A Flat With a View
|Not what it was when *I* was a young woman, etc, etc.|
There is much to write about: the sunny Sunday Lunch in front of the Historical House, the diet-vocabulary pact with Squirrel, and the McLean trip to Florence. We’ll start with Florence.
We were in Florence for the past nine days. That’s why there has been no blogging. Benedict Ambrose and I left for the airport only an hour after I led Polish Pretend Son and the Beautiful Young Lady to the railway station. Miraculously, we have come home to a relatively tidy house and no dirty dishes—though the recycling boxes are overflowing and the kitchen ponged with sour wine residue. Pity.
But never mind that. We flew to Pisa airport, took the new “Pisa Mover” rapid rail to Pisa’s Central station, and then boarded the next train to the Big Handbag. Shortly after climbing off the train at Santa Maria Novella station, B.A.’s knees collapsed and he began to stagger like a drunk. Oh, my poor B.A.!
I grabbed B.A. and then his bag and got them to the station’s grand hall. While holding up two rucksacks and a husband, I looked around wildly for a place for the latter to sit. I found a place occupied by a handbag, so I shouted “I’m sorry, but my husband is sick” in Italian at its young owner. She stared at me uncomprehendingly (Tip: in emergencies in European tourist centres, just use English) but moved her bag. I plunked our rucksacks down, placed B.A. gently on the seat, and then went in search of our hostess, who turned out to be only yards away, deep in conversation with a handsome youth.
To everyone’s relief, the handsome youth carried B.A’s rucksack. He also attempted to entertain me with a flow of chatter while I sneaked peeks at the astonishingly beautiful shop windows that lit up the night like dreams. More on these anon.
B.A. and I found ourselves ensconced in a high-ceilinged and perfumed flat with big windows overlooking a cheerfully noisy street. There were two bedrooms (we only used one), a sitting/dining-room and a cleverly small kitchen tucked along a partition wall. I spent a lot of time at the big table in the sitting-room studying Italian grammar or doing the trip accounts—but I spent even more time looking down from the open sitting-room window, enjoying any breezes and watching the tourists, the beggars and the Florentines go by. I learned many things from hanging out this high window, including how funny bottle blondes look if they don’t keep their roots up.
The weather was wonderful. Sometimes it was rather hot, but we didn’t mind that (except at night). Sometimes it was just perfect: sunny and warm with gentle breezes. On our last night it was rather cool, and I would have liked my jacket. However, the lovely walk along the Arno river warmed me up.
So what did we do? Mostly we rested. Benedict Ambrose slept late while I made coffee and studied grammar. Eventually I tired of my own coffee and went across the street to a caffé for a proper cappuccino and cornetto naturale (plain croissant), standing at the bar trying to read the pro-coffee poetry posted over the espresso machine while munching and sipping. I also went on some early morning walks to avoid the endless shifting crowds of fellow tourists. This meant dodging an awful lot of commercial vans and trucks, but seeing Florence in the thinner morning light was worth it.
We lunched well, either as a picnic or in the flat or at restaurants recommended by friends in the know. Then we napped. Then we went to Mass in the Extraordinary Form, which was provided by the Institute of Christ the King. On weekdays, this is usually in a side chapel away from the tourists, who occasionally pop up anyway and gape at the splendidly vested priest, the veiled ladies and the jacketed men as if we were animals in a zoo.
One day–I had one very bad day–I glowered so violently at such a tourist who was raising his expensive camera at us that he put down his camera to wait until I stopped. He didn’t budge, though. He was determined to get his photos. Hate stuck out of my lovely Christian eyes, and as this shocked even me, I stomped out of the enormous marble nave, past the Della Robbia Madonna and Child, and sat outside on the steps to pull myself together.
The problem with Florence–which is an old problem, but I think it is getting worse–is that the ratio of Florentines in the historic centre to tourists is low. Historic Florence does not look like a place where people are born, play, go to school, receive First Communion, take up a trade, marry, have children, vote, strike, struggle, cooperate, get sick, send for the priest, die.
Historic Florence looks like an enormous outdoor shopping mall with the odd historical building–left by a vanished civilization about which very few tourists know anything about–sticking up here and there.
Historic Florence is where a constant stream of tourists–often speaking German or American but there are many others–flow through the streets looking at things and buying whatever is for sale. It is usually a handbag.
There are dozens–hundreds–of shops selling rainbows of leather handbags, and all the handbags look the same. There are also very beautiful shops selling the best designed, best constructed clothing in Italy, and whereas they are delightful to look at, most tourists (I imagine) do not have the means to purchase their goods . But there are also “markets” that resemble tent cities, where Italians, South Asians and Africans try to get a piece of the tourist-money action by selling the same old T-shirts, hats, handbags, wallets. There is little pretense about these vendors, who begin their sales pitches in English. One enterprising merchant near the Piazza San Lorenzo had a device blaring bhangra music into the air. Is bhangra authentically Florentine? Well, maybe now. Truth is what is.
On the other hand, there are real Florence-born Florentines and there are even Florentines who are not part of the tourist trade, or at least are part of the carriage trade. After Mass B.A. and I generally drank (wine for me, sparking water for him) with friends at a hotel bar, bar and hotel the property of an ancient aristocratic family who still live in the 15th century joint. The wine we drank came from the family vineyards. Meanwhile, there were many people in the bar who gave every impression of being Florentines themselves, so there was a better Florentine: Foreign ratio, which I found refreshing.
I also found the sight of children–actual real children among the seething hordes of grown-ups–refreshing. From my window I watched as a Florentine child emerged from his parents’ shop and happily kicked a soccer ball against the ancient, faded ochre wall opposite. His parents were Chinese. Florentine children of Italian heritage were visible at Sunday Mass, and two little Florentines received their First Communion from the hands of the ICK priest without much fanfare: their white dresses, veils and wreaths were the only clues that this was their special day.
The very elderly were also a rare sight–except in the early mornings when they walked their dogs–but some of them were notably well-dressed. These were the gracefully aged. The ungracefully aged looked like 23 year olds with long blonde hair and teenage clothing from behind. From the front they looked like by-products of the leather factories.
As for African migration to Italy, which is the Italian story of the century, every morning I saw a beggar take his place outside the caffé-bar, the fake-designer-handbag salesmen, and the frightening trinket-pedlar who roamed a very exclusive shopping street, trying to shove a thick bangle onto women’s arms. However, I also saw an African in work clothes rejoining an Italian work party who had gone into the caffé-bar while he lingered outside scowling and ignoring the beggar. And I saw beautifully uniformed Africans in the grand hotel upon whose terrace we also had drinks. These struck me as signs of integration. Oh, and of course there is an African priest in Florence’s ICK, and I saw a black novice among a choir of seven religious sisters.
The politically correct will be relieved to read that there are also old-fashioned white Italian beggars on the chic and sunny streets. There’s an elderly one on the bangle-pusher’s street who shouts “Ho FA-me” (“I’m hungry”) for hours on end. Oh, and there are a pair of
gypsy Roma girls who paint their faces white, wear white headscarfs and long white skirts that get rather dirty, put their arms around tourists as they photobomb their selfies, and fish sandwiches out of garbage cans. Benvenuti a Firenze!
My feelings about Florence are perhaps coloured by B.A.’s ill health. I thought the better, sunnier climate would help him, but I spent my days worried that his knees would collapse again (as they did on at least three other occasions) and my nights being woken up by B.A.’s mad roaming about. Perfectly sane by day, B.A.’s injured brain would feed him strange dreams at night, and he got up to act on them.
“Darling,” he said one morning at about 4, “where are the keys? I have to throw them outside.”
“[Benedict Ambrose]”, I hissed, angry as a rattler at being woken from a deep sleep. “You’re raving! Come back to bed.”
Fortunately, my patience increased as the week went on, and I was nicer about these nocturnal ambulations. I am saving my ire for B.A.’s doctor and surgeon who neglected to tell us what to expect after B.A.’s brain operation. Although the doctor kept saying he could write B.A. a note to get him more time off work, he never explained that this might be necessary or that B.A. would find old routines mentally taxing or even impossible.
We had a picnic in the Boboli Gardens–which I do not recommend at mid-day, unless you can get to the shady, more garden-like bit–and we spent an hour or two in Santa Croce, and I think that was it for cultural excursions. Lest you think I am a barbarian, this was my fourth visit to Florence in 19 years, and when I was 28 I spent an entire week looking at its treasures. In my twenties, art works like “The Prisoners” exploded in my consciousness like bombs, but now they are like reruns. “Oh, look. Giotto. How lovely,” is as enthusiastic as I get, now that I’m in my forties.
It has taken effort to adjust to my middle-aged calm. I was so disappointed last year when I looked over Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo, and it didn’t have the impact it had when I first saw it at 27 or when I saw it again–at dawn–at 28. Yesterday morning I climbed up there alone and reflected that the rooves didn’t look as orange as they did 18 years ago, but that this probably had more to do with me than with the rooves. Meanwhile, I had noticed–and could describe in detail–a few other tourists who were also on the Piazzale Michelangelo at 7:30 AM. In my twenties I was all about heart-stopping views, and in my forties I am simply more interested in people. Yes, il Duomo loomed vast over the sunlit city, but it always does that, and much more interesting was whether or not the blond young couple quarreling in German were lovers or brother and sister.
What I liked best in Florence were the following:
Morning: going to the caffé-bar to drink cappuccino and eat a cornetto; having a newspaper to scan was a bonus
Noon: sitting outside a trattoria eating a boozy lunch with friends
Night: sitting outside a fancy hotel drinking cocktails with friends or sitting inside a fancy hotel bar drinking Chianti with friends
Unsurprisingly, I gained about four pounds. But this brings me to my second post du jour, which is about my diet-vocabulary pact with Squirrel. See post above. I will end my Florentine piece by saying that I managed not to buy a leather handbag. Instead I bought an Italian tablecloth from an old-fashioned hardware store. It reminds me of the Italian grandmothers of Italian-Canadian friends.