Wednesday, April 7, 2010

To Florence

Driving south along the Italian Riviera feels like the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day; several hours of the coast look like the same place over and over. The vowel-laden names of the towns keep changing, but (at least to me, with my eyes glued to the road, pupils adjusting over and over between the bright sunlight and the dark gloom of endless tunnels) the landscapes seemed the same.

It's Groundhog Day, except warm, and beautiful, and you're clearly not in Punxatawney, PA. Each time you round a bend, or emerge from a tunnel, the azure Mediterranean is flat and smooth down to on your far right, the ochre-colored buildings of another hilltown have been sprinkled around another tall church steeple, and yet another grove of olives is sprouting, fuzzy and soft around the edges of the town. Most of the towns have a port spiked with the masts of fancy sailboats. It's just flat-out gorgeous all the way from Monaco to Genova. It gets a little less picturesque around Bolzanito, the regrettable Genova suburb where we once stayed overnight at a fancy hotel for real cheap, on the way home from Austria.

Rather than have its main autoroute dip up and down with the endless steep hillsides, the Italians have used bridges and tunnels to defy both gravity and granite. (This affinity might explain why Italian-Americans are so prevalent in the Bridge-and-Tunnel hordes coming to Manhattan from New Jersey, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens.) While the road veers around plenty of side-to-side curves, it is essentially flat, either zooming along far above the ground on a bridge, or boring through a mountainside tunnel. This makes for a lot of alternating bright and dark. When I told our friend Jessica we would be driving along the coast to Florence, she mimed the action of eternally raising and lowering one's sunglasses, and that is what I spent the afternoon doing on our way here.

So anyway, just in case you haven't heard this before: France and Italy may be neighbors, and they share a glittering coast, ochre-colored buildings and a lot of olive trees, but there the similarities end. Even their olive trees are different: French olive trees are pruned low, wide open in the middles, while the Italian ones are all sprawly tall.

The very first highway rest stop, just ten kilometers over the border into Italy showed us that things would be different. We stopped to eat some awful roadside panini, which had been warmed only nominally, and were essentially full of frozen mozzarella within. In France, when you stop for lunch at a rest stop, you often still sit down to a slow hour-and-a-half long meal with three courses. (If you are French, it is more likely that you would have brought a picnic, including a table and cutlery with which to serve your own three courses.) Here, we put in our order, then stood at a crowded counter with no discernable line, order, or structure, waiting for it to be filled.

The people around us all pushed and shoved their way towards the front, and the service people moved like lightning. Once the people got their sandwiches, they stood around eating them unselfconsciously. (Try as I might, I have still not seen a real French person eat a single morsel of food while walking -- or even while standing up. It's just not done.) When Bill sat down at the table Grace and Abigail had claimed, he grinned broadly. "We're back in Brooklyn!" he crowed. (Of course, had we ordered these sandwiches at La Bagel Delight on Seventh Avenue, the shoving crowd and fast service would have been the same, but the sandwiches would have been hot and delicious.)

Aside from all the astounding 15th century art and architecture surrounding us here in Florence, and the gorgeous warm sunshine, it's true: this feels a lot like Brooklyn. Maybe it's the people, (a multi-ethnic mix, heavy on the Italians) or maybe it's the fact that we're staying in a city, but we do feel awfully at home, given that we're in a place where all the signs are in a language we don't speak.

The streets are full of people rushing around and looking as though they have somewhere important to go. The few people we spoke with with in our first 24 hours here have smiled warmly at us and at the kids. That feels like Brooklyn, too -- people like our kids, even when they are in the way, or are behaving like monsters. One adult, Dad-aged man patted one of the girls sweetly on the head. Another Florentine -- fashionably resplendent in a suit, a tan, and expensive eyewear -- had to stop his bike to avoid running over Abigail. Despite the inconvenience of stopping short, when he looked at her, his face broke into a huge warm smile -- for the benefit of nobody in particular. Italians just seem to like children, and the more adorable the better. Our kids' pink glamour-girl sunglasses, gifts from Toni, seem more adorable in this context, and help the girls to fit right in with the other Eurotourists and wandering American teenagers.

So far, we've really enjoyed the return to our old unhealthy habit of eating-while-walking. We've also had no trouble being understood. Either the people we are talking to speak English, or we've somehow been able to translate enough to make things plain. Bill has also pointed out that if you squint long enough at one of the signs, it's easy enough to figure out what it says. "Italian is sort of like New York City Spanglish," he said, "with tutti-fruitti mixed in."

On our way here, Abigail and Grace enjoyed listening to the onboard computerized voice of Diesel Liesel give her usual directions -- in clipped, precise French -- and then having her Italian cousin pronounce all the names in Italian. "Maintenant, prenez le droight vers…," she would intone in schoolmarm French, and then another, lustier female voice would chime in the Italiano name of the exit: "Fierenze Sud." Hearing this sudden change in personas, Bill then adopted the voice he has created for Leon, our Spanish Volkswagon, (it sounds a lot like Barry White crossed with Joey from Friends,) and flirted with Liesel: "How many foreign ladies you got under that hood, baby?"

During the drive towards Florence ("Firenze" if you are Italian, like Liesel's onboard computerized cousin) Abigail tipped her hand on the subject of languages. "Now that I speak French," she said, "it will be a lot easier for me to pick up Italian." Suddenly, after so many months of refusing she had learned anything at all, she's not only admitting that she can in fact speak French, but also she's threatening to "pick up" another entire language.

When we confronted on this, she said, "Of course I speak French," as though we had been ignoring a plainly obvious fact, rather than beating our heads against the wall to get her to speak. Abigail is a lightswitch, and it's either on, or it's off. After Toni and Bud left last weekend, she was off -- way off. She was sour and angry and selfish, interested only in what the world had done for her lately. Suddenly, here in the Tuscan sun, she's back on, with a vengeance. I will try hard to remember moments like this one to get her -- and me -- through the last month of French school. That is, unless we just decide we like it too much here to go back.

We're staying in the apartment owned by the parents of Bill's sister's best friend's husband. Happily for us, his parents speak English well, are incredibly sweet, and welcomed us to the house by name, and with happy smiles. The girls were of course "Bella Bambinas," and quickly learned "Ciao" and "Prego." We walked up the long flight of stairs to the top floor of the house, which is a wide apartment with a long broad terrace facing west. In one way, it's just like back in Aups, except on top of a building, and without the plants and the pool. In another, it's just like the Rear Window setup of our place on First Street, looking out over other people's apartments and gardens.

The apartment is adorable, and as clean as you can possibly imagine, with red tile floors and tidy, compact furniture. It somehow evokes the spare, 60's era feeling of my grandparents' house. There are huge windows with enormous panes of crystal-clean glass, looking out over the roofs of the city, and big ornamental gardens on both sides of the house. Despite the fact that we are smack-dab in the middle of Florence, because of those gardens it is incredibly quiet here at night -- even silent.

And there -- just to the side of the terrace, to our North and East -- the pink roof of the Duomo. You can see the people who have climbed up to its highest windows, and see the individual rows of brick, in ever-smaller concentric circles towards the solid-gold ball and cross at the very top.

It's so close that you feel like you could almost touch it. Or, if you are Bill, you would describe it as "so close you could hit it with a BB gun. At least if you pointed it way up in the air." Boys are so aggravating.

So for now, I'm going to postpone my promised dissertation on the ways to be a happy French expatriot, playing the game, and focus instead on soaking in this new country as yet another American tourist in Florence. On tap will be a daily dose of gelato, tickets to the Uffizi if we can get them, a trip on the #7 bus to Fiesole, and an inconceivably high number of requests by the girls for stops at souvenir shops, "just to look."


  1. Yes, boys can be quite aggravating at times. But also charming - as you have seen among the Italians in fine suits and eyewear who smile broadly and children and their mothers...

    Enjoy the gelato and the Uffizi and the coffee break in the Uffizi restaurant when the tour is over. It's at just the right spot on the roof after you have taken in an overload of art.

    Sounds like a wonderful trip so far, a fabulous apartment, and yet another delighfully funny family jaunt. Enjoy!

    Buona sera, amica mia.

  2. Saluti, Launa! Glad you arrived safely and have such a nice place to stay. If you have time, it's worth making a day-trip by train to Siena, where the Renaissance would have begun an entire century earlier had not everyone of import there been wiped out by the Plague. (If I recall correctly, the pre-Plague frescos in the town hall show clear movement away from Medieval styles to Renaissance. Interesting to contemplate "what might have been.") Anyway, it's gorgeous.
    I hope your weather is better there than here (cold and rainy, bleargh).
    Cheers, Lynn in Quinson

  3. PS: Yes indeed, I found the light-dark-light-dark of the Italian tunnels crazy-making, especially as a reminder that my eyes are not getting any younger (along with the rest of me).

  4. Hooray for Italy! Do you all have a proper list of all the gelato places in town you need to visit? Let us know if not; we'd be happy to lend a hand. Enjoy!