Firenze: Sarah Dunant at the British Institute

Last week I went to hear speak an author whom I adore.

The inimitable Sarah Dunant.
Venue: British Institute.
Time: Dopolavoro.
Transporte: Bici.
Compagnia: Nessuno. Just me.

As with the cena delle mamme, I almost bailed a few times, and Jason urged repeatedly to go. We have a lot of back and forth like this on Messenger:

Monica: I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll go.
Jason: I think you should go.
M: I am tired. But I have been talking about this for weeks.
J: Please go.
M: I don’t know.
J: Go.

So I pedaled across il Ponte Santa Trinita, down the Lungarno Accaiuoli, eyes peeled for the British Institute. Number 9 red, number 9 red, I chanted to myself.

I finally stopped at a full bike rack to lock up my bike, certain I had just passed it. Then I saw an older woman, and then another, dressed in the style of what a friend once called Urban Prophetess, but which is properly purchased at a store like Chico’s, and their short, straight, white haircuts with bangs immediately gave them away as English Women of a Certain Age. Like a younger American pilot fish, I quickly slipped into their wake, feeling the heft of my backpack with my entire office in it plus a fat newish book for the author to sign.

Side note. What is it with the haircuts, Women of England? Is there a National Haircut System, where bureaucrats assign women a certain haircut after a certain birthday? If so I want to see the catalog because I think it is one page long. It’s like Sister Wendy sans headgear, or Mary Beard. I am not saying I do not like these haircuts per se, but it is rather their consistent deployment as a cultural marker that makes me pause, a bit like a Canadian maple leaf patch that has been hand-stitched onto a backpack.

Back to topic. I arrived with a small wave of older Brits, borne by the wave into the foyer, where they all deemed the stairs too steep, even though the older Brits all seemed rather spry to me. They waited for the elevator while I took the stone stairs up, since the doorman had just assured everyone that the steps numbered just 51.

Bit o’ institutional Brit pedigree while you wait!

At the Ferragamo library a small group to enter. I could already feel the heat of exhalation coming from the tall reading room; I caught a glimpse of a carved and painted wooden ceiling. There did not appear to be much room. Wow, so, like, 100 people had gotten here before me, average age: 65. I shifted my backpack as I was informed that the event cost 6 euros.

“It includes a very rich buffet!” the woman informed me brightly in English.
“Ma certo, siamo in Italia, certo che il buffet e ricco,” I replied.
“Ma non, non e sempre certo,” she responded. “This one really is rich.”

I collected my receipt and went into the large room to stand awkwardly at the front. I was a bit peeved they’d oversold. Soon, a woman came in and pulled very large, carved wooden chair over for me. I sat in it. My feet didn’t touch the ground. I adjusted my backpack to be a footrest. The older American couple to my left struck up pleasantries with me, and the topic turned, as it inevitably does whenever two or more Americans are gathered, to healthcare. We discussed doctors and insurance, providers ad hospitals, ASL and America.

“How do you know so much about this?” they asked me.
“I really don’t,” I effaced. “You should meet my husband, he’s practically health minister. But really, we’ve been traveling in and living in Italy for years … so I guess it is fairly accrued knowledge.”
“How many years?” they squinted at me.
“Oh, at least … twenty. More than twenty.”
“Did you start this business of Italian traveling when you were, what, two?” the husband croaked.
“Keep it up,” I laughed.

A few more people piled in and were assertively seated. Sarah Dunant was introduced by assorted Important People, and she set to lecturing.

I had read her fiction for the first time in 2005, The Birth of Venus, about Artemisia Gentileschi. I was a page turner, and unlike anything I’d really read recently, at that point. This was the summer we first lived in Firenze, in our ground floor apartment in Le Cure. I read everything in that apartment, and when I ran out, her novel was one of the books I bought.

I saw her upcoming lecture advertised in The Florentine, and resolved to go. I saw she had a new novel out, and after some prowling in centro, purchased it, and began to read it.

It was really worth it to attend. Wow – what energy, such creativity and intelligence. It was so worth the solitary post-work effort. Slides and jokes, her new book being about the Borgias, she had plenty to say about Trumpian parallels, which was met with general grunts of approval and a slight smattering of applause. She really burst with energy. I was smitten; I am always on the lookout for an authorial hero or heroine.

The author, plying positive publicity, and honestly enjoying herself.

This way to NOT go to the Rich Buffet.

After, she took questions, which amused. I stood in line a bit for her to sign my book. More than a few of the Haircuts cut in front of me with their newly-purchased copies, but I didn
‘t care; I was enjoying the ceiling. The husbands of the Haircuts had immediately headed into the other room to make short work of the rich buffet and its accompanying prosecco.

It was my turn! I was on script. “Love your work,” I said. She was gracious and started signing. I asked her then about the dedication in the book, and we chatted about her History tutor at Cambridge. She seemed glad I had asked her about him. “Oh yes, my tutor! Died far too young,” she clucked. “Retired at 54 to write and write, and fell off of his bike, dead of a heart attack, two months later. Smartest man I’ve ever known. Just full of knowledge.”

Book in hand, I stepped out, and quickly surveyed the Rich Buffet, which could not even be seen behind all the bodies. I snooped around the building a bit before going down the 51 stairs and back to my bike, and then pedaled home in the Florentine dusk of a perfect early spring evening.

Sera fiorentina

Firenze: Essere Socievole

I was determined to go. I would go. I had RSVPed yes. This had been planned for weeks. I was definitely going to go.

And yet, by the time Friday afternoon rolled around, as it so often does, I found myself reviewing various plausible reasons for not attending the social dinner of the other moms in Victor’s class, Mister Passpartout, la sezione italiana di I Scolopi.

I was tired. What a work week! They probably wouldn’t talk to me. What if they were mean? I wouldn’t understand their Italian. I didn’t want to ride my bike in the dark to Piazza delle Cure, to a place I’d never been to, to eat dinner with people I didn’t know. Sure, we had perhaps exchanged buongiorni from time to time on the hallway at dropoff. But these Italian mamme … madonna. I have blogged about this here before. I felt like I’d struck out enough with the mamme of the nido, why not give a whirl to le mamme della materna.

Yet, I counseled myself, we’re here for the long term. Gentle roots are being put down and cultivated. I must be patient. The kids were staying in this school, which we have loved for them. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor a Florentine mamma made a personal friend over dinner. Think of the relative benefit, I told myself. Who knows who will be there. If one mamma is nice, it will be time well spent, because right now, I do not have single Italian mamma friend through the kids’ classes, and our two bambini have approximately 100 classmates between them. Many of those classmates are international, and the Spanish, Dutch, and other American families I have met easily and warmly.

Le mamme italiane, on the other hand, are an entirely different game.

They’ve lived in town forever. They are Florentine. They’ve known all those other moms since THEY were in nido together. They casually might say something like, oh, our families have been friends for six generations. They just can’t even. They don’t have the time.

Just one, I told myself. If even just one is nice, it will be worth it.

Jason repeatedly said I did not have to do it. Don’t stress yourself out over this, he said. But I wasn’t stressed out. I just wanted to rise to the occasion. Friendship favors the bold. Finally, I thought of Victor and Eleanor, and how they might benefit from my ambient comfort level if I had a mamma friend or two in school who was from the area.

I buckled my bike helmet firmly just after 8 pm Friday evening, and set out for Santanera.

At the restaurant a group of five moms were already enjoying aperitivi. They warmly introduced themselves. I knew their children by name. Interestingly, it seemed to skew heavily toward moms of the oldest boys in class, like our Victor, who were also a continuazione al primo anno di elementare next year. Lapo. Jeremy. Francesco. Nikita. I knew these little boys by name and face, and it was nice to meet moms who were friendly and open, and who had clearly self-selected to be in the market for a new friend or two. Or maybe just to spend time with their lifelong friends.

I picked up a glass of prosecco and set about being open. Not a tall order normally for me, but in Italian, with such cultural filters, perhaps a bit more so. But fortunately two of the moms made it much easier. About fifteen minutes in I decided that I had received 100% return on my psychic investment.

We sat down for dinner, eight in all. Two moms had arrived later, and in a more typical fashion, had neither introduced themselves nor talked to anyone else much. That was more what I had feared would happen across the group. Even Florentines do not relish socializing with other Florentines. And yet at the end of the table, in a dining room that grew increasingly louder, I struggled to follow the conversation:

Which One Is My Kid
Traumatic Childbirth Stories
My Nanny’s Immigration Status
How We Adopted Internationally
My Career at the Questura

I sat across from the mom who works in the Questura; being from Viterbo, her speech was comprehensible and her manner far more open. I realized a bit through dinner that the bonus here was that some of these moms would still be in the section next year if their child was younger, since the class is ages 3 to 5, and so we would continue to know them after Eleanor moves up to take Victor’s place in the class.

We nibbled at antipasti. I was the only one at the table who wanted red wine. Francesca explained she only drinks red wine three months of the year: November, December, and January. They repeatedly drained bottles of white, turning them end up in the ice bucket when empty, and a waiter would wordlessly replace them with new ones.

The red wine, on the other hand.
It’s organic, they said. Do you like organic wine? The waiter brought it out, and asked, who’s trying. She is, they all gestured.
He poured for me and I tasted it.
It was awful. It was really off. It reeked, as well.
All eyes were on me.
Does the American mom like this biological wine?
How is it?
Yes, how is it?
How is it, they all asked.
It felt like a movie. I wondered if others in the dining room would put down their cutlery to await my pronouncement.

It’s ok, I squeaked out in English.
But it was not. It was undrinkable.
It would have been put to good use cutting grease off of old dishes.
The other moms continued to quaff the white.
My sad bottle of red was untended. I finally moved it to the middle of the table. I asked Questura mom if she would please say something to the waiter, who seemed to have viewed me as a bothersome outsider.
She answered instead that she had no sense of smell and was therefore useless in the service of such advocacy.
The mom to my left stepped in and smelled it and agreed it was off.
The waiter rolled his eyes and removed the wine and the glass, returning with a fresh wine glass and a fresh bottle of Chianti, from which he gave me a generous pour.

I had prepared for a two-hour dinner, max. But these moms were serious. 10, 10:30, 11, 11:15.

The waiter came and took end of dinner orders. Orzo was high on the list. I was confused. You all drink orzo? I thought it was only for sick people. They laughed. Seriously, the only person I know who drinks the hot foamy malted barley beverage has colitis. She’s a lo
vely person with a very tender gut. It’s good for digestion, they chorused.

I wanted a regular espresso, but this clearly was not done.

The two very friendly mamme quickly joined in with me and ordered three “deca,” apologizing for their reluctance to drink caffeine so late at night, which might result in table dancing. Loud guffaws.

I finally folded and started gathering my things. They seemed surprised. I wondered if they planned to go clubbing after dinner. They were very serious about this socializing.

But I’d realized my investment long ago, at 8:30, and so felt fine going home.

Be careful on your bike! they admonished.

The nicer ones embraced me, saying, we’ll do it again.

The two latecomers remained a mystery as I did not know their names still.

I was tired as I pedaled home, full of paella, prosciutto, and observations. 

(Foremost, why do Italians remark when they detect a foreign accent on the spoken Italian of someone who is clearly NOT Italian? In the US, we would never. Say something supportive, or complimentary, but don’t publicly declare at a social dinner, ‘you really have a strong accent!’)

But, all in all, a success.

Let this be a lesson to me, again. For what percentage return am I willing to extend effort? In this case, it was perfect.

Toscana: Panzano in Chianti

Jason had mentioned a few times that we might join an extracurricular excursion with his students and his colleague, Daniela, the inimitable Finnish-Indian-seems pretty much American. I wasn’t really clear on the program. Then details emerged that we would also attend mass in a provincial
parish in the paese of Panzano in Chianti, since the priest who says mass on campus at Gonzaga is from there, ish. Padre Alessandro would be delighted to host us; Daniela had reserved a place for lunch for 10. It was a sunny day. Our long-term rental car was gassed up. We buckled in the kids, put some snacks in the car, and started driving.

Vigneto, Panzano in Chianti

I love driving out of Firenze: out through Firenze Sud, across the bridge that goes to Grassina, up and through the hills the surround the city, until you swoop gently into hill and grove country. Everything was greening; patches of wildflowers dotted yellow and white in the spaces in between. We twisted and wound through many rural locales, even driving on a pale unpaved road for a few kilometers, which Jason could not believe was the best route to Panzano in Chianti but the GPS said it was.

Panzano in Chianti

We parked and headed up to the church. Victor saw what was coming and started to protest. There were many exchanges on the steps in front of the church. We finally negotiated him in, and he immediately crawled under a pew to assume a fetal position for awhile. Eleanor also attempted to negotiate but was stonewalled as well. Mass began. The pews were well full for a Sunday in Lent, and with not a few visitors, us included.

Victor gradually began to relax and flip through some hymnals. Eleanor joined him. Italian grandparents smiled at us across the aisle, in what I took to be expressions of sympathy, save for one much older nonna who looked like she might like to hoist Vic up into the pew by his ear. At communion there was some confusion among us about who was able to receive. Jason got “the cracker,” and the kids and I were blessed, but Padre Alessandro did look a bit confused when I crossed my arms over my chest. I will happily receive in pretty much any church that’s dishing out the Jesus cracker, as the kids call it, but am still at a loss to interpret Catholic in-ness and out-ness. Thanks to years in the Mediterranean basin, and Latin America, and a life speaking Spanish, and a confirmed Episcopalian with a good grasp on liturgy, as a heritage Lutheran I am extremely Catholic-friendly. Jason explained to Victor that Catholics must first go to cracker school so that they understand the cracker Vic furrowed his brow.

Santa Maria, Panzano in Chianti

“Did mommy go to cracker school too?”
“Yes, but not in this kind of church.”
Further confusion.
Eleanor: “Cracker, cracker.”

Of note, at lunch Padre Alessandro assured Jason that Victor was welcome to receive, but no word on the heretic wife. So much for cracker school PR. I’ve been told before by Catholic priests that they’ll give the eucharist to any baptized child, but even I am still fuzzy on whether the child has to be baptised in the Catholic faith. I would like to refer these questions to Pope Frank. I bet I know what that radical inclusionary would say.

After mass, our family enjoyed the use of the priest’s bagno in the rectory, which we monopolized for a good twenty minutes with various post-mass rites of ministration.

We walked with the student group down a long hill, and up a corresponding second hill, to arrive at our lunch destination. Victor chased a soccer ball most of the way. The street was blocked off, and the people were in full-on fiera mode. I noted a brass plaque dedicated to the bistecca chianina. I surveyed the tables of honey, wine, pasta, dried funghi, salami. The sun was bright. People felt cheery in the last week of winter.

An open storefront that looked to also be home to a butcher shop had laid out a spread of pane e olio, salami, lardo di Colonnata, accompanied by huge bottles of Chianti. The place was mobbed. I looked around the bookshelves and saw an ample representation of Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali, and the like. Who is this guy? Where are we? Are we Somewhere?

Indeed we were, at the very temple to meat, in the Antica Macelleria Cecchni. Perhaps you remember The New Yorker article by Bill Buford, published in 2006 and excellent reading. Now it all started to make sense. Oh my god we were going to eat Sunday dinner at Cecchini! The mob continued to mow through the buffet, but slowly began to peel off to be escorted across the street and seated at one of the two Cecchini restaurants. Our group was waiting for a private room to be readied on the same side of the street. Have some more wine, have some food, we were urged. It won’t be long.

Study your lunch

As we all took our seats in the small room and settled in, our young ponytailed waiter appeared to let us know the courses to come. Daniela mentioned that they had a bus to catch at 2:00 pm. The waiter looked a bit disappointed, but then said, “Non preocupatevi, e un menu fast.”

Private room

Victor and Eleanor were already getting bored and wanted to run out in the street to play, which seemed fine to us since it was still barricaded and the worst thing that could have happened to them might be tripping on an errant jar of country honey rolling downhill.

First the wine was brought, huge bottles of the same Chianti, and baskets of unsalted Tuscan bread. Then large bowls of crudites: mostly carrots and celery.

Out came huge platters of salami and small pieces of bread generously smeared with lardo di Colonnata, the creamy, raw, white pig fat that is the butter of rural Tuscany. I started looking around at all the bricolage on the shelves, and a manger full of hay running the length of the wall that the waiter used as a staging area for the platters. I probably ate 20 little pieces of pig fat bread, and a piece of salami.

Waiting for the first course.

Next, the elusive sushi di Chianti. (Veggie and vegan friends, you might want to skip this part, but really the whole meal was spoken wholly in the fluent language of meat.) Small piles of raw beef dressed in olive oil and salt, with a twist of lemon, looking very rosy on the white porcelain platter. The students were surprised at first, but we all tucked in. Jason was in heaven. We’d had cruda di manzo once together, in 2005 in Piedmont, but it might have been vitello, not manzo, and it had looked and tasted nothing like this. Fresh, a bit tinny, kind of like turf tuna. Actually it did remind me of maguro in a good sushi restaurant.

The sun was bright and the open door afforded ample fresh air. Passersby ducked their heads in from time to time to see what we were eating or to ask the waiter if they could be seated. “Not a chance,” he responded briskly. We continued to pour wine and sparkling water. Victor and Eleanor by this time had taken to running op and down a very steep adjacent driveway, screaming about a monster at the top. The monster was but a humble – you guessed it – nonna italiana, who chided Jason for allowing the kids to cavort on such a steep incline, where they might very seriously damage themselves.

Third course: roasted pork, plenty of fat ribbons, a bit of hide, sizzling in its own grease and festooned with rosemary, sprinkled with coarse salt. All cubes devoured forthwith.

Our eyes were on the clock. The waiter was expeditious. The fourth course was a few more platters of meatloaf, garnished with the (apparently) sweet hot red pepper marmalade for which Dario is famous. The meatloaf was a bit like the meatballs in pho, which I am not a huge fan of; I think it is a texture thing. But also tasty, and would have been the standout dish had it not been for the three preceding courses.

The waiter had set up our fresh coffee and warm cake in the corner. “Serve yourselves as you wish,” he urged. The thick, black, strong coffee was joined by a fresh orange cake. As a baker of such delights when in my native habitat, I could tell it was fresh-squeezed orange juice and orange zest. Jason poured me a shot of grappa – he abstained, as he was driving us all home. It was fragrant and potent. I let its perfume fill me on an inhale, and then slowly sipped it, each drop packing a postprandial punch.

Victor and Eleanor at well, also, but it was mom and dad who trundled happily out of the tiny dining room that afternoon.

Firenze: Rooftops and Sky/Tetti e Cielo

On Thursday, Jason and I went to favorite hideaway on via dei Benci, Kome, for our customary Japanese lunch: nastro (sushi conveyor) and ramen sets. It was such a perfect day that we pedaled home, I on the back of his bike to pick up mine where it was chained to a rail next to our building on Piazza d’Azeglio.

Let’s go get a coffee, he said.

I’ve been jonesin to try the cafe at the Ospedale degli Innocenti, I replied.

The museum recently reopened after a comprehensive renovation, and the cafe is something that is mentioned as A Thing.

Ospedale degli Innocenti

So we got on our bikes again and rode to Piazza Santissima Annunziata, where the puddles shine after rain in the flagstones like so many scraps of silver. But today was sun, sun, sun.

Annunziata is the next major Piazza over to the west from Azeglio. We know it well. The busses that we take to the childen’s school rattle through on a very regular basis in front of the Basilica Santissima Annunziata. The piazza hosts many festivals and markets, although buyer beware of the products being hawked are “prodotti tipici locali” or some such – you’d be better off going to the mercato di Sant’Ambrogio and just buying normal fresh food, minus the twine bow.

We chained our bikes on the piazza and headed up the elevator to the fifth-floor (sixth floor US) cafe. We stepped out into the open loggia from the elevator and beheld a birds-eye view of Firenze that neither of us had ever seen before.

Suddenly it was a sea of terra cotta, of vertiginous towers and steeples that we could not identify. The floating green dome of the Great Synagogue (monikered by Victor as “our Jewish church”) waved from the edge of the city, and we were oriented.

View into the courtyard, Great Synagogue in background

 I paused in front of some lovely archival images of the Ospedale in its working years, Now home to the UNICEF offices, it is children’s museum of medieval times from a child’s perspective. We have not yet visited the museum, but will do soon.

I paused to reflect on a community that has been looking after its poor and its children since the 15th century, in this very spot. What a history of social responsibility. The rota della fortuna where babies were left is no longer there, but the niche where its wheel turned is marked by a plaque.

Orphans and nuns.
More terra cotta, more Great Synagogue.

We swigged our coffee as people at tables calmly ate lunch atop the terra cotta tiles and agreed it was a locale well worth the effort – and so close to us, positioned as it is on the midpoint between almost all of our points A and B.

The sky that day just wouldn’t quit. A high mackerel sky, glowing blue. You can easily see whence the artistic inspiration.

I now have a fairly regular office, the Aula Gialla of the Sprachcaffe. It features a door that closes, two outlets, two desks, and a set of French doors that opens onto the balcony that overlooks Piazza della Repubblica. The situation is fortunate when Opera Karaoke lady or Classical Guitar man is out, less so when Trashcan Percussion goes on and on and on. I am not sure if I should be out there, but Iris is often out there sneaking a smoke.

On that day, I took some pictures of the sky, from my balcony to the right of the Repubblica arch.

Repubblica arch and statuary

Late winter sky, Orsanmichele, Signoria, looking across Piazza della Repubblica.

Topics next up: Corso d’italiano (a continuazione), Panzano in Chianti.

Firenze: Santa Maria Novella

Picture this. An overcast Saturday morning. Kids are screaming and fighting over toys. And running around. And biking around. And kicking regulation soccer balls. In the apartment.

We knew we had to get the whole crew out or someone might not live to see the evening.

So, out to the busstop on our piazza, waiting for the 6A or 6B, the working idea being to go to Santa Maria Novella train station to talk to the ATAF (local transit) people about our bus passes. (Is Vic too tall to still ride for free? What’s the family pass? Is there a student discount? etc.)

Eleanor uncharacteristically acquiesced to being buckled in her stroller, squawking only a bit, and understandably, when we all gawked and exclaimed through the windows upon seeing a matching pair of white steeds pulling an open carriage through Piazza San Marco, driven by a handsome Italian in full grey livery – top hat, cape.

“Dove cavalli?” Eleanor demanded loudly. “Su, su.”

We all admired the horses together, then had a long discussion in Italian of what foods might constitute primi and secondi for horses. In what order apples? hay? sugarcubes? Eleanor thought they might best enjoy gelato for dessert.

The station S.M.N was of course a total Saturday morning zoo. We first addressed ourselves to the repurposed ATAF bus with our questions. About 10 seconds into the conversation, the attendant implored Jason to go inside to the ATAF window, where ATAF experts could best assist us.

Into the heart of S.M.N. we went, Jason holding tightly on to Victor’s hand, me pushing Eleanor forward in the stroller. We found the windows, waited briefly in line, and then monopolized the attention of a middle-aged functionary for a solid ten minutes. Answers:

  1. Is Victor much over one meter tall?
  2. Why are we so honest?
  3. Seriously, why are we asking about getting a bus pass for the little guy?
  4. What… for the littlest one too? It will be years before she is solidly past one meter in height.
  5. Who are you people? We don’t even understand your questions.
  6. I am Jason’s wife? 
  7. So I get the second annual pass at a deep discount if Jason buys the first at full freight.
  8. Vic needs a picture to make the bus pass.
  9. It sounds like he gets some sort of student pass for a very reasonable rate.
  10. But wait until next year, for crying out loud. He looks short enough to ATAF.
Eleanor and I assessed the plaster ice cream cones outside of Venchi. She angled hard for Saturday morning gelato but lost. The store was stocked with high-end chocolates of the hostess gift variety, such as might sell briskly in a train station.
We decided to bus to Oltrarno to pay a visit to our friend Ellen, but first the weekend bus timetable and then the weather conspired against us, as fat, cold drops began to fall while we attempted to herd the kids on a narrow median between the tram line and an arterial street.
We cut across the Piazza della Stazione to the busstop for the C2, and the minibus passed us as we were 50 feet from the stop. Of course no posted timetable. The rain seemed to have ceased. 
We decided to saunter in to Santa Maria Novella itself. We’re right here! Ir’s a pretty enough day. It’s not quite lunch. 
Eleanor was carrying on in very loud Italian, really establishing her cultural bona fides, on the pedestrianized street in front of all the retail on the piazza, to the delight of more than one Italian onlooker. “Ma dove?! Dove, mamma!? Dove? Di la? Di qua? Dimmi dove ti prego.”
No lines at all, and Jason had brought his ID card with him to verify our residence status, which got the lot of us in for free. We’d been before, each of us, numerous times, but not for years, and certainly not with Team Energy.
The church inside was cool but well lit, lightly sprinkled with tourists. I’d forgotten how big it is. 
I unsuccessfully attempted to leave the stroller at the entrance, as two youngish, robed monks to my left asked the information desk, “Who reserved a mass? We are here to say the mass. Where are we supposed to go? Someone has reserved a mass.” The organizational logistics of prepaid reserved masses were still being clarified as we headed up the right aisle. 
Victor and Eleanor each lit a candle. They also enjoyed scampering up and down 600-year-old marble staircases to see various chapels. 
“Who’s that guy on the floor?” Victor asked me in the Capella Ruccellai. A bronze face gazed beatifically heavenward.
“Mmmm he is buried there. His name was ….Leonardo Dati.” I squinted through the bars.
“He is in there?”
“Well … what’s left of him.”
As we came down the stairs I told Jason.
“Oh, it’s Leonardo Dati up there, really?”
Sigh – giggle. Being with Jason in Florence … there is really nothing comparable in my life to my walking Florentine almanac husband.
Someone please tell me which chapel this is.
I love the row of hanging iron lamps.
Feels like Cordoba.
We took the kids over to see the historic Massaccio. Victor was nominally interested. Eleanor immediately attempted to duck under the velvet rope to get really, really close to the priceless fresco. I quickly snatched her back.
Some large – ENORME – pieces of art had been extraordinarily opened from their equally gargantuan cupboards, the later paintings on the enormous doors seeming garish in comparison to the 15th century frescoed tones behind. We looked at both of them. I pointed out the solar line on the marble floor to the kids, a many-metered arrow from Cancer to Capricorn to measure the solstices and every day in between. I love matter-of-fact pagan semiotics when they appear (to the modern eye) incongruously in a famous domus dei
Victor and Eleanor ran a few laps up and down the solar line while we hissed at them to keep it down a tiny bit, for heaven’s sake. But because this is Italy, no one chastised us. The woman at the information desk was actually very apologetic that she was unable to personally mind Eleanor’s stroller while we wandered around.
From Cancer to Capricorn and back again.
“I want to go home,” Victor said. You could put a 15 minute timer on him for his tolerance of such activity. Good thing it was free, and that we live here.
“Home, home,” Eleanor intoned.
“When can we go home?” Victor reiterated.
Jason said, “Let’s see the Spanish Chapel first.”
There was a minor queue to enter. The kids immediately said no. 
Next time. We live here.
And it’s free.
We headed back outside, and lucky for us, met the C2 bus in perfect time at the stop.

Pistoia: Grotta Giusta

Jason’s colleague, Antonella, supports the many cultural sidetrips that his students enjoy during their time at GIF (Gonzaga in Florence).

Antonella is from the area, and is a well-humored and very fit woman older and wiser than I, but not old enough to be my mother. She has mentioned many times that she is, as am I, an aficionado of le terme – the hot springs found throughout Italy, up and down the spine of the Apennines. There was much back and forth, and finally we settled on February 27, weeks in advance.

When the day came, both kids were home sick from school. Fortunately, our regular sitter Chanusha was able to be on scene much earlier.

I met Antonella in Piazza Beccaria on the sunny midmorning, and we set off for Grotta Giusti, in Monsummano Terme. Our destination is in the province of Pistoia, about 40 km north of Firenze, but at seemingly much greater distance as we snaked our way through the A1 autostrada and watched seemingly endless stretches of fields and low hills, then higher hills, roll out before us.

We arrived after an our of nonstop chatter about all and sundry, in large part Antonella explaining The Italian Woman or The Italian Mamma, and my observations in first rushing, then faltering, Italian.

At the terme there was inexplicably a line of 50 or 60 people in front of us. It turned out the terme had been closed for the preceding week for regular maintenance. “It is the convenzionati,” Antonella stage whispered, referring to the Italians lucky enough to get doctor’s prescriptions to go to the spa for a day. (I am not kidding – this is a thing. NHS, indeed.) A woman in front of us turned around and said, “I am not a convenzionata. I am just here for the spa, signora.”

Grotta Giusti, albergo storico

It turned out that the spa had been closed for a week for seasonal cleaning, so the line in front of us had been full of people with medical prescriptions for the spa. Additionally, the Grotta Giusti was exceptionally free on that day and the following – it normally costs 40 euros for 50 minutes in the grotto. Hence, people from around the region had arrived on Monday morning to take advantage of the reopening and the grotto freebie.

A lengthy conversation at the front desk further revealed why the line was moving so slowly. They really addressed your every question and need at intake. Antonella had a long conversation about her annual membership. They made a new card for her. I made an appointment for the intriguing “massaggio Californiano.” We picked up our robes and slippers, and slipped the gettone into the turnstile to get into the dressing rooms.

“They must make the gettone,” Antonella said. “Otherwise no one would wait in line – they would just let themselves in.”

Since we had waited in line for 45 minutes, we were starving, so recharged at the bar with espressi and cornetti prior to hopping into the enormous, steaming pool.

The setting of the piscina was superb. Thin lines of steam wafted up continuously from the water. In every direction blue sky, fluffy clouds, sun, and a small mountain rising behind the albergo, still shuttered for the winter season due to renovations. 

The huge pool at one end was dedicated to all manner of hidromassaggio jets: with small alcoves for sitting in as the jets focused on different parts of a sore body. Antonella keep up a friendly patter as we discussed, among other things, the entire Zecchino d’Oro songbook and how vintage bathing caps were back in style. Large, colorful turbans, tufted with taffeta, festooned with butterflies. One in a Pepto pink caught my eye as a slim woman determinedly swam long laps in sunglasses.
“Lei e inglesa,” Antonella whispered.
“I love her cuffia,” I said.
“Lei e nonna,” Antonella hissed.
“Impossibile!” I hissed back. “Look at her.”
I felt in that moment that we were having a very typical spa conversation.
When the Englishwoman climbed out of the pool, everyone in the pool stopped talking to look at her. She wore a bikini that a teenager might have hesitated to don. She seriously looked like a supermodel. She was ripped down the front.
“Lei e una tartaruga,” Antonella observed. So I learned the idiom for “six-pack” in Italian: a turtle.
The Englishwoman slipped into her scarlet high heels. Her lipstick was still fresh in spite of her 100 laps. She was prenaturally composed. She was aware that every eye was on her as she sashayed over to her chaise and towel. Even the muscled Russian in the hydrojet bench next to me, and his youthful companion, were impressed.

We moved around on the different jets for almost two hours, and remarked when we finally swam out how relaxed we felt.

A quick lunch with everyone else on site that day, and I was off to my massage. Verdict: excellent. Also, very long. And I felt very moisturized as the masseuse had skimped in no way on the oil. I felt like a Christmas turkey ready for the oven (this is a good thing, in my book). Minus the garlic of course.

We had reserved for the grotto at 3:30. Here is where everything got very cultural very fast and I was doubly glad for Antonella. “Your skin will feel like a pesca!” she told me repeatedly. That sounded great – I am all about peach skin.

We were handed organic cotton tunics with hoods and told to strip down and put them on. Our damp terry robes went into an incredible industrial-looking robe closet that was metal and superheated so that our robes would be warm and dry when we returned. A system for everything – we got a hook number and a bag to put our damp swimsuits in. Of course Antonella had come prepared with 3 or 4 swimsuits because Italians believe you will die if you stay in a damp swimsuit for any time at all, and so they always change into a dry one right away.

The grotto was far underground, a maze of caves heated by the thermal waterfall. Marble plaques alongside the ramp indicated that no less than Verdi and Garibaldi had found relief in this steamy Tuscan underbelly.

“Garibaldi!” Antonella laughed – “there are not enough plaques to place in all the places he sat in spa in Italy. That man was never OUT of a spa.”

Lago di Limbo

Down, down, down we went.

The first large room, Paraiso, was slightly warm and well-lit.

Down more ramps and paths, the tunnel excavated just high enough to let a tall Italian man through (attention Germans), and we arrived at Purgatorio. The air became warmer and more humid. The cotton tunic felt soft and strangely sensual in the steaming heat.

To our left, the Lago di Limbo – clear underground lakes used for various forms of aquatherapy, their blue pools gently steaming, impossible to tell how deep. Down, down still more ramps and paths, and we arrived at our destination: Inferno.


 Inferno was 34C and 99% humidity, so, an Oklahoma summer, pretty much, but it smelled better. Teak deck chairs lined the walls, and small yellow lights had been placed overhead in the cave’s eroded crannies, shining an eerie light into the hollows and spaces overhead. As promised, the heat was very subtle.

We found two chairs and situated ourselves, placing our feet on the footrests, and leaned back to take in this wonderful 19th century cure.

Antonella quickly fell asleep. I could not get the Oklahoma reference out of my mind. Plus I was enjoying the peoplewatching, and inwardly groaning as various Inferno attendees took pictures with their unsilenced devices, so periodically we heard the whisht of a digital shutter snap. My skin grew more and more peachlike. My tunic became damp, and I surveyed the cavescape, populated with white-hooded penitents.

I started then (and unfortunately) thinking about recent earthquakes. I looked up at the ceiling and wondered what would happen down here if an earthquake happened. All the formations in the cave appeared pretty intact and uncracked. Still, I wondered. I am not predisposed to claustrophobia, but in that moment I began to feel very claustrophobic indeed, shrouded and next to my shrouded, gently snoring companion, the air getting thicker and more vaporous. I examined the hairs on my forearm and decided that I had reached maximum peachness. I quietly slipped out of my chair and headed back upstairs, leaving Antonella at her rest.

I waited for her for some time at Paraiso, then decided I would go back up the remaining ramps to return my body and soul back to Terra.

The attendee was waiting for me, smiling broadly.

“How was it? Did you enjoy the Inferno? OH MY GOD get out of that damp tunic at once or you’ll die.”

He quickly handed me a dry towel and ushered me into a thermal shower to preserve my life. As I emerged, I saw the sala relax was empty, and helped myself to some “te vita lunga.” I settled into a lounge chair and admired the hanging gardens. I could see why a person might want a regular daily prescription for this place.

Antonella came up from Inferno. “Monica!” she yelled. “You left me down there!”

“You looked so relaxed,” I said. “Non volevo disturbarti.”

The attendee quickly placed Antonella in a shower then, so our conversation was cut off.
Our robes meanwhile had dried to a perfect crispness in the industrially heated wardrobe. We changed and headed back to the dressing room.

Driving southeast back to Firenze, “Monica, guarda!” Antonella said, holding her cigarette in her left hand and pointing in her rearview.

A rosy sunset lingered over the hills of Monsummano Terme.

Stock photo, but close to this.