has decadent swirls of hazelnut, Nutella, and caramelized almonds. By the time I reach the palazzo and the tiny birdcage elevator takes me back upstairs, my legs are tired, but my stomach is full and my heart is entirely content.

It’s going to be an extraordinary month.

 


My apartment in Florence

 

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Note: Although the apartment I rented is no longer offered through Italy Perfect, it is available by contacting the Rinascimento Palace directly, albeit for a higher price.

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Friday, May 30, 2014

Mangiare (v.): to eat, to tuck in

It’s silly to get excited about grocery shopping—it truly is—and yet those mundane errands we take for granted at home suddenly seem novel when we’re traveling abroad. Perhaps it’s the language barrier, or maybe it’s the promise of new and unfamiliar foods. Whatever the reason, it’s the first thing on my mind when I wake up this morning.

There’s a small shop just up the street from my apartment, with a blue and white awning that reads: Sapori & Dintorni, il Supermercato da Gustare e deGustare. It’s part of the Conad chain of grocery stores and as best I can figure, the slogan means “flavors and surroundings, the supermarket to taste and taste,” but really, it sounds best in Italian, far more elegant than the local Price Chopper in Vermont.

Inside, there’s a rush of customers speaking in rapid-fire Italian, and an imposing queue that snakes through the aisles on the way to the cashier. As I reach for a cart, I remind myself that I’ve done my homework, so I know something about what to expect:

Bring a cloth shopping bag. Check.

Remember to use plastic gloves before handling produce. Check.

Bag your own groceries. Check.

I also read something about ordering meats and cheeses over the counter at the salumiere, but at the moment I’m feeling too meek and too overwhelmed to try, worried I’ll get the fractions wrong and end up with a mezzo-kilo of ham instead of an etto.

By the time I make my way to the end of the line, I’m quite pleased with myself. I’ve found all of the essentials on my list—latte scremato, spremuta di arance biande, sacchi nettezza, and carta igienica—and as I examine the labels and let the words roll over my tongue, I’m amused that the things I’m about to buy sound so much more impressive than milk and juice, trash bags, and toilet paper.

I’ve managed to fill my cart with an array of other appetizing things, too, including focaccia bread and chocolate biscotti, as well as a few small custard tarts. My apartment has a tiny kitchenette with a two-burner stove and no oven, but there is a microwave, so I’ve also picked out a few packages of prepared pasta for quick and easy meals. Yes, I feel a teensy bit guilty buying such things here in the cradle of Tuscan cuisine, but let’s be honest… I’m no Mario Batali. Besides, I’m on vacation.

Buoyed by the morning’s adventure, I drop off my bags at the apartment and head outside again, this time over the Ponte Vecchio and into the historic heart of the city, along Via Calimala and its plush shops, past Piazza dell Repubblica and its carousel, all the way to the Duomo. There’s a Vodaphone shop nearby and I need to recharge the SIM card I bought last year for my iPhone, as well as purchase another so that I’ll have access to data on my iPad mini throughout the month. Afterwards, I head to Eataly, where I pick up a few more staples for the apartment, and then to the Mercato Centrale, where shopping succumbs to browsing and I spend a happy hour exploring the new first floor, with its artisan food vendors, wine shop, and cooking school.

By the time I make my way back to Piazza della Signoria, it’s late afternoon. My legs are wearing out, but my list is nearly complete. I spy a black “T” in the window of a caffè facing the square and duck in to buy a few bus tickets, then I walk to the corridor next door to buy an Amici degli Uffizi card, which for €60 will give me unlimited access not just to the Uffizi itself, but to many other sites in town, including the Accademia and the vast complex of museums at the Pitti Palace.

Back at the apartment, I warm up some pasta and sit down for dinner at the dining table facing the window, which I’ve improved with a vase of fresh sunflowers from the market. Afterwards, I take a slow stroll down to the Ponte alle Grazie and across to a well-reviewed ice cream shop on Via dei Neri. As I wander back, enthralled by the warmth of the setting sun on my face and the taste of dark chocolate and salted caramel gelati on my tongue, I think about how this is my fourth trip to Italy and how on each of the previous three, I had stayed in “tourist” Florence, where everyone smiles and speaks English, and there’s always a concierge to do the hard things for you, like booking tickets at the Uffizi, or calling to make a dinner reservation.

This time, I’ve made a point of striking out on my own. It may seem like a trivial thing, but I’m proud of my success. All of the mundane tasks I’ve accomplished today—the grocery shopping, the SIM cards, the bus tickets, and museum passes—have been a good investment. I’m preparing myself for the next four weeks, getting to know my surroundings, and gaining confidence in my skills. In short, I’m learning to survive outside of captivity, and all of the sudden, the possibilities of life in the wild feel endless and intoxicating.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ricordare con la mente (v.): to summon up, remember, call to mind

In the darkest months of winter, back home in Vermont, it’s easy to slip into reverie. Long after my Italian tan fades and my skin returns to its seasonal gray pallor, I find myself daydreaming of gondoliers and Roman rooftops and the kinds of summer sunsets you see only in Florence, which in my mind play like a Martin Scorsese movie reel, seamlessly scored to the sounds of some street musician on the Ponte Vecchio.

It can be hard to recapture that particular brand of magic we feel while on vacation, especially when living in a place so far removed from where we’ve been. To borrow from C.S. Lewis, it’s as if we’ve stumbled into Narnia, sampled its wonders, and then retraced our steps all the way back to the lamppost in the woods, back through the fur coats in the wardrobe, only to emerge in sad confusion. We may have the smell of mothballs in our nostrils, but a hint of Turkish delight lingers on our tongues.

This is more than mere metaphor. Taste and smell are intertwined in the primitive parts of our brains, and together they produce what scientists call “autobiographical memory.” For Proust, lowering a dainty madeleine into a tea cup brought back powerful emotions from his childhood. For me, making an English cottage pie reminds me of a cold, rainy day in the Cotswolds. A savory crêpe with ham and cheese transports me to a park bench near the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. And a warm plate of tiny pancakes—called poffertjes—smothered in butter and powdered sugar, takes me immediately to Amsterdam and to a lazy day I spent there once, immersed in the paintings of Vermeer and Van Gogh.

But then there is coffee.

Coffee has failed me. Resoundingly.

At home, I ache for a proper cappuccino—the aroma of ground beans, the sound of milk frothing, the wet and silky appearance of the foam—all a delight for the senses, even before I’ve raised the cup to my lips. My three trips to Italy have turned me into a coffee snob, and I am not ashamed to admit it. In fact, I’ve been known to launch into mild diatribes about how American baristas fail to understand the cappuccino. The espresso is too weak, the foam is too dry, and the two are inevitably poured into a disposable paper cup, which always makes me cringe.

This morning, on my way to the train station, I sidle up to the bar at the venerable Caffè Rivoire in Piazza della Signoria and for a mere €1.50, savor a truly divine cappuccino. It’s so good, I almost cry. And it’s all so easy—the product of a few spoken words and an exchange of coins. But as I stand there, surrounded by carved wood and polished marble, alongside businessmen in tailored suits, it occurs to me that coffee is the least of it. What I really want is to take Italy, fold her up, and place her in my pocket, so that on some snowy day in February, when the wind chill is well below zero, I can take her out again, wrap my fingers around her warm china cup, and breathe in deeply.

But really, the best I can do is take a picture.

I’ve lingered so long that it’s late morning by the time I arrive at Santa Maria Novella. I’m here to catch a train to Arezzo for the city’s monthly antiques fair, La Fiera Antiquaria. I’ve been here once before, in 2010, and so the walk I take an hour later down Via Roma and past Piazza Guido Monaco, is a familiar one. It’s a beautiful day under a clear blue sky, and the streets are crowded with shoppers and dealers peddling their wares. I see books and buttons and piles of old skeleton keys, a collection of brass corkscrews, and a box of vintage eyeglasses.

I’ve come mainly to browse, but almost immediately, I spy something I desperately want. It’s a painting of Florence, and of the Ponte Vecchio in particular, and it’s almost precisely the view I see when I leave my apartment in the morning. I dither for a bit, wandering away and then circling back again. I wonder how I’ll get it home, for it’s too large and likely too fragile to fit in my suitcase. It looks old, but I’m wise enough to know that it’s not. It seems to be artificially aged, but beautifully painted by hand, a reproduction of the way the Arno would have looked a century or more ago, and it’s the kind of thing someone on “The Grand Tour” would have taken home as a prized souvenir. I do my best to negotiate with the dealer and then hand over some bills. It’s expensive, perhaps, but I’ve been in a nostalgic mood all morning and something tells me that this painting will bring a smile to my face months from now when the snow is knee deep outside my bedroom window.

I slip the painting into my nylon bag and then make my way through the crowd to Piazza Grande, one of Italy’s loveliest squares. Here, there are more booths to explore, and I take a moment to snap a “selfie” in a pair of antique gilt mirrors before turning my attention to food. Back in 2010, I had a memorable dinner under the loggia at Ristorante La Lancia d’Oro and I’m eager to try it again, although I’m also a bit nervous that it won’t measure up to my memories.

It does.

I order a plate of homemade spaghetti with asparagus, Cortona saffron cream, and bacon, and just as before, my meal is punctuated by other small plates that come unbidden—a small taste of tomato soup, and a quartet of miniature pastries for dessert. Some things never change, and for this I am grateful.

Afterwards, I wander further through streets of antique dealers, up to the park of the Medici Fortress, where the view overlooks a valley of country houses and olive groves, and poppies cling to the city’s 16th century walls. It’s a peaceful place to sit, but suddenly I notice how tired I’ve grown and I know that it’s time to head back to Florence.

There’s a twenty minute walk from the train station back to my apartment on the banks of the Arno, and along the way I think again about the cappuccino I had this morning at Caffè Rivoire, and about the pasta I enjoyed at my favorite restaurant in Arezzo, which was just as sublime as I remembered. As I turn the key to open the heavy wooden door of the palazzo, I turn around once more towards the river, and I think about the painting I have snugly tucked under my arm, and about the powerful hold that memories have over our hearts.

It’s been a good day.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ecco l’Italia (exp.): That’s Italy!

At the beginning of one of my favorite chapters in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, the young Lucy Honeychurch remarks on how pleasant it is “to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room… to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.”

I’m reminded of that passage this morning as I leave my apartment and wander down the lungarno and across the Ponte alle Grazie. In part, it’s because the scene is largely unchanged by the passage of time, especially on a Sunday morning in late Spring when the sun is peeking out beneath a canopy of white clouds and the sound of church bells are ringing in the distance. But I’m thinking of Forster, too, because my itinerary for the day has been largely inspired by a scene that takes place later in the book, in the hillside town of Fiesole, a few miles outside of Florence. It is there that Lucy kisses George for the first time, in a field of violets high on a bluff overlooking the city, and the moment is so enchanting that I can’t help but be drawn to the place itself.

Writing in 1908, Forester has Lucy and her companions arriving in Fiesole by horse and carriage, but here in the modern world, I’m forced to resort to the No. 7 bus, which departs from Piazza San Marco. It’s an easy walk of roughly twenty minutes—past David and the duomo—but I find myself meandering off course time and time again. First, the still of the air is broken by a cacophony of car horns near the church of Santa Croce, which I feel compelled to investigate. A caravan of vintage Fiats is snaking through the streets, the drivers honking wildly while their passengers stand up through the sunroofs taking pictures.

Next, I spot a street sign that’s been cleverly altered by a French artist named Clet Abraham. The red ground with a white bar means “Do Not Enter,” but the figure of a man in uniform has been added and he is leaning over to embrace it with a kiss, a pose reminiscent of a famous photograph taken on V-J Day in Times Square in 1945. Impressed by the ingenuity of it, I circle round and round in the streets near the Accademia in search of more. In one, the white bar is being carried by an angel with tiny wings, and just below it a heart has been threaded through a left turn arrow, as if pierced by Cupid’s bow. It’s addictive, this game of Where’s Waldo I’ve been playing. I know that it’s time to push on, and yet I suspect that Forster would have sympathized, for as he puts it: “Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the traveler who has gone to Italy… may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.”

Just in front of the church of San Marco, I join a queue of British tourists waiting for the next bus to Fiesole. There’s an ATAF signboard announcing its arrival in two minutes and I’m pleased by the good timing, but after I turn around to snap a picture of yet another Clet street sign, the board has been altered to read twenty-seven minutes. Puzzled, I ask my companions what happened. An older man with a walking stick, white hair, and a plaid cap sighs deeply, throws his hands into the air, and says: “That’s Italy.”

Indeed, it is.

By the time we arrive in Fiesole, it’s just past one o’clock. I take a few minutes to explore the small antiques market in Piazza Mino that pops up on the first Sunday of the month, and then I make my way across the street and around the corner to the tourist information office to buy a combination ticket for the major sites in town—an ancient Roman amphitheater and archeological park, and the Bandini art museum, which has a fine collection of glazed terracotta figures by Andrea della Robbia. Both are enjoyable, but admittedly I feel more drawn to the signs that point toward the passeggiata panoromica. Fictional though she is, I want to see what Lucy saw.

As they were “nearing the edge of the promontory,” Forster describes how the “view was stealing around them,” while bushes “shattered it into countless pieces.” He’s right. It does. On I go, pressing further from the center of town, up a long, slow hill toward the open sky where the view begins to form at last. “[S]he could discern the river,” he says, “the golden plain, other hills… Light and beauty had enveloped her. She had fallen on to a little open terrace, which was covered with violets from end to end… From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.”

And so it is.

I use the long lens on my camera to scan the Arno valley beyond its green rim of trees, and I spot the façade of Santa Maria Novella, the red dome of the Medici Chapel, the tower in Piazza della Signoria, and even the palazzo facing the river where the Bardi apartment awaits my return. But soaring high over everything, just as it had when my flight descended into Florence’s Peretola airport, is Brunelleschi’s masterpiece, the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore—the duomo—Saint Mary of the Flower. The word reminds me again of Lucy and her violets and of what happens next in the story.

“Standing at its brink, like a swimmer who prepared, was the good man… [George] saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her.”

I’m squinting into the sun now. The afternoon’s rays are hot on my face and for a moment I have to blink back tears that are not entirely due to the brightness of the day. I am here and Florence is at my feet. It’s a sublime moment, spoiled only by the fleeting wish that I had a good man of my own to kiss. Traveling solo is an empowering experience and one I have never regretted, but it can also be lonely at times.

I close my eyes again, more slowly this time, and the remorse, or melancholy, or whatever it was, fades away. An Australian couple walks by and they ask if I’ll take their picture. I say yes, so long as they’ll snap mine.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Fatta l’Italia, bisogna fare gli Italiani (exp.):  “We have made Italy, now we must make the Italians.”

I’ve watched the final laps of the Tour de France along the rue de Rivioli in Paris, and seen the Queen in her carriage during the Diamond Jubilee in London, but for me, Italian festivals have become something of a specialty. I was in Rome once on Republic Day where I joined the throngs for a grand military parade at Piazza Venezia. I’ve also witnessed the solemn “Procession of the Holy Blood” in Orvieto, and a stunning display of luminaries along the Arno River in Pisa in honor of the city’s patron saint, San Ranieri. This year, I’m going whole hog—I plan to see a medieval harvest festival in San Gimignano, Pope Francis on Corpus Domini in Rome, and a famous infioriata in the tiny Umbrian hill town of Spello the weekend after. And, of course, I’ll be front and center for the Calcio Storico here in Florence on the 24th. I wouldn’t miss that for all the world.

Today, it begins. Once again I’m in Italy on June 2nd—the country’s Festa della Repubblica—and so I’ve scoured the internet and The Florentine newspaper for a calendar of events. As I sip my morning cappuccino at Caffè Scudieri, I see that there will be a wreath laying ceremony in Piazza Unità d’Italiana, followed by a parade past the Duomo, all the way down Via dei Calzaiuoli to Piazza della Signoria. Whether the festivities begin at 9:00 AM, or 9:30, or even 10:00 is generously open to interpretation, but Ecco l’Italia. That’s Italy!

For a place known for its ancient Roman ruins and Renaissance art, Italy is a surprisingly young country. Until a series of revolutions and independence movements in the 19th century—led by men whose names now grace streets and squares and monuments—it was little more than a peculiar collection of city-states ruled by powerful families and institutions. There was the Pope in Rome, the Medicis in Florence, the Doge in Venice, the Sforzas in Milan, and so on. Today’s “Republic Day” is a national holiday celebrated every June 2, that honors not the challenge of unification itself, but rather the referendum in 1946 that finally established a republican form of government after World War II and the fall of fascism.

As I run that complicated history through my brain, and find that the dots fail to connect, I decide that it’s better to be safe than sorry on the time. I down the last of my coffee and make my way to Piazza Unità d’Italiana, which is near the church of Santa Maria Novella and the train station. A crowd has started to gather, and soon after I arrive two Carabinieri in ceremonial dress place a wreath by the column at the center of the square, which has inscriptions commemorating the fallen soldiers and sailors of Tuscany, from the first Italian war of independence in 1848 through the First and Second World Wars. A brass band plays the national anthem, servicemen and servicewomen salute as the flag is raised, and I watch as the colorful bands of red, white, and green fabric catch the wind.

As the group moves in procession towards Piazza della Signoria, I rush ahead and up the steps into the Loggia dei Lanzi to get a better view, just beside Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze statue of “Perseus with the Head of Medusa.” And slowly they come. There are local officials accompanied by men in elaborate Renaissance costumes, a military band keeping time to the beat of a drum, and combat veterans proudly displaying their regimental banners. They fill a stage in front of the city hall, in the shadow of Michelangelo’s “David,” and the ceremony continues. Without a meaningful grasp of the language, there’s little I understand of the speeches, but as an outsider and a tourist there’s much to appreciate in the pomp and pageantry of the day.

Luigi Barzini once wrote that Italians are “naturally inclined toward arranging a spectacle, acting a character, staging a drama.” Here, I am observing Italy at its best, and nothing proves this more than the moment when firemen climb from the windows of the Palazzo Vecchio to unfurl a large Italian flag down the side of the building. The crowd gasps and bursts into applause, as once again the band strikes the opening notes of the national anthem, “Il Canto degli Italiani,” the Song of the Italians.

It’s then that I notice a woman standing next to me in the crowd. Aside from her small stature and advanced age, her appearance is unremarkable. She is the kind of Italian nonna we might expect to see in the kitchen making pasta, wearing an apron and orthotic shoes, but when she starts to sing, her voice is clear and unmistakably proud:

Fratelli d’Italia,
l’Italia s’è desta,
dell’elmo di Scipio
s’è cinta la testa.
Dov’è la Vittoria?
Le porga la chioma,
ché schiava di Roma
Iddio la creò.

Brothers of Italy,
Italy has woken,
Bound Scipio’s helmet
Upon her head.
Where is Victory?
Let her bow down,
For God created her
Slave of Rome.

Stringiamci a coorte,
siam pronti alla morte.
Siam pronti alla morte,
l’Italia chiamò.
Stringiamci a coorte,
siam pronti alla morte.
Siam pronti alla morte,
l’Italia chiamò, sì!

Let us join in a cohort,
We are ready to die.
We are ready to die,
Italy has called.
Let us join in a cohort,
We are ready to die.
We are ready to die,
Italy has called, yes!

After all these years, Italy is still a land of regions, of provincial conflicts and contradictions. And unification is still far from complete. There is a popular motto, variously attributed to Massimo D’Azeglio and Ferdinando Martini that says: “Fatta l’Italia, bisogna fare gli Italiani,” or “We have made Italy, now we must make the Italians.” It seems fitting to remember that on Republic Day, although outside the magnetic field of World Cup soccer, perhaps that’s easier said than done.

There is the Italy of the North and the Italy of the South, the Italy of Botticelli and that of Berlusconi, the Italy with the crumbling economy (where one in four young people are unemployed) and the Italy where such trivialities are easily cast aside in pursuit of la dolce vita. There is, in short, a certain schizophrenia to Italy that I struggle to understand, and perhaps that is part of its mysterious allure.

As the anthem comes to a close, the voice of the Italian nonna beside me fades and I turn in time to see her disappear into the crowds that are draining from the square in all directions. I wish I had had the temerity to talk with her, to ask her if she had lived here during the war and been witness to the German bombs that destroyed all of the bridges in Florence connecting the historic center to the Oltrarno—all except for the Ponte Vecchio, which, it is said, Hitler spared because it was too beautiful. And how had she felt about the country’s transition from monarchy to fascism to republicanism, all within her lifetime? In short, what had the day’s festivities had meant to her?

I regret that I have no picture to remember her by, but later, as I sort through the files on my camera, I hear her singing in the video I took, and that small memento makes me smile.

Despite my apartment on the banks of the Arno, which encourages a certain illusion of Italian life, Barzini is right. As a foreigner, my Italy is “mainly an imaginary country, not entirely corresponding to the Italy of the Italians.” As he puts it: “behind the turbulent and picturesque agitation of Italy, behind the amiable, festive, and touching spectacle, behind the skillful performances, real life is something else.”


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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Bottega (n.): workshop

Last fall, soon after I booked my apartment along the Arno, I decided to subscribe to The Florentine, in the hope that it would connect me more deeply to local news and events. Week after week, I read an eclectic mix of articles on everything from soccer matches to organic farming, and picked up odd phrases here and there in a regular column on the Florentine dialect, even though I couldn’t imagine I would ever be sfavato in Italy, which I was told meant “bored to death, unmotivated, unenthusiastic.” I happily scanned the ads for shops that catered to the needs of ex-pats, who by November were searching for an American-style Thanksgiving dinner, and I even perused the classifieds that sought English-speaking tutors and nannies. Shortly after Christmas, though, there was one story in particular that caught my eye. It focused on the San Lorenzo market, a place I had explored more than once.

In an effort to open the piazza in front of the basilica and to make room for a new electric bus route, vendors were being pushed into streets and alleyways near the Mercato Centrale. This was an aggressive and controversial move on the part of the mayor, Matteo Renzi, a charismatic man who within months would be tapped as the next Prime Minister of Italy. For years, tourists had flocked to the market for its inexpensive scarves and leather handbags, but there were few controls on the goods that were offered for sale, and most were poor quality imports that competed with the real “Made in Italy” products of local artisans, many of whom have small workshops on the south side of river, tucked away from the city’s historic center.

Sitting here now, in a plush green armchair in my tiny apartment, I’m thinking again about that article and the debate it provoked, and about Luigi Barzini’s warning to foreigners that “real life” is a world apart from the Italy of their fevered imaginations.

I’ve decide to devote the entire day to a unique challenge. I want to explore Florence through the eyes of its artisans and I’ll do that without ever crossing the river. There will be no stroll across the Ponte Vecchio today, past the glittering shop windows of jewelers and goldsmiths, and no walk down Via de’ Tornabuoni to observe the Spring fashions of Gucci and Ferragamo.

I’ve made the charming, cobbled streets of the Oltrarno my temporary home. I figure it’s time I get to know my neighbors.

The name Oltrarno simply means the “other side” of the Arno River, the side that is less explored by tourists who rarely venture beyond the Boboli Gardens and the imposing façade of the Pitti Palace. After sipping a morning cappuccino at Open Bar on Via dei Bardi, it’s there that I begin, in a large, sloped piazza under a clear blue sky.

I walk first into the bookbinding and stationary shop of Giulio Giannini e Figlio, which has operated from the same location since 1856, selling a form of art that dates back centuries further, that of marbleizing handmade paper. There are crowded shelves of carta marmorizzata, covering everything from photo albums to pencils to picture frames. I stand there for a few minutes, transfixed by the swirls of color that spread across the page like rows of scallop shells, and I find it marvelous that submerging a piece of paper into a liquid bath with floating dots of ink can produce patterns that are, at once, so carefully controlled and yet so strikingly unique.

I follow along the sidewalk further and enter another shop, Pitti Mosaici, where I’m greeted warmly by the shopkeeper, who introduces herself as Elenora. The showroom is a stunning space, filled with fine examples of pietra dura, an Italian phrase that literally means “hard rocks,” but translates more gracefully into the art of polished stone inlay. The Medici were obsessed with pietra dura and the work of the Renaissance artists they supported can be seen all over Florence, from the Palazzo Pitti and the Palazzo Signoria, to the Medici Chapels near the San Lorenzo market. Here in the 21st century, the tradition continues. There are large tables covered in all manner of fish and flowers, and tiny plaques inset with local landmarks, including the Ponte Vecchio and Brunelleschi’s red-tiled dome.

I glance about and my eyes catch hold of a beautiful circular mosaic of a bird with a cobalt blue head, perched on a delicate pink rose and set against a black marble background as dark as night. It’s a gorgeous piece, probably dating to the 1920s, she says, but I look at the price and know I can’t possibly afford it. I just can’t. We talk further, though, about this and that, and when I mention that I have a travel blog, Elenora graciously offers to take me on a tour of their workshop, which is just around the corner.

She introduces me to a trio of friendly artisans who are slicing and filing and polishing slivers of marble in order to fit them precisely together, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. One man is working from a pencil sketch of a rooster, while another is occupied by a pair of cherries hanging from a vine. The last is concentrating on an elaborate church, and I recognize it immediately as Santa Maria del Carmine, where I once made a pilgrimage to see a stunning cycle of Renaissance frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel. The sections of stone he has chosen have a subtle gradation of color that render the scene nearly three-dimensional, and as I look across the table at the painting he’s used as an inspiration, at his pencil sketches that translate those shapes into outlines, and finally at the stone inlay he’s produced, I am humbled. I can’t help but think that I will never in my life be as skilled at something as this man is in his art. And he’s still learning, she says. After twenty years, he’s still learning.

Careful not to disrupt their work for too long, I thank Elenora and the men I’ve met for their indulgence of time and make my way back into the alley and into yet another shop, that of a silversmith named Donato Zaccaro. As I browse the glass cases, Donato’s wife asks if I would like to see the workshop in back. Of course, I say, and she takes me to meet Donato himself, who is fashioning a large monogram of the letter “D.” Bashfully, I explain that it’s the first letter of my name, and Donato jokes that it’s his, too. His smile is infectious. He shows me pieces of paper on which he’s penciled the letters, and how he transfers the design onto wood using a series of nails, around which he bends a silver wire into shape. As he pounds the “D” flat and holds it up for my approval, I decide to buy it as a souvenir, knowing that by the time I leave Florence in a few weeks’ time, my suitcase will be filled with them, including a lovely paper picture frame and a mosaic of the duomo. I’ve been making a mental list all morning.

After an obligatory break for gelato at Gelateria della Passera, there are other artisans to visit, and they fill my afternoon happily. I explore a bead and embroidery workshop, a print maker and engraver, and a bespoke shoemaker, but my favorite of the afternoon is Giuliano Ricchi and his wife Maria, whose shop is tucked away in a quiet courtyard near the lively Piazza San Spirito. They are gracious and kind and within minutes Guiliano offers to takes me on a private tour to show me the equipment he uses to craft charm bracelets and metal boxes and business card holders, which he sells to luxury retailers abroad, including Neiman Marcus and Dior.

By the time I leave, my feet are tired and my stomach is growling for dinner. I sink into a seat at Trattoria la Casalinga, where a line is growing despite the early hour, and I’m grateful when I see that a carafe of good house wine costs less than bottled water. Wine it is!

The crostini with garlic and olive oil, and the spaghetti al pomodoro I order are equally inexpensive, but tasty and comforting in their simplicity of ingredients.

As I stroll back towards Borgo San Jacopo and stop to the admire the 16th century fountain on the corner of Via dello Sprone—the one by Buontalenti with the grotesque mask and the large fluted bowl, a well-loved landmark on the Oltrarno—I think about what a nice day it’s been. Through all of my wanderings, I’ve etched these streets into my memory, and the short walk back to my apartment feels like going home.

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