Florence: Space and Memory

I am feeling a bit of a fraud in Florence these days, casting her pearls as she does, while I hurry to and fro to coordinate schedules related to work, childcare, varying degrees of personal illness among different family members, meals, and shopping. And probably more.

I actually have already come to resent a bit the awestruck tourist hoardes on Piazza San Marco, disembarking their enormous tour coach for the first time to alight on Via Ricasoli, preparing to join 6000 other breathing tourists in the Accademia to peer at David’s feet and … other bits. They amble, they mosey, they seem to have time. The new tourist status symbol is a camera with a telephoto lens that looks like only Robert Capa should be behind it. Cell phone camera function no longer cuts it. One carries a phone in one’s pocket, or backpack, but the hilariously steroidal Cyclopean camera must hang about the neck as proof that One Is Really Quite Serious About Capturing These Moments.

I am enjoying my daily commute to and from Piazza della Repubblica, mostly on my Fiat-red bike, and smiled this week to remember my first week here as I had Google maps turned on to tell me how to get from the Duomo to Repubblica. Hilarious. And so typical. When you don’t know how far away something is, it feels like leagues.

The bike commute is problematic around the core. The tourist passel is well-packed. Jason and I talked about how there should be a continuation of the bike lane from the Viale and Cavour into the Piazza del Duomo and over to the Uffizi and Signoria, and our Italian friends had a very Italian response to this very American idea:

“Everyone will just ignore it.”

I think I may need to just start hopping off my bike and walking it over to Cavour. I feel awful dinging my bicycle bell incessantly, but I honestly do not want to hurt anyone. And, as mentioned above, I am always in a hurry, particularly in the early evening as I am hasting home to see the kids, and Jason, who usually gets there before me, since he is working on Via la Marmora rather than deep within the molten core of the tourist nucleus.

This bike has so many km on it now.

Yesterday in the middle of Cavour, in front of the bookstore but after the pedestrianized part of the street begins, an Italian couple stepped out in front of me, and I braked suddenly. Scusatemi, I said, feeling very Anglophone indeed to have an apology quickly at hand. The man unleashed a string of Italian profanity at my receding figure that I couldn’t decipher. I find these mini interactions very stressful. There has to be a better way to get around the Piazza del Duomo and on my way home. So at the end of the afternoon yesterday, I said to myself, I am going to find it.



I set out from behind the Duomo, and turned left. A few seconds later, the chessboard walls of Santa Maria Novella appeared around the corner of Pizani. Crap! I thought. I am not going to the train station – that piazza is a traffic nightmare. So I took the next right that I could that seemed to be going in the right direction. But one block later it turned into the wrong direction! Taxis and the C1 bus and other bikes and Vespas begin blizzarding toward me. Crap again! … Oh triple crap! I am now on my bike in San Lorenzo next to the market where the street is about two feet wide.

I turned left. Ok, this side street is a little better. Florence, being about 2000 years old, and remade in varying epochs, is a tangle of non-grid streets. Nothing connects to anything in a logical way, save for the grand boulevard of Cavour, and the Viale, which must have been a twentieth-century invention.

Suddenly, I see I am on Via San Gallo. Hey great! I know where I am! What! This is the Bibliotecca Riccardini! Hey – my favorite local jewelry store!

I am blocks away from Jason’s office, where we are meeting to continue on to an apericena – the Tuscan light dinner that goes with the glass of wine after work – a wonderful custom. It’s all good – I am not going to accidentally maim any dog or person, and I am on time. As I round to corner on Via la Marmora, I see Jason waiting for me on his bike. Success!

Apericena. Just add a glass of premium Italian wine.

This happens to me often. Florence exists as spaces in my memory in ways that don’t necessarily connect with any kind of accuracy, reality, or logic. I’ve been coming here since 1995, and each piece of memory lives in a different version of the city in my mind, and it is hard to connect them spatially until I actually see them again to place them.

The train station. The Riccardini. The jewelry shop. San Lorenzo. Over in the Oltrarno, the street the Gould institute is on, where I stayed for a week in 1996. Le Cure. The IperCoop up there. The pizzeria where we had our first meal in Florence in 2005, damp with sweat and swatting mosquitoes as we drank room-temperature red wine in July. The intersection with the obelisk after the Ponte Santa Trinita, where I always oriented myself in 1996 coming from the Oltrarno. Ognissanti. The Carmine Basilica. San Freddiano, and Santo Spirito. The gardens of Santa Croce with Paola and Jason.

And today, most thoughtfully, walking home from kid drop-off, I saw another entrance for the Four Seasons Hotel, remembering the outcry in 2005 as they built it on the site of an historic convent, annexing the Giardino della Ghirardescha for clients. I remember going by here countless times on the back of the motorino, but why and how does it look so different now? Where is the view I remember, the endless trucks coming and going, the arch into the garden expanse? Did we really take our motorino down Borgo Pinti that often?

How can this possibly align with what I remember this place looked like in 2005? 
Where is that other view? It’s driving me nuts.

2 Replies to “Florence: Space and Memory”

  1. Sometimes I can't find my way out of New York City and I've lived around here for 50 years. I love your sense of curiosity and wonder and your ability to let things roll off your back. I'd be breaking out in a stress rash (<-pretty sure that happened when I was using GPS in Chicago once!).

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  2. I walked home yesterday from kid dropoff and confirm that the final image in this post is indeed the view of the Four Seasons Florence that I remember, and yes, I did see it many times from the back of a motorino as we sped down Borgo Pinti in 2005. This after peering north up Borgo Pinti for a few minutes, and getting honked at for the pleasure. We definitely used Borgo Pinti as an express route from Le Cure to the centro. [whew]

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