Monday, April 26, 2010

Grace's French word challenge

Since we started homeschooling, Grace has done all kinds of amazing projects. We have studied ancient art, we have read mythology and great fiction, and we have slogged along methodically through the peaks and valleys of fifth grade math. We have also studied human rights together, focusing specifically on the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Grace also has been gradually pulling ahead of me in terms of her spoken and written French. Her secret? Natural talent for languages, plus the dogged determination to work on learning new things every single day.

Out of two of her main interests -- French and human rights, she knit together her own project. When the major earthquake hit Haiti, she wanted to do something to help. I told her about Partners In Health, an organization started by activist physician Dr. Paul Farmer and sustained by donors, volunteers, and an ever-widening web of ordinary people who wish to support their ability to do the extraordinary.

She decided to launch a 400-Word-a-Thon in support of Partners In Health. She said she would learn 400 brand-new French words to encourage her friends and family to donate to this remarkable organization. She has been working on collecting and learning those words ever since.

Here's what she wrote about the project on her own blog:

While I was studying for a research project on children's rights I was forced into the lives of children whose lives never should've turned out the way they did. There are children in the world who are forced to be married under the age of thirteen, children who are isolated from their families and forced to go to war, children without healthcare, children forced to skip school and work in factories, children dying of preventable causes, and many other horrible things.

It was only shortly afterwards when I heard about the earthquake in Haiti. When I learned that Haiti was already one of the poorest countries in the world, you can probably understand how sad I was for the children growing up there. And that's when I realized that not only children are suffering from abuse and lack of safety and healthcare, but people of every age, kind, and civilization. By this point I was overpowered by sadness and I knew I had to do something about it.

So I decided to do a French-Word-a-thon. I didn't want to do another read-a-thon because people do them so often that every school has one at least once a year. I wanted to do something different that no-one else would think of and that was really hard to do because then people would be really excited about it and would want to pledge more money for Haiti.

And I hope that at least a few of you can find love in your heart for all those dying parents and their uneducated, sick or injured children who need them to continue living and loving them.

Today, four days early, she finally vanquished the enormous stack of flash cards.

She and I hope that you will learn more about Partners in Health (and donate, yourself) by clicking here.

Our special thanks to the following, who have already pledged or donated: Nona, Grandma and Grandpa, Auntie Gaela, Katie, Jackie, Kate T, Kate W, Maria, Lucia, Anna-Maria and Dermot, Aups Jessica, Paris Jessica, Hilary, Peter, Hawthorne, Aunt Mary, Aunt Bonnie, Zaro, Toni and Bud, Wendy, Hillary, Hilary, Terence, Auntie Eileen, Mary, Alain, and Buck

These Are a Few Of My Favorite Children

First Summer Day, with Alexander

"My Pom-Poms are Tired"

Our good friend Dave lived in France after college as an au pair, mastering not only the French language, but also the technique for making a really killer tarte tatin. He was my classmate in college, and married Megan, one of Bill's classmates, an American who was brought up in Paris. So back when we were in the idle chatter phase of planning this trip, we did a lot of our musing in their direction. They had introduced us to a whole bunch of great French words, French foods, and French wines, and had generally made France seem awesome -- certainly more real, less pretentious, and more enticing than anyone else ever had.

Dave could also give us great advice about this trip because his brother, a world traveler like himself, had just finished his own family sabbatical. Like me, Dave's brother kept a blog about their adventures, in which he explained the joys and the reality of relocating one's children to a foreign country.

At the end of his time away, he said about his experiences overseas supporting and nurturing his children, "My pom-poms are tired." Dave, wise man that he is, passed this comment along to us -- in part because it was so funny, but also by way of a gentle, warm warning: it might not be so easy to uproot our kids and hope they would grow where they landed.

Dave is the best kind of person to provide advice. His brother had clearly lived through exactly what we were setting out to do. But, true to form, Bill and I didn't really listen to him. Or if we did, we didn't believe that we'd have the same problem, and so we failed to take some of the precautions we might otherwise have taken.

You know, like being a little more systematic about teaching our kids French, or finding them a decent bilingual school, or living somewhere that feels a little less rurally woebegone in the middle of winter. Or airlifts of bagels.

Bill's and my decisions are frequently driven by our theories about things, rather than by actual evidence or learning from the smart things that other people tell us. Which is why Dave's brother's strange condition -- Tired Pom-Poms, or TPP -- struck us only as strange at the time.

Or perhaps it struck us as something that a different sort of parent might say, as we simply couldn't imagine it could be all that tiring to take care of our own two kids. Back in Brooklyn, when we both worked full-time, we both got awfully tired. Bill sometimes got so tired, in fact, that he would spend an entire weekend lying on the sofa. But back then, we weren't exhausted from cheering on our children, but rather from the competing demands of our lives at work and at home.

How hard could it be to help our kids through a single year away? We set what we thought would be entirely reasonable goals. Each child would learn French. Their math skills wouldn't atrophy. They would each make a friend. When we put it that way, it seemed nearly impossible that we couldn't achieve what we set out to do.

So here we are, nearing the end. Neither one of us has a job. We have had acres of time to share with one another, punctuated by remarkable trips and really wonderful visits from our family and many of our closest friends. And what do we discover?

Our pom-poms are so tired that they feel like barbells.

Because of our initial lack of understanding of Dave's brother's malady, TPP, it took us an awfully long time to admit it. As stubborn as our children are, we are only moreso, and we had to come up with a whole bunch of ways to justify that the challenges we had set for our kids were not beyond them -- or beyond ourselves.

But very recently, our kids had been driving us nuts, in the way that only kids can – and that kids who have been trapped 24/7 with their parents for nine solid months really must. In the last week or so, we temporarily lost patience with them, and to some extent we had even lost sight of the reasons we are here.

We lost patience as a result of committing the unpardonable sin of letting ourselves get frustrated by who our children really are. Instead of seeing their qualities are positives, we were starting to see only the negatives. Rather than "persistent," Abigail was seeming "stubborn." Rather than "creative," Grace was seeming unfocused and impossible, unable to finish anything useful. And, as awful as this sounds, we were both angry at them -- so unfairly so -- for not having made close friends here in the village.

As the date of our departure approaches, we have to face a number of unpleasant minor realizations, including the fact that not everything we thought would happen really has. My French never got awfully fluid. The girls never really got comfortable enough to make strong friendships here in town. Bill had to recognize that several mountains in the Var will have to go unclimbed, and that he has not yet learned to play the bass guitar like John Entwhistle. At the start of things, a year feels like forever. Now our year is a memory and a month.

When I started this blog, back in a hotel room in Dublin on our way to France, I named the purpose of our adventure "taking a year away to get back home." I assumed that the year would be all about gathering ourselves together in the face of a foreign world, about pulling together in the face of challenges. About becoming a stronger family.

And then Bill and I discovered, we like it here. We really really like it here. Bill may not be able to play the bass line to "My Generation," but he has joined a band, fallen in love with the landscape, and become a full-fledged expert in Cote de Varois wines. I've learned to cook, learned to love homeschool, and become utterly comfortable here (except for that whole portail thing, and all those frowny faces.) We miss Brooklyn like crazy, but we've made some lovely friends, and feel we've only started to explore everything we could learn here.

We've found a home here, in ways we never expected. But the whole truth is that the girls really haven't. Grace is happy enough here, despite missing her friends something fierce. But for Abigail at least, this isn't home, and will never be.

From her perspective, we took away her home, her friends, her language and her dog. She even was strangely attached to our jobs, seeing them as status and stability. While this year she has learned, and grown, and experienced remarkable things, she has stubbornly clung to a spar called "America."

"It's hard to be in another culture where nobody cares about you," she told me today, during the usual Monday morning school-induced misery. "I won't live anywhere but America for the rest of my life."

Thus our pom-poms are tired from cheering the girls through all this solitude, all the challenges that we set before them. As much as we have loved watching the girls grow and change from little into big, from monolingual to bilingual, at times it has all seemed just too hard. Mostly for them, but more recently, even we cheerleaders are a little bedraggled.

Don't cry for us, Argentina; this really isn't such a huge change. We had hoped to get in one more adventure before we left, and went so far as to make a reservation for an apartment in Paris for the start of June. (Anybody want to take our place? We've already put in the deposit.) But the more we thought about it, the more clear it became that "family" means "we do things together." "Home" has to be where we all can thrive, where we all can find a place.

So we've made the call. It's time to go home. Tickets changed, airplane booked. One French month to go.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

More Cake, Anyone?

Birthday Party

Back in the fall, just after we moved to Aups, I held our first real dinner party, for three other French families who live in our town. Everybody’s kids ran around like lunatics, then fell in a giant pile in front of the television, watching some Disney movie or another while the parents sat around the dining room table. We poured lots and lots of red wine, and I very nearly understood small portions of the conversation unfolding in front of me.

I was nervous as heck trying to throw a real party in a foreign place, as despite my advanced age, I have long suffered from a sort of learning disability where domesticity is concerned. But while I barely knew any of the people at that table, I was comfortable in their collective presence almost immediately. So what if I couldn't speak their language, or serve cheese with the appropriate utensils (apparently individual clean knives are always a good idea with a cheese course.) I really liked them. And as far as I could tell, everybody had a good time.

As it turns out, the people who came to that party have now become real friends. After all my complaining about how unfriendly French people are in general, we now have actual friendships, a loose web of them quite nicely leavened by the presence really excellent children and some of the coolest Brits you will ever wish to meet.

It happens slowly, this building of friendships in adulthood. You have to suss people out, and you see only gradually what they're really like. When you're in the eighth grade, you can make a new friend almost instantly -- or at least in the process of a 45 minute study hall on three or four consecutive days. But with grownups, particularly with other families, it's more complicated. Some people you might like immediately, and then find that your spouse finds them impossible. Or others you might think were a lot of fun, and later discover that they don’t return your emails. The good news is that friendship drama doesn't sting nearly so much in adulthood; there are just too many other things going on.

Although I felt immediately comfortable with the people who came to that first party, it’s only been more recently that they have felt like closer friends. The kind of people to whom you tell the truth when they ask you how your week has been. The kind of people who really understand when your kids are having a rough day. The kind of people I’m really going to miss like crazy when we leave.

Last Tuesday, our friend Jessica turned 40. Since I am the elder stateswoman of our little clique here in Aups, I invited nearly everybody we know in common over to celebrate her. The crowd of our shared friends, was about half French, half, British; half kids and half adults. Her Mom, who owns the terrific house we have lived in all year, came as well, and we got to ask her a million and one questions – about Jess, and about the house itself. She told us, for example, that the bronze bust that has been watching over us all year is a cast of the first president of Sri Lanka, and the crown he has been wearing is the prize for several dozen years' worth of costume parties she held in another small French town nearby. We learned who painted which portraits, and where she managed to find them all. Not surprisingly, Jessica’s mom turned out to be a beautiful, warm, and compelling woman.

The rest of us were a motley crew of parents who speak English and French with varying degrees of skill. Jessica, for the record, is the most fluent in both, the point around which the rest of us could balance. But the most important thing that we all had in common was that we all really really love Jessica. She’s the first friend we made here – in fact she felt like a friend before we arrived. She sent us photos of her donkeys and her kids, and reassured us about how we might deal with registering for all the important aspects of temporary residency here. She’s the kind of person who has strong affections, strong opinions, and embracing enthusiasms. She doesn’t suffer fools, but neither does she hold anybody at arm’s length unnecessarily. Jessica rocks.

I never counted how many people were here to celebrate (a fact that had some bearing on my failure during the evening to provide the appropriate numbers of spoons, bowls, plates, and slices of cake) but all the chairs in the house seemed to get filled a few times over during the course of dinner. I think we had a few dozen, roughly half each kids and grownups.

It was the kind of party I most enjoy, which means that I let things spiral nicely out of control. I spent part of the day cooking two kinds of soup but nothing else particularly fancy. Everybody brought some treat or other, and it turned out that there was enough to go around. I baked a yellow cake and tried a new frosting recipe. The texture was all wrong, and dripped off the sides of the cake into a puddle on the plate. But it was the kind of party where you could just stick your finger in the pooled failed icing and take a big old lick. Several of the children in attendance did just that, as did the guest of honor herself.

I also enjoyed the evening because it was the kind of party where the kids go completely wild. After about a half hour of balls flying everywhere, of little girls rummaging through the dress up basket, and all of the kids running in and out of our house, our neighbors’ house, and the shared courtyard, one little boy came running inside, blood streaming from the top of his head down onto his white shirt.

He had tripped and somehow gashed his head. But surprisingly enough, he was neither crying nor particularly upset about the fact that his head had been gouged open. His parents, showing a calm equanimity that seems characteristically French, first did this sort of parental neurological exam, asking him to follow their finger with his eyes back and forth. I wasn't sure if they were kidding, but he must have passed, because they asked for a little antibiotic cream to daub on him, then sent him back out to do more crazed running around. As long as the kids don’t get too upset, I always think that these wild rumpuses do them good.

(Our girls, as is their wont, slipped in and out of the core of the action. They seem to choose this place on the sideline of a wild rumpus, despite my deep wish that they would sometimes simply let themselves play with greater abandon.)

When it finally came time to serve dinner, everybody wanted Bill’s Harira, a Moroccan soup he first tasted on his trip with Sean. I had a vague idea of setting up the kitchen table as a buffet, but when the kids all installed themselves there instead, I let the chips (and the quiches, and the salad, and the bread) fall where they may. I even took the bold American move of putting cheese out before dinner, which seemed to the French kids was like I was serving ice-cream sundaes as appetizers. Everybody pulled up a chair, or found a place to stand and eat.

Count this among the accomplishments of the year: I may have found my own personal style of entertaining. I call it ramshackle chaotic mishmash, with good food, and even better company.

As a family, we hadn't been having the greatest day ever. But just as soon as everybody walked in the door, in a big friendly clump, we were returned to ourselves by the comforting and reassuring presence of friends. Not just acquaintances anymore, but real friends.

This has been the best bittersweet surprise of our time here. We expected to learn about France, about the language, about the landscape, and about ourselves. We expected to become attached to the Var, and I certainly fell in love with this remarkable house the second I saw it. But I don’t know if we anticipated the real joys of new friendships. Or the way that we will feel sad, and miss these friends, when it's time to go.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

That Which Endures

High on a hillside overlooking the entire city of Florence stands the church of San Miniato al Monte. Legend has it that in the third century after Christ, the devout man who would become Saint Minias was living as a hermit on this hillside, near a pagan temple. When he was beheaded by the Romans for his Christian beliefs, he was said to have picked up his own head and carried it back to the hill. Christians built a shrine to him there in the ninth century, and then began building a Church there in 1013.

That's a thousand years ago. Which sounds big when you think about it that way, but smaller when you think of it thus: 1,000 is 25 times my life span. If you add up the life experiences of the kids in my kindergarten class, now that we're all grown up, we've lived a collective thousand years: every one of them since the man walked on the moon.

But still, relative to the age of everything else I know, San Miniato is old. The Church is significantly bigger now, having been added to during the eleventh, twelfth, and sixteenth centuries. Large portions of the interior were built of re-purposed Roman and Byzantine materials, and many of the geometric designs inside the church look Greek or Arabic rather than Italian. Cultures and forces and histories have swept in and out of this church, and still it stands.

We loved San Miniato, and its view of the entire city of Florence, just as much as we loved San Marco. Some monks were singing as we walked in the ocean-green doors, and the sound drew us down towards the crypt at the heart of the church. The monks were standing in a semi-circle around the tomb that is said to hold the remains of Saint Minias himself. (This claim is contested, as most claims regarding relics tend to be.) Their notes ballooned outwards from the crypt, filling the huge space and bouncing back on themselves. Then, when the monks were done singing, they just shut off the electric lights and walked out with that awkward and official way priests sometimes do when they are finished with religious rituals. I guess any ritual, even a sacred one, can eventually feel awfully rote. The music was like silk, but their taking leave of the crypt looked like they were just leaving the office for the day.

After we listened, we read the ground below us. The floor tiles of San Miniato are entirely engraved with names and words, all in Latin. There is nowhere you can walk without stepping on the words of the past. Like San Marco, this church is all geometry and fresco. It was dark and beautiful inside, and made me want to stay there and be silent all day.

But when you travel with kids, there is no such thing as silence, (only loud whispering, if you're lucky) and no such thing as staying anywhere very long. I felt an insistent breath in my ear, felt few impatient tugs on my sleeve, and then walked out into the sunshine. We followed a path off to the side of the Church, which led into a warren of crypts and gravestones. Elaborate half-size houses marked the avenues, each decorated with a family name and a particular style. Between and among the rows of houses, there were huge marble stones on the ground, marked with the names and dates of people long since dead. There were stone and concrete busts everywhere, as though the dead had been frozen by the people who loved them, only to moulder slowly into mossy-soft versions of themselves at a slightly slower rate.

Lots of the gravestones looked recently tended, with fresh flowers, or at least not-so-beat-up fabric ones. But others were cracking into shards, under the weight of weather and time. Some of the little houses had glass windows, but the glass had been cracked open and never fixed. It was a lot like the rest of Italy -- not overly tended, and full of a design mishmash: lots of serene lines and colors, spattered here and there with gaudy excess. For a graveyard, it was an awfully lively place.

The girls found the children first. A stone would have a cameo picture of a baby attached, and be marked with the dates to match: 5-4-35 to 10-6-36. Here was a teenager, grinning wildly and holding an ice cream cone. Or a ten-year-old, or a toddler. One gravestone had a bronzed bust of a six year old girl. The stone spoke of the joy she had brought her parents in life, and the pain they suffered once she was gone. The little girl had died in the 1930's. Her parents are almost certainly gone themselves now, but the little statue and the Italian words I could just barely make out brought my fresh tears.

And then, further into the stones, we saw two life-size marble statues. One was a young man in an officer's jacket. The other, facing him, was a young woman in a long flowing dress. At first I imagined that these were statues placed by somebody's children to commemorate a long and loving marriage. Looking at them standing there, staring at one another with such longing and affection, I fell in love with them myself. While I have never really thought of life-size marble statues of dead people as anything but weird, these two people standing on Saint Minias's hillside were the very picture of an enduring love.

But then I got up close and read the dates. The man had died at 25, in 1944. The woman was born in 1922, and died early in 1945. I realized with a shock that these long-ago lovers had never been parents, had barely been adults.

Bill came up by my side. "They both died in the War."

For some reason, I had thought that about the soldier, but it hadn't occurred to me that his young bride would have been a casualty as well. If his military uniform was Italian, that made it even more complicated. Hard to know whether he was on the side of the right and the good. He might even have had a hard time with this one, himself.

I don't know why we love graveyards so much. Perhaps because they are quiet. Perhaps because we like the stones. Perhaps because we love the stories that emerge. It seems like a creepy place to take our kids, and that only got worse once they started searching the stones for stories of more and more dead children.

But despite all the children, or perhaps because of their photographs, this graveyard was particularly lively, the memories it held were full of clear, obvious joy. There were the marble statues, so in love they were nearly dancing. There were the smiling babies and the happy Nonnas and plenty of flowers -- fake and real. If you've gotta be dead, this would be an awfully sociable place to end up.

But perhaps we also like graveyards because they remind us -- without any shadow of a doubt, that we ourselves are alive now. And that we will not always be, which makes our living all the more remarkable.

We took the bus back down the hill, and walked back towards our house. The streets were crowded with tourists, with businesspeople, with buskers and gypsies and west African guys selling Fendi knockoffs. They were all alive, barely conscious of the miracle of their own existence, thronging the living streets below the city of the dead. How many of us ever remember how shocking and strange and wonderful this all is? Even the awful parts, the disasters, the tears, the wars?

While none of us would walk that day carrying our own heads up a hill, the very fact that we are all living struck me as its own kind of miracle. And then we did what any sane living person does in Florence. We stopped in at Festival di Gelato. We chose the freshest and strongest flavors we could find, and savored them, bite by bite. Peach. Coffee. Hazelnut. Lemon.

All of this reminds me of perhaps the best reason of all for us to take this year away:

Life is short. Eat your gelato first.

Friday, April 16, 2010

No Accounting for Taste

At the Pitti Palace, we saw some really old stuff: art that had been inexplicably preserved against innumerable threats for hundreds of years. The luminous paintings and delicate sculptures there survived two incredibly violent millennia. But perhaps most importantly -- they survived the nasty vicissitudes of artistic taste. Because, if somebody like me had been in charge, even for a dozen years or so, a lot of that Renaissance-era cupid nonsense might have been in the dustbin of art history.

We all (stupidly) imagine that our taste is impeccable. We believe that we appreciate the things worth our regard, and hate the things worth hating. We imagine this even as we routinely chuck things from the past that seem dull, and rush off to Target to buy a knockoff of the next big thing. As I write this, contractors are ripping out the guts of our house in Brooklyn, turning a parlor into a kitchen and turning windows into walls. Part of the redo is to make the house fit the shape of our family. Part of it is to keep the house from crumbling into itself. But part of it is that I got bored with what I loved so much -- what I had to have -- ten years ago.

But it's not just us average Josephines whose aesthetic opinions change with the weather. The folks in charge -- the tastemakers themselves -- keep changing their minds. This seems particularly true of those who are being paid to have the best taste -- those folks invariably get cranky about what was just current a few weeks/months/eras before. So the better one's taste, the more likely that it is railing against something that was quite recently in fashion.

Take the Rough Guide: Florence. Please. We bought it for this trip, believing that it would steer us right. But then, as we started to read it back in Aups, looking for the best tourist destinations and picturesque churches and museums worth the price of admission, we discovered that nearly everything in Florence was awful. The book contained all the usual info on when everything opened and closed. But it didn't contain that delightful spark that promises the joy of a new city opening up like Venus on the halfshell. Instead, it warned us against a whole lot of dingy disappointments.

The sweet little market near our rented apartment, where we buy buffalo mozzarella, fresh eggs, and asparagus -- and get nicely flirted with in the process? The Rough Guide calls it "small and tatty." The terrific place where we bought gelato the other day? "Touristy and artificial." Michaelangeo's David? Believe it or not, this book calls his masterpiece "lumpy." The smackdowns in this book are ruthless, pointless, gratuitous, relentless. If you bought this book before you bought your tickets, I can't imagine you'd ever actually get here. We almost cancelled ourselves.

But then we got here. And wow. Some of this city's beauty was lasting and remarkable, some of it proto-tacky in the worst possible ways. But aside from the one time we used the Rough Guide to find dinner, (our first night here) we've loved it all. So I've gotten suspicious -- not only of the judgment of the Rough Guide, but also -- and perhaps more usefully -- of my own kneejerks of taste.

Travel might make you smarter and savvier -- eventually enough so that you can get a job with the folks at Rough Guide, sneering at the things at which bumpkins can only marvel. But actually living outside of our comfort zone for such a long time seems to have made us a lot more humble. We no longer trust our first thoughts on things, even our deepest-held assumptions, as they keep being foiled. The world keeps spooling out ahead of us, and there is always so much more to learn.

Let us remain bumpkins, forever.

For there is more to discover than what we first thought. After discovering what it is about Italianesque design that makes us so cringe, we have also discovered several elements of Italian design that we L-O-V-E- love. Old things. Stone things. Things that were carved out by monks and craftsmen hundreds of years ago, and then resolutely left unchanged as the next several centuries rolled on and on.

A few days ago, we had our time at the Pitti, surveying all that heavy drapery and pitying those missing appendages. There I marveled at all of the things that can be done in the effort to make skin deep so damn lovely. It helped us see all the stuff back in America we had seen as gaudy as related (somehow) to the Renaissance. But I didn't really, truly love what I saw.

But then, these last two days, on our slow, child's pace travels in and around Florence, we found artwork that nobody in their right mind would ever jettison. This was the stuff that even the grouches on staff at the Rough Guide couldn't find a way to criticize.

(Or at least I tell myself this, eager to feel that my own sense of taste matches up with the wisdom of time. But since both of these places we loved have survived so long -- many hundreds of years longer than any institution I care about -- most notably the U.S. of A. -- I have reason to believe that I'm right to think they're pretty damn special.)

The Museum of San Marco was at the center of the Venn diagram of things that Auntie Laura, Auntie Kate, Grandma Linda and Grandpa Gus insisted that we see while we're here in Florence. It's a beautiful old monastery, structured in plain vanilla geometry, painted in creamy vanilla paint, and decorated with the masterworks of just one phenomenal artist, Fra Angelico.

Before I got here, I thought that Fra Angelico was something you drank after dinner out of a tiny glass. Now that I have seen his frescoes, (and looked him up online to count his masterworks) I see just how wrong I was. He was a prolific pre-Renaissance painter, focused entirely on rendering scenes from the life of Christ in jewel-tone blues, reds, and pinks. And he is also a bonafide, full-on beatified Saint.

The downstairs of the former monastery is his museum. There are astonishing works of late-medieval Christian art, including a series of about two dozen panels depicting the important scenes of the New Testament.

Abigail's favorite painting here was Fra Angelico's version of the moment in Revelations when the graves all open and God divides the people of the earth, sending the lucky ones to Heaven, and the evil ones to Hell. The iconography is incredibly gripping -- the folks in Heaven stand around some nice looking foliage in a small, select circle, holding hands; while the masses in hell get boiled alive, eaten by their fellow hell-dwellers, and ripped apart and thrown into the mouth of a crocodile. These folks, skinned alive, have no way of forgetting how shallow their earthly beauty was.

But even this unsettling imagery was beautiful, in this context. It wasn't all jumbled in with a lot of other stuff, or trivialized in juxtaposition with lots of secular frou-frou. The room in which it was hung was decorated with only one artist. The art was hung against a background of one color, (Background Beige) within halls formed by just two kinds of shapes: half-spheres and squares. The roofs rose high into steady, repeated, regular forms. There was no interest in ornamentation, just foursquare logic. It wasn't quite as simple as a Quaker meetinghouse, but could not have been much further from the flounce of the Pitti and the grandeur of the Uffizi.

We played our usual family art games in San Marco's monastery. First we all split off in different directions to find our favorite painting, and then we gathered back in the middle of the room to tell each other what we had found. Grace chose the panels that told her the story of Christ. Abigail chose the stark divide between torture and salvation. Bill and I each found some funny little background detail -- the way the gold paint resolved itself into fabric, or the strange swirly paint on a set of steps. We then counted all the paintings where one face faces out, while the rest stare at Jesus and Mary in the center.

We are a family so distractible that we can barely follow our own sentences to completion. Yet this room made is all more serene. Rather than pushing onwards, we wanted to stay put. We really only ever feel like this in two other situations: on a big broad lawn in the sunshine, or around a big broad table together. This beautiful place somehow brought us to the same peaceful state we only find in nature, or at home. The building's architecture did its duty; this dizzy, spazzy family was suddenly contemplative and focused.

Upstairs from the museum portion of the San Marco were the cells, where monks lived for centuries, contemplating eternity, sacrifice, and yet more Fra Angelico frescoes, different ones painted on each monk's wall, like so many rock band posters in college dorm rooms. The frescoes upstairs were heavy on the Crucifixions, but hit all the big subject matter a monk might most wish to gaze on every day and every night. Despite the stark accommodations ("Where did these poor guys sleep?" Grace asked. "On the floor?") several of us were ready to move in ourselves.

Not that peons like us would ever have been afforded the choice, (and three of us are girls, hardly monk material) but if we had the choice to live like the royalty at the Pitti or like the monks in San Marco, we probably would have chose isolation and silent contemplation, just to be in those rooms everyday.

All of us, except Abigail. When I asked her about it this morning, she gave the sensible answer of the modern American: "When I grow up, I want to live in a huge mansion. You know, like the Pitti Palace."

She looked at me, thoughtful and careful, then added the final detail: "Except my mansion is going to have a really big TV."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

From the Windows

Skin Deep

An afternoon at the Pitti Palace has finally helped me to better comprehend a particular aesthetic vocabulary I have never before understood. It's the world of heavy embroidered curtains and trompe l'oeil frescoes. Of chubby cupid overload and marble inlaid in sixteen different colors. It's decorating an entire room all matchy-matchy in just one super-saturated red or green or mustard, and then doing the next room in yet another.

In its modern American incarnation, this is the style of wedding palaces and overfancy Italian restaurants. You find faux-Renaissance swirliques and fussy details echoed in marble showrooms in midtown Manhattan, and "fancy" hair salons in Bay Ridge. I had very little idea that it had its higher-culture roots in something real.

Protestant and New England to my core, I have always found this style icky, really -- deeply, stickily icky. But somehow, after my close encounter with Medici Glory today, I'm much more compelled.

Auntie Laura, connoisseur of all things Italian, described the Pitti Palace as "totally over the top." We would agree. The exterior is dreary, grey, and forbidding. The lighting in many of the rooms is awful, either too dark or too stark. But for sheer oil paint per square inch of wall space, it would be hard to beat. Essentially, the museum is room after room of down-at-the-heels super-fancy baroque room design hung with as many famous and quasi-famous Renaissance Era paintings as could be scraped together by several ruling families over several hundred years.

Many of the paintings are enormous. There is a famous gargantuan Rubens painting of a naked, super-fleshy Venus pulling Mars away from the temptations of the Furies. Essentially, this is an allegory of the relationship between love and war. The girls were quite certain that Venus would win over the martial spirit, but Bill pointed out how strongly she (Love) was attracted to war. That Bill -- he's a smart one. In the enormous category, there are a number of allegorical paintings, many of them depicting various kinds of trauma, casualty, or danger. I can only assume that they were the PG-13 movies of their day.

There was lots of nudity, just as at the Uffizi the other day. Pondering all the butts and boobs and frontal nudity, Abigail had a further comment on the difference between art and smut. According to her, "it's not inappropriate if everyone in the painting is naked."

However, speaking of inappropriate, many of the marble statues at the Pitti seem to have suffered the same horrible fate. If I were a mother of boys, I would think twice before bringing my kids into the palace, as statue after statue after statue seemed to have been relieved of its penis. Some of the other statues had lost a head, or some fingertips, or another jutting appendage to the ravages of time, but the ones missing their manhood struck me as particularly bereft. Hanging out in the halls of the Pitti too long could really give a little guy a complex.

Many of the smaller paintings are presumably faithful likenesses of remarkably unattractive people. If I were as ugly as many of the Medicis appear to have been, I would have thought twice about having my visage memorialized and then hung forever. One particularly odd-looking (but presumably powerful) guy was carved out of a block of Maroon-colored marble. I can't imagine that the job of court portrait painter would have been an awfully pleasant assignment. If your painting was good, it would look bad. If it looked too good, you’d lose your job. And just imagine how an all-powerful ruling family would react if you made their famous family nose one whit bigger -- or smaller.

About half the rooms were hung with art. The other half were either entirely frescoed and tromp l'oeil-ed, or decorated as though the King were just out for the afternoon to have a drink in Fiesole, and would return right after all the tourists left. One room depicted the Jews, triumphant, bringing back the Arc of the Covenant. (If you ever go to the Pitti, you'll recognize this room right away -- it's the only one with no nudity, but with a prominent gold menorah.) The ceiling had been painted as though it were the inside of a richly embroidered fabric tent. On the walls, some skilled artisan hundreds of years ago had used some pretty fancy shading to make it seem as though the walls were made of carved marble. Given how much real marble was all over the place, it clearly wasn't a cost-saving measure. Instead, this style of painting seemed just to be for the sake of itself -- just to prove you could make a wall look like another sort of wall entirely.

It was in the palace rooms that I finally got a sense of what neo-Rococo or neoclassical contemporary interior design is trying to accomplish. Here were the heavy draperies, the enormous gilded chandeliers, the paintings of little naked angels covering the ceilings. It was as though somebody thought that the art and architecture of a grand public building -- like a church or a plaza or the Sistene Chapel -- should be applied to a bedroom. And I guess if you're a king, or wish to style yourself to be a King in your own home, why not? Michelangelo's David in a museum, surrounded by sleek white surfaces? That's beautiful. A small-scale plaster copy on a fake column in your living room, flanked by velveteen wallpaper and extra swirlique detailing on the moldings? Not so much.

Even the girls -- usually so easily swayed by things that are shiny and fancy and pretty -- weren't so enamored of these rooms. They had seen Napoleon's apartments at the Louvre, and seeing the rooms here -- even the bathroom so famously built for Napoleon himself -- they could see why he never showed up. They were both too much, and not enough. Not enough light, not enough scale, dogged by an overwhelming feeling of dingy.

Don't get me wrong. We loved it. We really, really loved it. Part of that love was loving to hate it, but that was fun too. In fact, we love everything about this beautifully faded city. We love the leather shops (especially the one where I found my cool new coat) and the little back alleys. We love the narrow streets, even when you nearly get run over by a bus now and then. We love the throngs of teenagers and all the weird kinds of meat at the central market (pig's head, anybody?) We love the required daily gelato, and the creative use of every kind of stone you could imagine.

Beauty is skin deep, the Puritans would warn us, by way of suggesting that perhaps we shouldn't spend so much time on our own vanity. However, there's another way to see that same truth, and it's the way beauty appears here in Florence. Florentines seem to understand that beauty is just skin deep, so you'd best pay damn close attention to the surfaces of things. Is your 40 year old skin starting to show signs of wear and tear? Well then, don't ignore it -- just get better tromp l'oeil.

The women seem widely inclined to do just as well with what they have been given as they possibly can. You don't see them schlumpfing around in sweat pants and tennis shoes, having given up on beauty whenever things started to go a little awry. They use plenty of make-up, and really do their hair. They add more detail (a scarf, a tight jacket, great shoes) rather than holding back. Since arriving here, I haven't left the villa without lipgloss and a little eyeliner -- and for those of you who know me well, you would understand how much of a departure from usual practice this would be.

And the men? Well, Italy distinguishes itself with the attention men seem to be willing to pay to their own appearances. An attractive young man here seems to spend at least as much time and energy making himself look rakishly unkempt as the old biddies take pulling themselves back into order. And they keep up the effort way into their older years -- fancy shoes, well-cut pants, a scarf poking out from a blazer cut just-so. Given all the attention they have paid to looking terrific, you'd think these men were, well, women -- if they didn't look so damn manly.

Here, everybody appears to be looking at the surface of things all the time. If rural France is a secular Garden of Eden (all those delicious vegetables, and carefully unspoiled vistas, and human-scale pleasures of the eye and the flesh) then Florence is a stage set for a beautiful costume drama. Everything, and everybody, feels as though it is on display all the time. The tourists are here to look at the surfaces of things, and Florence seems to understand itself to be a sort of theater set for their looking. Everything must be faded glory, all the time.

Even the famous gelato is often more beautiful than it is delicious, heaped up a foot high and decorated for the pleasure of being looked at. (The really delicious gelato, as I learned from my friend Nick and then tasted for myself, is often hidden down the backstreets, rather than sold where all the tourists are looking. And this gelato looks a lot more bland: the pistachio is a dull greenish-brown, rather than electric green.)

Here, the puffy pink clouds in the blue sky look as though they were painted as background for some cherubs. The landscapes of Tuscany look for all the world like they were painted to be sold by the street artists outside the Pitti Palace. Everything is so picturesque, so close to lovely faded decay, that it's awfully hard to know where the stage set of Italy ends, and the real beauty begins.

So far, all this looking at surfaces has only improved things for our family. At least on the surface. Bill has adopted an extremely attractive sort of Eurotrash aspect, never removing his camel coat or his sunglasses. The girls suddenly take extra time to brush their hair and match their clothes. (Yes: you read me right. They are brushing their own hair, without being asked.) And now that I have this terrific new leather coat, and am motivated by the attitude of the city to wear a little more makeup than usual, I'm going to fit right in as well. I liked this new me so much, I actually took my own portrait in a mirror, smiling just as wryly as I felt. At the same time, in the other room Grace was trying on pink eyeshadow and taking self-portraits with her DSI.

Don't worry; this descent into vanity won't last long. To the extent that the four of us even can manage it, our beauty is skin deep. But then again, so are all my wrinkles. Now is hardly the time for me to start caring in any permanent sort of way about the outsides of things.

Which is why I promise: the next time I get a chance to redecorate, I won't be hanging any Renaissance reproductions or velvet curtains.

Friday, April 9, 2010

In the Boboli Gardens

On Beauty. And Pizza.

We spent the morning in the Uffizi Galleries, which contain some of the world's most remarkable works of art. There, walking from a room full of the gold backgrounds and somber oval heads of Middle Ages alterpieces into the crowded hall of Botticelli masterworks, we watched the modern idea of beauty being born. The subject matter of the artwork changes, from nearly-identical set pieces of the Mother and Child being adored by various saints towards a wider variety of stories from classical antiquity. Suddenly artists start using math to build perspective, and then they gradually learn to use the gazes of their figures to draw you, the viewer, deeper into their canvases. Eventually they start to paint real people, to pearlize their paint (thanks to the Dutch), to carve marble like the Greeks, and to render perfectly accurate still-lifes and sweeping landscapes.

Grace saw all of this, right away. She has had a remarkably fine education in art history and the fine arts, taught by sensitive and extremely wise teachers. From them, she learned about gesture and perspective, about color and line and intention, as evoked in great art and expressed the things she has made herself. She's had a first-class arts education, but also she seems fully primed to take in the meaning and visceral beauty of any art she sees, at least for the first few hours in a museum, which is more than you can say for most adults.

The fact that we can spend so much time in so many museums is also a testament to Abigail's profound powers of endurance. Some of the paintings piqued her interest (particularly those with women with particularly fancy outfits.) However, the rest of them were boring, or made her feet hurt, as though there were a direct connection between the paintings, her eyes and her little tender pieds. Other paintings were simply "inappropriate."

I find the constant use of the term "inappropriate" by children to be hysterical. It's another thing they picked up at school, a somewhat less useful lesson than all that great art history, heavy-duty math, and amazing writing they did there. Kids these days typically use this awful, empty word to describe anything sexual, physical, or related to the potty. This means that Britney Spears videos, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and Homer Simpson all go in the same broad category.

When we were kids, we had a wider spread of words to describe stuff we weren't supposed to be seeing and enjoying, but were: there was "caca," for potty stuff, "kissy-face," for sexual stuff (none of us seemed to know what else might lurk beyond a mere kiss) and "sleazy" for the kinds of outfits worn by the Solid Gold dancers on TV. We also had "scary," "icky" and "Democrats" to describe other things we had been taught carefully to avoid.

Sometimes I miss the old days, before the evils of the world all became so blandly "inappropriate."

In the case of the Uffizi, the most "inappropriate" painting, in Abigail's mind, involved the entire backside of a beautiful woman, rendered in exquisite and fleshy detail from head to buttocks. You could almost feel the softness of her skin. You could also see, facing her, a whole host of people observing her front side, including a leering goat-like male figure offering her a bunch of grapes. Abby also pointed out that many of the men depicted in the Uffizi Galleries are sporting "weenie sacks," (again, her term.) She did not, however, remark on all the flat-out frontal nudity in the Greek statues and the Renaissance-era painting. Apparently fleshy butts and nut-huggers are "inappropriate." Breasts and Roman-era male genitalia are just human.

Her terminology was awfully mild, but it's rather shocking that she had the guts to complain at all at the Uffizi. Because Bill started the morning with the most Over-The-Top Parental Guilt lecture I have ever heard. The night before, he had been frustrated with the girls and their constant desire to get dressed up in fancy clothes, and to visit carousels, souvenir shops and gelato stands rather than do anything he finds to be edifying. So, during breakfast, he decided to drop the High Art Guilt Bomb, with all the subtlety of the Germans strafing Florence during WWII.

"Girls, I want to tell you something," he started in, over our scrambled eggs.

"Your Auntie Laura and Auntie Kate really love Italy. You may also have noticed that they are both very fashionable, and they love to make art. These three facts are related."

Abigail saw this War-by-Lecture coming a mile away, and quickly mounted her defenses. "Grace makes great art too!" she insisted, in a totally uncharacteristic move, drawing a little positive attention to her frequently-loathed older sister.

"Yes, she certainly does. And so do you, Abigail. Which is why I thought perhaps you should know something important about Florence.

"I wasn't going to tell you this," Bill continued, "but a lot of people who are cool and fashionable artists, like Kate and Laura, learned a lot of what they know about art here in Italy. And, you know, you're totally entitled to decide that you really hate it, but most of the people who appreciate Renaissance art end up becoming really cool and making great art."

I could see just how evil his speech was becoming, as he secretly sought to link their affection for fashion to something more enduringly high culture, but I decided to let it unspool itself on the sweet little heads of my two impressionable girls. Anything to help us get to and from the Uffizi without a flat-out tantrum in the middle of the Boticelli room.

"Now, you could decide that you're one of those people who just simply doesn't appreciate Beauty," he continued, as though he really felt this equanimity towards folks who can't tell a kitten poster from a Roman marble bust. "But just in case you're one of those cool people who does, we're going today to one of the most important museums in the world."

Grace was nearly drooling at this point, as ready to rise to an occasion as I have ever seen her. She was lapping up Bill's lecture, totally ready to use her own reaction to the Uffizi to gauge her own degree of cool points where art is concerned.

She needn't have worried. She donned her little grey beret, walked uncomplainingly through hall after hall of paintings, and soaked it all in. Up until the point when nearly any museum-goer would have been over-saturated by all those Little Baby Jesuses, she gazed and compared and looked with all her might. She came, she saw, she appreciated.

Abigail did her level best, but after about two rooms she couldn't help but ask to go home. When I said no, that we'd be spending several hours here first, she acquiesced, tantrum-free. She accepted her own lack of interest without a lot of fuss, realizing that yet again, she and her sister are different in nearly every possible way.

But perhaps because of Bill's heavy-handed lecture, or perhaps because she knew how much Grace was appreciating it all, she slogged through the rest of the collection, looking now and again at the art, and now and again for little benches to rest her weary little bones. She leaned on me a lot, but she held it together long enough to get to the hot chocolate in the rooftop garden. Outside, she became much more animated, standing up to take photographs of the high tower of the museum and the Duomo across the way.

As we sat there drinking our little treats, I gave the girls the museum notebooks they have been keeping. Abigail drew a credible likeness of a robed figure. "It's God," she said, although He Himself had appeared in only a few times in the artwork -- most notably in a painting of a shamefaced Adam and Eve first learning the meaning of the word "inappropriate."

Grace started sketching, trying to work out to the best of her ability how to draw the proportions of a face. I tried to show her what little I remember myself: the counter-intuitive fact that the eyes go halfway down the head, and that the mouth isn't nearly as close to the chin as you might initially think. She stuck at it as though her life depended on figuring out how to draw a proper nose.

Later, on the way out through several additional halls of museum shop (including one filled with Ferragamo ties and handbags -- I'm not sure what relationship they bore to the artwork upstairs) we found a treasure-trove of kids' books in English about Florence, art history, and how to draw. While we're typically pretty miserly about shopping trips this year, we will almost always buy great books in English when we can find them. (That, and great food.) Abigail got a copy of Pinocchio, which she was eager to go home and read while wearing her new shiny mask. She got a sticker book of great artwork, and a kids' guide to the Pitti Palace. And Grace got -- in book form -- several new installments in her lifelong education in all things Beautiful.

We bought a few more subs on the way home, then took a long midday siesta. The weather has been incredible since we arrived, and we threw open all the windows while we snoozed, I wrote, and the girls poured over their new books. We have heard that Florence is unremittingly and intolerably hot in the summer. But this week, at least these last few days, it could not be more perfect.

In the afternoon, we hiked up a winding hill to the top of the Boboli Gardens. We wandered slowly back downhill through the park, settling ourselves down in the shade on a grassy terrace above a fountain and a pool full of murky green water. The park was full of little knots of people -- a group of American women in their suburban best, some Italian skatepunk kids laughing and hooting, tidy sixty-somethings pairs of couples speaking German or French as they passed.

The city also appears to be playing host to some sort of convention for Perfectly Adorable Young Priests. They were hordes of them in the Uffizi, and then again here in the Gardens, all dressed in identical, perfectly fitting black suits. Their behavior and their demeanor was perfectly appropriate, but aside from their white collars, they looked for all the world like clean cut young men dressed up as groomsmen for a friend's wedding. They laughed with each other and chatted with tourists. They posed in jokey ways in photographs. While I have never really thought of priests as particularly attractive as a group, these sixty or seventy white collared men of God were all super-cute, and extremely well coiffed. So much so that Bill thought that they might not have been real Priests at all, but rather an extremely effective stealth advertising campaign for Vidal Sassoon.

For dinner, we followed one of Auntie Kate's several choice recommendations, and ended up at Il Pizzaiolo, for the best pizza in town. Bill was skeptical that any pizza -- even real Florentine pizza -- could match up against the very best Brooklyn has to offer. But Kate was right (she often is.) As we bit into our pizzas, Bill and the girls dissected their various qualities, as though they were Pizza Restaurant Critics hired by The Times to cage match the best pizzas of the world.

The girls jumped right on Bill's bandwagon here -- we may differ in our feelings about art, fashion, hiking, souvenirs, and the parts of the human body, but we always agree about food. Bill established several categories (crust, toppings, sauce, cheese) and tried his darndest to argue Brooklyn pizza back into our consciousness. "Remember the crust at Lucali?" he asked, bringing us back to one particularly memorable pizza fest a few years ago in Cobble Hill with Stephanie and Jason. "Remember the cheese at Patsy's, when we get takeout in the playground with the big ship? Remember the toppings at Christiardi's? Those are your standards. This pizza has to stand up to all of them to win."

Bill has a food-ographic memory, and so in fact can bring these tastes and experiences directly to mind as though he were reliving them. I myself was having a little love affair with the mushy-sweet texture of the eggplant on the pizza right in front of me, and could speak of nothing else. Instead, I listened to the three of them babble on, in all earnestness. They parsed the sauce (neither too tangy nor too sweet, but perfectly fresh, just essence of tomato.) They loved the cheese (outstanding in its fancy form, on my pizza, but truly exceptional on the regular old plain pizza margarita the girls ordered.) My eggplant was an obvious win. But crust became a touchy subject. This one was the victor in terms of taste (full of flavor, just the right level of salty) and texture (chewy, but not pretzel-y), but lost the race on crispiness. In fact, these pizzas were nearly soggy in the middle.

Bill held out for awhile that the crust was the most important part, and thus Brooklyn's consistently great crusts should win the whole competition. This struck the girls as ridiculous, and so a victor was declared. Game, set, and match to Florence. To Il Pizzaiolo, with all of its extra vowels and terrific, better-than-Brooklyn level pizza.

Victory also to the city of Florence, at least on this most perfect spring day. Victory to Western Art, to huge gardens built by overwealthy families centuries ago. Victory, in fact, to our little family. And to Beauty itself.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

We Really Really Like it Here

Our first morning in Florence, it took us awhile to get out of the gate. The apartment is so quiet, and the shutters block out the light so beautifully, that none of us managed to wake up before nine. Bill and Abigail kept snoozing away, but Grace and eventually rallied enough to get some breakfast at the grocery store, which was not nearly as weirdly different and terrifying as our first trip to a French one. Here, we still had to weigh our own vegetables and figure out the difference between various kinds of Italian yogurts, but all that is old hat. Oh, if the old WhereverLaunaWent could see me now.

The grocery store even sold Philadelphia cream cheese, which we were sure would cheer up grumpy old Abigail. It did. That, plus the extra hours of sleep, plus the fact that we let her laze around all morning, and didn't start our sightseeing until two in the afternoon.

Remember how yesterday I told you the earth-shattering news that Italy is not at all the same as France? Here is today's bit of wisdom: traveling places with your young children is not at all like going to those same places alone. Wherever you go with children, there they still are, and they still want some candy. Which means fewer museums, way more downtime, and a stable schedule of mealtimes. Or else you'll wish you never left home.

While we were waiting for the kids to soak up adequate amounts of downtime, Bill went out foraging at the real market. He reported that most of the Italians he met there spoke perfectly good English. If they didn't, that did not stop them from delivering lengthy lectures on how to cook the produce, meat, and cheese he had just purchased from them. He also got us submarine sandwiches at the deli a few doors down from our apartment, which was apparently full of smartly dressed Italian-American young women talking on their cell phones and each being more glamorous than the next. Bill has spent a lot of time in sub shops, but this was the first time he left one feeling unstylish. And old.

The last time he was in Florence, he was twenty two. So this would be the twentieth anniversary. The girls thronging the sub shop hadn't yet been born when he and Alain were last eating gelato on the Ponto Vecchio. Relative to the rest of Florence, we're awfully young. But relative to the sweet young things in their retro-80's outfits and white Keds, we might as well have been painted by Raphael several centuries ago.

After lunch, we shoehorned the girls out the door with promises of Bridge Gelato and souvenirs. We had no real destination, just an intention to wander as productively as possible. We first happened on a museum full of wooden models of Leonardo daVinci's most important inventions. A lot of them looked totally familiar -- pulleys and levers and cranks that have become part of every machine you can imagine. It was like this guy invented the whole mechanical world, from cranes to planes to bicycles. However, when you invent everything, some of what you dream up might never got off the ground, either literally or so to speak. Less successful than his pulleys and dredgers and ball bearings were his flying machines and square wooden parachutes, and some air-filled skiis he imagined for walking on water.

Over in one corner was a huge wooden six-sided box, full on the inside of mirrors on each wall. I got a big kick out of making the girls, and then Bill, close their eyes as I led them to the door and then into the box. "When you open your eyes," I told them, "you will be looking at my favorite thing in this museum." Their reflections went back and back and back, hundreds of little Abigails or giant Bills multiplied into infinity. My favorite things, to the millionth power. OK, other people have pointed this out before, but Leonardo really was a genius.

Soon we fell victim to the powerful gravitational pull that seems to yank every tourist in Florence towards the pink of the Duomo. We walked part way around, looking some at the dirty green-and-white tiled walls and some at the hordes of tourists standing in long lines waiting to enter. Each of the lines had its resident angry/dirty gypsy girl, plunking herself right at the head of the line to torture people with her pleas. Strongly against Bill's better judgement, we three lobbied for Ben and Jerry's, set just across from the long lines heading into the Duomo. My argument was that we eat authentic European gelato/glace all the time, and we never get Ben and Jerry's. So for us, Ben and Jerry's at the Duomo wasn't a goofy tourist thing to do. I'm not sure the argument was all that cogent, but he bought us three cones of chocolate chip cookie dough nonetheless.

Cones in hand, we wandered down the long street, full of fancy shops, towards the Ponte Vecchio. How this became a world-famous tourist attraction is beyond me, as it looks like nothing very spectacular -- just a bridge with funny little houses on it. Every other tourist in Florence was also wandering over it, mostly either towards the gelato store, or away from it, clutching their cup and a spoon. Here, Bill and I sat on the curb while the girls bought themselves souvenirs. Grace found two little dolls -- one for herself and one for a doll-loving friend back home. Abigail found a glittery blue half-mask with glass beads hanging down below. It was just that combination of girly, shiny, and strange that so fascinates her. She put it on, and we all kept walking south.

Since 1992, Bill has been telling me stories about a particular square south of the River Arno, in Oltrarno. In his memories, this square was the cornerstone of Heaven itself, a nearly-perfect rhombus with a fountain in the middle, a beautiful chuch at the wide end, and sweet little houses and cafes lining its long edges. He couldn't remember the name, but looking at the map, he thought it might be Santo Spirito. Although we had no particular stated destination in mind, this was clearly where Bill wanted to go.

At least on this particularly idyllic and warm afternoon, I could see why. The bustle of the city quieted down to the level of little chirping birds and a burbling fountain. We ordered a few drinks and sat down at an outdoor café, surrounded by other families who needed a late-afternoon break. We watched the shadows of pigeons walking around on the white canvas strung over our heads, and watched a little girl dressed all in pink play in the square with her Father. The Church of Santo Spirito is basically the Anti-Duomo, with a nearly-bare façade that looked more like something in a desert than something in Firenze. A teenage Michelangelo carved its wooden Crucifix. In a city like Firenze, full of flashier sites of faded Renaissance glory, it would have been easy to miss this one.

On the way home, we hopped back on the tourist bandwagon, picking up a few tickets for the Uffuzi for the next morning. Ready or not Boticelli, here we come!