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Report 236: Our Italian Sabbatical

By Trishmael from Louisiana, Fall 2003

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Page 3 of 10: A Week in Florence

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Skyline Sunset

Took a cab for the short ride from SMN to Palazzo Mannaioni Residence (reviewed here). At the rental, a lovely young woman named Chiara helped us get oriented, marking Bancomats, good places to eat, etc. on our map.

Our week in Florence was spent equally divided among walking, eating, and gawking. Highlights included:

1) Seeing the Masaccio frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, a stone's throw from our digs. Nobody could have prepared me for how lovely the chapel is. I couldn't look hard enough. While I was in aesthetic arrest, Gary wandered into a cloister and found the original of an iron lamp he'd seen a drawing of somewhere and was replicating for a client.

(Digression: I should explain that Gary spends much of our travels stalking various wrought iron objects and looking for people who know about or make them. Although sometimes he drives me crazy tracking down this or that artist's work, his interest has been the basis for some wonderful experiences when we travel. In Florence, we found a couple of shops in the Oltrarno where fellas were whopping iron. Smiths are pretty much the same the world over--we've never met an unfriendly smith in Italy--and Gary has lots of fun swapping trade secrets. Once he points to himself and says "fabbro" we're off to the races, and generally he is welcomed like a brother. He always says, hey, this looks just like my shop--messy.)

Back to the highlight list: 2) 2 great hikes in opposite directions--one to the Stibbert Museum, where Gary was in iron heaven. We got very lost at one point, and a kindly elderly woman gave us the funniest directions that sounded like a big circle: "a destra, avanti, avanti, avanti, a sinistra, avanti avanti avant," etc. We stumbled into a lovely park where everyone seemed to have a baby but us. Finally we puffed up the last hill to the Stibbert. There were only 2 other visitors in the whole museum, so we had the knights mostly to ourselves.

The other hike wound up somewhere more to my taste: San Miniato, with a stop on the way at Piazzelle Michelangelo for the views. It was so utterly peaceful up there. We sat for awhile in the sun outside, then toured the interior and waited for the monks to chant at vespers, which for some reason was at 6, not 5 (perhaps the daily church calendar doesn't observe daylight savings time?). Anyway I was glad of the extra hour in such a heavenly place.

3) Our pre-arranged tour of the Vasari corridor. Our red-caped, English speaking guide was a treasure. Since this trip was the first for which we had hired guides and prearranged tours, and because of the interest I have in touristic performances, I was trying to appreciate why I liked her tour so much. I think it came down to the ability to make a narrative. As we went from one palace to the other, she told stories of the Medici family along the way and I began for the first time to see the shape of the whole family saga--before it had been a blur of who's in, who's out, etc. Of course it helped to have images of them, their portraits, to hook into the story.

The security was tight, but upon seeing the painting that was damaged in the bombing at the head of the corridor, left damaged as a reminder, I could easily understand why. We saw a dizzying amount of portraits, and I was especially drawn to the self-portrait collection--there's always something a little ghostly about self-portraits, probably a result of the artist's attempt to get outside him/herself to see her/himself.

One small blemish on this wonderful tour were some obnoxious Americans who embarrassed us all by not staying with the group and loudly objecting and clamoring for a bathroom at inopportune moments and generally just being rude. I felt privileged to be on this tour, and it made me cringe to see folks abuse the privilege.

4) Shoe shopping and eating in San Frediano - Maureen on ST had turned me on to this district before we left, and I owe her a big one. I loved the area, and we had so much fun just hanging out there. Favorite thing I ate: Fig, fennel and walnut cake in Al Tranvai, as recommended by Diva. I have been trying to make something like it, unsuccessfully, ever since.

The shoe shopping was necessary but also fun. I had my Birkenstocks and my heavy hiking boots, neither of which was working out too well on the cobblestones. I needed something cheap and lightweight with spring in it. I had in mind a certain kind of shoe I had seen a very stylish yet obviously practical woman wearing on the train; they looked like bowling shoes. We spied them in the window of a store on via Pisana, and it was my kind of shopping: quick and easy. When I tried them on I was so happy I jumped up and down a few times, and the salesman got a big kick out of how spring-y I was on my new feet. My feet thanked him the rest of the trip.

5) Eating in general: I had Diva's list of Oltrarno restaurants and it served us well. Favorites: Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco, where I ate the namesake in a stew (that would come back to haunt us in Cortona...see below) and Trattoria La Casalinga, where we had eaten I think twice before last trip. Somewhere along the way I got addicted to trying various carpaccios this trip. We also did more panini than we had before, and had lots of take-away picnics. One evening we went into Hemingway for a chocolate fix. A little ritzy for us, but the ritzy went with the rich dessert. While I was cholesterol-loading, a table full of very chic young ladies began pointing at my husband and giggling. We finally figured out that we were seated smack in front of a giant photomural of Hem, and Gary on that evening resembled him quite a bit.... so for the rest of the week, I called him "Ernesto" and we talked in monosyllables when we spoke English.

We did, by the way, go to the other side of the river once or twice for art and food and whatnot, but mainly we explored the Oltrarno in more detail than we had time for last trip.

6) The Bargello, my favorite museum in Florence, and the opportunity to visit Donatello's sculpture again.

7) Language practice: A visit to the Bank of Italy I had some leftover lira, about 100 Euros worth, and we decided one day to make a stop in the main bank to exchange it. Not too exciting, really, but there's something about accomplishing a task like this that involves visiting official bureaucracies and deciphering procedures that I welcome as a challenge. We are trying to learn Italian--very slowly, and Gary is much better at it than I am, although his thick Southern drawl makes his pronunciation bizarre. I learn by imitating, so my pronunciation is better, but I'm very tentative and get tongue-tied. We asked the guide at the door where to go to change money--this question I had rehearsed many times over--then went to a series of windows, filled out some forms, and voila, mission accomplished, and I was all set to go spend my mad money at the San Lorenzo market. On the way out, however, a well-dressed man walked past us very quickly, and the guard, who was armed, shouted something--for a moment we thought he was shouting at us, and we froze--and suddenly more shouting, more guards, and we got the heck out of Dodge.

Less nerve-wracking but something I'm proud of: memorizing and saying with confidence at the tabacci: "Vorrei quatro francobolli per cartolini per Stati Uniti, per favore." I am a rank novice, so setting up challenges like: "you will go in there and buy stamps without recourse to English or mime" and succeeding gives me such satisfaction. This can backfire: once, I challenged myself to order dinner in a tiny, remote restaurant in Liguria without recourse to phrasebook and wound up with an unwanted octopus staring up at me, which, in order to save face, I pretended I knew how to eat (do you scrape the suckers off the legs off "polipo"?) much to Gary's amusement.

8) A very silly picnic in the Boboli La dolce vita: The Boboli Gardens were closed due to high winds, but we waited it out and practiced verbs in the courtyard and got admitted, and nearly everyone else had given up. We had the gardens to ourselves, the sunshine, panini in a bag, a bottle of something red, and even though it was too warm I insisted on dressing up for the picnic by wearing my new red gloves from Madova, and Gary was sporting his new driving gloves you'd ordinarily need a Ferrari to wear, and how could life be more perfect? A group of slightly unruly children runs by and Gary hollers, "Tagliatella la testa!," (sp?) causing them to convulse in giggles and run away in gleeful terror. We are in one of those silly moods that takes over when we travel--cameras down, guidebooks tucked away, we are just looking, just being, and being very silly at that.

We walk by a clump of British tourists who look hot and irritated. "Where's the Duoh-moh?" we hear one woman say, in a veddy upper class dialect, and we have to keep saying this because she's looking right at it, over across the river, and she can't see it because she's got her nose in a guidebook (this will become our code phrase for the rest of the trip when one of us is getting overly-engrossed in the guidebooks and failing to LOOK). I am, for the moment however, looking at a lovely garden and trying to remember something from Virginia Woolf about "the seemliness of herded yew trees" and feeling lucky, lucky, and veddy happy. Could life get sweeter?

It did, in Proceno....

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