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!

1 comment:

  1. The piazza and church of Santo Spirito were two of my favorite places in Florence. I sat in that church and journaled and sat and journaled and sat for a very long time. The mice scurrying around in the darkness to my left didn't even scare me...too much. Then I sat at an outdoor cafe on the left side as you exit the church. I loved that quiet, hidden gem of a spot.

    There was a wonderful art shop on the Oltrarno side of the bridge (not the Ponte Vecchio, the one further upriver from there, closer to Santo Spirito) that I wandered around in for a while - and couldn't believe I was actually in Firenze alone shopping for journaling supplies.

    I too ate ice cream at that Ben and Jerry's on a day that I didn't want to battle the duomo lines. But I suppose countless visitors to that remarkable city have done the same.

    Like your daughters and my two teenaged children as well, I measure the success of my day by the rate of consumption of ice cream and candy. Still. Tis a sweet life, indeed.

    I wish you were my mommy and that I got to go on trips with you!!!