Italy: Weights and Measures / Pesi e Misure

How much of one thing equals another thing?

This has to be one of the most overarching cultural questions. When we look at or hold something, a thing, a substance, we ask, how much of this thing is equal to this other thing?

This varies widely from culture to culture, and yet it is transparent to the cultural participants. Of course this much of this one thing is equal to this other thing! Only when we shift positions do our perspectives change.

Our apartment, as I have mentioned, is freddino. It is chilly. Our palazzo is beautiful, and central, and its relative advantages far outweigh its climate control. We are very happy here.

But it is so cold. The cold affects me especially in the morning, when I wake up and stumble into the kitchen (still wearing the scarf, sweatshirt, socks, woolen booties I slept in) to turn on the heat, turn on the electric heater, fill the kettle and light the gas hob for tea, check the situation for Jason’s coffee.

When I return from our school drop-off, things have cooled down again in the kitchen. This is where I always make my same mistake: I think I will just straighten things up a little bit. Just a bit. But my hands are freezing, my fingers barely work, the hot water takes an age to reach the tap from the boiler. It feels like the winter of 1890 up here. Just a small plate, I think to myself, I can scrub this, I can quickly wipe off this other thing. But with my cold hands, in the cold kitchen, the fingers, they do not have a solid grasp, the water is cold, where is the hot water, why is the hot water not running yet …

The plate slips. The ceramic breaks. Every time. Dozens of times.

Mundane plates don’t bother me to break  – a plain white plate, a plain saucer. They can be easily replaced at the sample ceramics vendor at Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, who sells only white ceramics, some embossed, modern and vintage-seeming, but all plain white. It reminds me of arty friends who brought out purposely mismatched and monogrammed hotel silver to entertain at home. Such elegant friends.

Last week, though, I dropped and broke our spoon rest, which came with the apartment in the giant china hutch (madia) of assembled essentials. The spoon rest gets a lot of use, and this spoon rest always tickles my fancy, because it is in the shape of a blue Volkswagen Beetle, which makes me think of, in this order, my mom, Mexico, and Brazil. Mom drove a powder-blue Bug for years in the Midwest, usually stuffed with three small children, a mutt, groceries, and a sheet cake. No air conditioning, vinyl seats, Oklahoma City in sweltering summers. Beetlebugs are all over Mexico and Brazil, destinations I have spent happy travelling time in, so any invocation of simple transportation with three gears, any ocean coast, and windows rolled down is welcome.

But this small Beetlebug was now in two pieces at the bottom of the marble sink.

I heaved a sigh as I picked them up. I dried them off, and verified that they still fit together, more or less. I added them to the small white sugar bowl, whose tiny knob atop the lid had cleaved in half under identical circumstances, and been carefully stored in the bowl until such time as I determined how best to repair it. I am a fixer. I do not like to throw things away, especially if they are sentimental, or I like them particularly. I know it is not always ideal to have a glued seam showing, but I am careful, and dexterous, and can fix things. It’s a personal challenge. I can work with imperfection. I struggle with total loss.

When this happened in the US, I had a very handy glue pen for terra cotta that worked wonders. That glue was awesome. I could fix almost anything with it. A bright bowl from Caltagirone. An ironic ceramic bowl used for cat food. The decapitated head of a concrete Saint Francis after a scuffle with a toddler Victor, reaffixed, that lasted through many cold seasons reglued. But I did not have this glue in Italy.

I knew just where I could find some, though: the mesticheria (home goods shop) on Pietrapiena, just around the corner from our palazzo: Casalinghi Mazzanti. Every quartiere (neighborhood) has one, but I like to think that ours on Sant’Ambrogio is special.

This mesticheria is seriously old school. The sales assistants are all men of a certain age in blue jumpsuits, with thinning and graying hair. They take their responsibilities very seriously. One might browse among the aisles of the shop, but in general it is not done; take a number, and wait for one of the jumpsuits to help you. You must have a number to be in the store, pretty much, if you plan on looking for anything or purchasing anything. The counter was amicably mobbed by day laborers and contractors, who handed over their number to say they are looking for denatured alcohol, a special kind of screw, rope of a certain weight, a new lock. A red-haired widow needed a water bottle. A woman in a luxe fur coat needed a specific can of paint. The store is packed to the rafters – my father would love it. Along with all the practical contractor inventory, they also sell Le Creuset ironware, bathroom accessories, gleaming copper pots and pans of every size and shape. Anything you might need for your home, from screws to a lightbulb to a specific kitchen tool, Mazzanti carries it.

I broke the rules a bit, and began browsing for glue to fix my spoon rest and sugar bowl. The narrow aisles were a challenge to navigate, especially at this busy hour right before lunch, when all the contractors had advanced as far as they could in their morning work without that tube of silicon or box of screws. I quickly found an entire section of glue, and silicon. It became immediately clear why I might need to first take a number to ask a jumpsuit which glue to buy. I had no idea. The selection was overwhelming, and a workout for both my Italian and whatever I remembered of semiotics from grad school. A vast array of sealants and glues were neatly hung on about eight feet of aisle shelving at all levels, and I started to look for the closest approximation to my terra cotta glue-all that I knew so well in the US.

After a few minutes I gave up, and went to look at the activity in front of the counter again. At least ten people were waiting. I noted the location of the number dispenser. I went back to the glue aisle and, finally, found a tube of what I needed where I had not seen it before. The yellow tube was indicated for marble, glass, and any item where visible dried glue is undesirable. At five euros, and with helpful pictures on the front of it of a broken Ming vase, a muffler, a wooden stair, and a dining room table, it was exactly what was needed.

I pulled a number out of the red dispenser. 53. I settled in calmly to wait my turn and to watch the organized mayhem. The jumpsuits were very efficient, and dealt kindly with both contractors’ demands and the hot water bottle needs of chilly widows. An American woman dressed in GMU-logo pushed up to the counter with two glass cruets. She spoke no Italian.

“Number please,” the jumpsuit said in Italian.
“I want to buy these,” she said, in English. Pushing the cruets forward on the counter. She smiled at him. I groaned inwardly.
The jumpsuit gave her a look and disappeared from behind the counter. Her cruets had no price tags. I wondered what the word was for cruet in Italian. I felt sympathetic for a moment as I inwardly agreed that there was no way I would ever wal
k into an Italian shop like this and start talking to a jumpsuit about my need for a glass cruet with a cork.
Everyone behind GMU began to grumble. She had jumped at least ten numbers in the line. Everyone else was holding their number and looking at it.
She turned around and saw the scene. She looked sideways at me.
“Am I doing this wrong?” she asked me.
“They’re traditional here. Gotta take a number to pay,” I said, relieved I was far from the most clueless person in the shop.
The unsinkable Molly Brown seemed to have assumed that other customers were simply too undetermined to pay, or perhaps fraught by indecision.
The jumpsuit finally came back and told her the price for the two cruets. She paid, and hastily made her way from the store.

By this time I was an expert in number-taking. One of the contractors, with plaster dust still in his dark gelled hair, asked me where I got my number from.
“Di la,” I said, pointing.
Finally, 53! I hopped up to the front, gave the jumpsuit my number, and paid with an acceptably small banknote. He smiled at me and shooed me out of the store, already thinking ahead to 54.

Realizing the master class I had just received in language and culture thanks to the long wait and general powers of observation, I resolved to contrive a reason to come more frequently to Casalinghi Mazzanti.

Saturday morning I got out my broken porcelain pieces and the glue package. I set the pieces of the sugar bowl and the spoon rest on the marble counter.

I read the instructions on the back over and over to make sure I knew what I was doing. Clean and dry surface. Do not get in eyes. Use within two to three minutes, hold pieces to be glued together for forty seconds. Forty minutes to cure. One phrase made me laugh. You may tint the glue with pigment as you wish, obviously before adding the hardener, which was in a smaller tube next to the big tube.

Yeah, obviously. Maybe the contractors knew that. Certainly the jumpsuits knew that. Well, it wasn’t a conversation I was going to have, with any Italian, in any case.

But one detail remained opaque to me. I had puzzled over it many times, and finally called over our house expert in Italian and Florentine culture, language, and measurements, Dr. Jason Houston.

“Read this,” I said. “The sentence about the chicco di caffe and the noce.” It was a description of proper proportions for glueing success.
He held the package close. “Yep,” he said. “It is referencing a coffee bean and a nut.”
The package outlined the proportions for mixing the glue (coffee bean-sized amount) with the hardener (walnut-sized amount), from each tube, to successfully employ the product. The text said that the hardener should be about 2% of the total mix, which I should then mix velocemente. The recommended percentage preceded the coffee bean and nut reference, which were meant to clarify the proportions in an easily understood metaphor. Except it was not easy to understand.
“Is a noce like a walnut?” I asked Jason. “Or a pecan?”
“Pretty much,” he nodded in assent.
“Okay,” I said. “And a chicco di caffe is a coffee bean?”
“Yes,” he agreed.
“Okay,” I said. “Do fifty coffee beans equal a walnut? It doesn’t seem like it to me. Or is there another Italian nut they are referencing that is huge?”
He looked at me like I had begun drinking before noon.
“Seriously,” I pressed. “Fifty coffee beans do not fit into a walnut. Think about it.”
“Maybe they mean a grain of coffee. Perhaps it is referencing coffee that is ground.”
“No, it specifically says chicco here.” This is a catch-all Italian word for a grain of something – a coffee bean, or a grain of wheat. Certainly fifty grains of wheat would fit into a walnut. But the package specifically referenced a coffee bean. “Fifty grains of coffee might equal one coffee bean, and a coffee bean does not equal a walnut.”

How much of one thing equals another thing?

I decided to go with a dab of hardener into my unpigmented glue. The mixture reeked. I mixed it in the plastic lid from a can of Pringles and a used drinking straw. Opening a window to let the smell out, and set about holding together my broken pottery pieces. The glue seemed to work just fine, notwithstanding my confusion over the recommended agricultural proportions.

The sugar bowl and the spoon rest are now convincingly restored to their original states. I think the jumpsuits would agree that I did a fine job.

Italia: Our Italian Vacuum Cleaner / Il nostro aspirapolvere italiano

You know, it’s the little things. They stick. And because they are so small, and inconsequential, until they are not, they are a rich mine for reflection.

I have written here on mundane cross-cultural topics – scarves, laundry. A dentist visit. Things that locals wouldn’t think twice about, because these things are transparent to them in an of course way.

I read Beppe Severgnini’s Ciao, America! circa 2001, in Seattle. A passage in his memoir covered curtains in America, amusing and insightful for its philosophical bent. The symbolic value of curtains in America. How I laughed when I read it: the familiar through the eyes of an outsider, the mundane made new. I’d experienced with blackout shutters in Spain as a student many years prior, those magnificent, interior eclipse-inducing persianas that could make 4 pm in June seem like midnight in January, affording a long lie-in from a previous night out, or a gentle landing into a new time zone. The name itself of these external shutters, so well-known in the Mediterranean basin, invokes Persia/Iran, purdah, Pakistan, sunbaked bricks, protection from an unrelenting sun. I appreciated Beppe’s treatise on the symbolic value of curtains in America: ineffective, thin, light permitting, offering no privacy, seem like decoration only, and what this indicated to him about our culture.

On a related symbolic note, I give you: our Italian vacuum cleaner.

We live in a generously-sized apartment whose every floor surface is terracotta tile that has benefited from decades of waxing. The tiles gleam like no flowerpot I’ve ever seen. They are glorious in the high heat of a Florentine summer: a natural wine cellar feel permeates the space, even on our fourth floor. But tiles are chilly in winter. Perhaps better suited to protecting fine vintages, or curing terrine in small pots sealed with pork fat.

To address this issue, we purchased a few large area rugs shortly after arriving, both to insulate our living spaces and to provide a softer, warmer surface for our kids to play on, their endless hours of haggling and tussling and watching YouTube videos. And eating. Don’t tell the Italians, but we struggle to get our kids to eat at a table at home. They are usually eating on the faux oriental rug in our dining room, generously spreading crumbs and spilling all drinks. Magnetic play sand gathers in pink blobs, marring the pattern. Play-dough (TM) dries on the fringe. Bits of toys and dried pasta abound.

In an ideal world, we would live in the country and take the rugs out to be beaten once a week, and aired in the fresh sunshine on a dry, breezy day. I am pretty sure this is what happens in the Italian countryside. I like to think this is what happens.

In our old life in America, I would have run our industrial strength vacuum over the surface once or twice a week to achieve a calming sense of cleanliness and order. I credit my deeply Finno-Anglo-Teutonic heritage for this. Plus, perhaps, a bit of the cell memory of my Finnish forebears, who must have observed the basic rule of thumb: have little, scrub much.

In our world, however, we initially tried to sweep the rugs with a broom, then with the smaller hand broom that I know from days keeping a hard floor clean in France, the nimble balayette.

The balayette always reminds me of a certain English Jane,
who swept while smoking, a ciggie hanging out of the corner of her mouth.

We then attempted to use an old vacuum from in the cantina (storage) in the basement of the palazzo. But it had all the power of a DirtDevil from 1983. None, no power at all. It charged and had a cord-free feature, which was fine, but it was no fun to hear its wheezing whine and see that nothing was picked up from the rug with its feeble suction. Our rugs got dirtier and dirtier. It was a losing battle.

Jason researched and located a new vacuum on Amazon Italy. The most powerful one we could find, we believed. We have Amazon Prime here, which we hardly ever use, so the new vacuum was delivered in a blink. He brought it home and we assembled it. This was when Victor was heavy in his Lego phase, so he helped us put it together. This new vacuum cleaner resembles Noo Noo from Teletubbies more than it does any useful rug sweeper. It has a potbelly, an accordion hose, and an aluminium arm attached to a rotating mouth lined with bristles.

Noo Noo

We plugged in the vacuum and turned it on. The aluminium arm barely clears my knees. You all know I am a tad over five feet tall. I had to awkwardly hunch over to push it across the rug. The bristly mouth seemed to pick up a lot of loose hair, which we shed freely on the rugs, but did little to gobble up all the particles from food and play that had gathered in the tuft. The rotating feature of the bristle mouth ensured that it kept flipping over and up, and I struggled to keep the sucking intake facing downward on the rug. After about twenty seconds of this, my lower back began to ache like I had been pulling weeds all morning.

This is the best vacuum we could find?

Our babysitters used the vacuum and came back with glowing reviews, which I received with suspicion. Were we using, in fact, the same vacuum cleaner?

I told Jason I did not think the new vacuum was a huge improvement over the emphysemic DirtDevil from the cantina. He shrugged; he accepts variant Italian outcomes with an admirable aplomb.
“Their rugs here are delicate,” he posited. “They cannot be ruined with overabundant suction.”
I looked at him. I thought of my lower back pain.
“The rugs are old?” he continued, fishing. “They cannot be replaced. They must vacuum them very gently, very carefully; the fibers are delicate.”

I read the reviews on and saw that the Italians thought that this was, in fact, a pretty superlative vacuum.
I was nonpl
I put the new vacuum back in our closet and left it there.

I had to hand it to him: of course I understood that wall-to-wall synthetic carpeting, such as we both grew up with in our split-level ranch homes in the US of the seventies and eighties… well, that’s just silly. A truly American goal, to carpet and upholster and heat and insulate your home to the point that you could walk around in your underwear in the winter, and feel like you were in Cabo. Americans want to edit their external environment for comfort. Italians edit their attire.

Our babysitter did use the vacuum on a fairly regular basis, and seemed to obtain better results than I did. However, its bagless design remained a seeming mystery to her. One day she mentioned that the vacuum no longer seemed to be working. After she left, I took it out of the closet, and eyeballed the clear plastic dirt receptacle, and saw that it was jam-packed with grey dirt, dust, and hair. I pried it apart and emptied it into the kitchen trash, creating a huge cloud of floating dust in the process.

A different friend used the vacuum once in our house and made an amusing onomatopoeic imitation of what it sounded like when dried bits rattled up the tube and into the vacuum’s potbelly.

I thought of the horsepower of our old vacuum cleaner in the US, its motorized wheels propelling it across our rugs. Our house in the US was all wood and tile floor, with a few large area rugs, strategically placed. I knew that vacuum sucked up everything. It practically tore the yarn from the mesh. I bought a rug from when we first moved in that seemed to contain the better part of a sand dune from the Katpana desert, and its dirt receptacle filled with the sand that resembled extra-fine granulated sugar, shaken from a sack into a vacuum.

Now, that was a vacuum you could rely on. Even if it were to destroy the tapestries of the Medici.

Florence: Italian Rules / Le Regole Italiane

Part of living in a culture is accepting received ideas, ranging from the mundane to the philosophical in nature. When plates shift and we find ourselves in a new culture, whether on domestic ground or abroad, received ideas are suddenly cast in high relief.

Italy maintains many received ideas that we do not know in America. Perhaps we knew them at one time, and lost them; perhaps we never knew them. If we are children of Ellis Island immigrants, I am positive that our recent forebears knew and observed basic received ideas handed down through culture, maintaining the health and well-being of the family.

Along these lines, some months back I covered the topic of the scarf versus the medical scarf in Italy, and how everyone is responsible for following basic ground rules of good health so that, should they fall into the misfortune of poor health, they cannot be immediately blamed for refusing to obey a handful of simple rules. I have been gathering a few more of these basic guidelines, and present them here for your enjoyment and edification.

Exposed skin. The purpose of attire, besides helping you look your best, is to ensure that one never shivers nor sweats. One must maintain one’s body in a state of environmental equilibrium, as much as it is possible. This means never being too thinly or too warmly attired, depending on the season and the weather. Do not bring shame upon your mother, father, grandmother, and aunts by failing to monitor and maintain such simple variables that can quickly and easily be visually verified. Check yourself. Look down, or look in a mirror, or ask any small Italian standing nearby. Are your wrists exposed? fingers? ankles? heaven forbid, NOT YOUR NECK. If any of these danger zones appear overly exposed, take steps at once to put on socks, gloves, a shirt with longer sleeves, or a scarf/better scarf/second scarf. It is always appropriate to keep wearing Fashionable Scarf underneath Medical Scarf. Under no circumstances are you expected to forego one for the other. Do not give up good health for fashion, nor fashion for good health. You can, and should, protect both your health and la bella figura. There is no zero-sum game on this.

La maglia della salute. Literally the “knit shirt of health,” this traditional wardrobe piece is cotton on the outside, ideally brushed soft wool on the inside, and is worn throughout the cold months for the purpose of its name: to ensure your good health. La maglia della salute will guarantee that no colpa d’aria (strike of air) wends its way to your torso, where even cavemen knew all your vital organs are housed. You gotta keep that torso covered and safe with warmth and security. Your health will thank you, along with all your organs, which will all reap the benefits of soft merino insulation.

Jason found me a version of a maglia della salute at Decathlon, an Italian version of REI, for about six euros. This was when he bought all the apparel for skiing in December for the kids.  I am pretty sure it is just a base layer for skiing and various snow sport, and it is not natural fiber, but it is brushed inside and feels warm. Victor has one too, and we wear them for days on end.

Apparently the maglia vera della salute can be purchased at the Cascine open market behind the Fortezza. I would love to have one; the cotton + brushed merino sounds like the kind of mouse nest I need. I’ve got a Canadian named Margi from church on it for me; she’s from Vancouver, and knows that keeping warm is no laughing matter. I told her I’d pay her a handsome markup if she can bring me one that is traditional and Italian and not a skier’s base layer. And I might wear it all winter long until I stink like it’s the quattrocento. And I will be so warm.

Freddino/freddina. Are you a person who could be characterized as freddino/freddina (chilly, easily chilled)? Apparently I am, which makes sense to me, since we live in the bottom of the Arno river valley in a city made of stone with no insulation and terrible heating. Even when I am wearing two sweaters, two scarves, socks, and wool slippers, it is fair to say that I am still very much freddina. This is a term applied to me especially by Italians of a certain age, who may have been raised with a wood-burning hearth as a heat source, and who never took off their maglia della salute from Ognissanti to Pasquetta.

Let’s say it is 39F and raining outside, and I come up from locking up my bike after a quick commute across old flagstones filled with puddles, soaked and freezing.
I will be told, upon entering my office, wet and shivering, “Pero Monica, tu sei freddina!”
This is cold to you!? they ask me. Are you seriously cold?
Hey, Italy, no offense, but I doubt you’ve spent time at a pole, or in the Arctic.
Clearly my freezing has nothing at all to do with the weather.
“Well, do you like summer?” they asked me this week.
“I actually hate summer,” I said. “It is my number four favorite season.”
They looked at me like I had just grown an extra nose.
“You do not like weather,” they said.
“I hate freezing,” I said. “And sweating.”
They ought to understand this, right? A basic Italian principle. See #1 above.

They are all in collective denial about how cold the winter is in Tuscany. Or perhaps they have simply been trained since childhood to not admit to feeling chilly, because heat costs money, and that caldaia may as well be a nuclear reactor for how reluctant people are to turn it on, as well as its associated exorbitant cost. In fact, I have learned this year that “conservare la caldaia” is an idiom. Gotta conserve that caldaia, people, no joke. Our utilities for the month of December ran to over 700 euros. And we were still freddini that whole month, as a state of being as well as a status.

Dolce e caffe. Just a note here about the proper order for the end of a meal. If you opt into dolce (dessert) after your secondo (entree), no one is going to bring you a coffee until you have eaten the entire dolce. I am talking crumbs on a saucer and a tiny fork licked clean. This is different from the US, where we like to sip, nibble, sip, nibble, alternating the coffee with the dessert. I think we lifted this bad habit from our German and Scandinavian forebears. But this is problematic, because how will your stomach receive the necessary punctuation of espresso, signalling the end of a meal, if you are sipping it with your dessert? This is just poor mealtime editing.

Get it together! Eat the dessert. Patience. Await the coffee. Drink the coffee. Good. Now everyone, including your stomach, knows that the meal is complete.

This rule also applies to a snack at a coffee bar. Eat the sweet thing. Then drink the coffee. Do not intermingle the sweet thing and the coffee when consuming. You’ll screw up your digestion, or worse, and won’t have anyone but yourself to blame when you get put on a white rice diet for the next two days to correct your system.

Eat the sweets on the right. Then, and only
then, drink the espresso on the left.

Coffee and milk. Returning to the US now, I am always shocked at how much milk we want to drink with our coffee, at late hours! We’re like babies with bottles the way we nurse those huge sugary milky drinks from Starbucks at 6 pm. The time to have milk with your coffee is prior to 10 am. You can order a macchiato, or a macchiatino, or a macchiatone, for the rest of the day, but it is not going to contain more than a splash or two of milk. Bars frequented by tourists in Firenze centro will make them a cappucino at 4 pm, but I have been to plenty of other Italian towns where such an order elicited a stern lecture from the barista about needing to educate your palate and not be a baby. Also, if the espresso shot is pulled right, it will be graced by a thin layer of crema at the top, that sweet golden coffee nectar that tells you the coffee was well roasted and the barista knew what they were doing. You might not even need any sugar if the crema is good.

Coffee and water. Not everywhere, but at my local bar, Caffe Paszkowski, they always give me a small glass of sparkling water with my espresso. Why? To drink first, to cleanse the palate, prior to enjoying your espresso, which is a gift. Hydrate a bit; front load some moisture. Then enjoy your espresso. Then drink the last bit of your water so you don’t have old lady coffee mouth. I used to save all my water for after the coffee, until I got a scowl one day from Don Ciro, and a reprimand to “drink the water first.” Read on for how I came to know his name.

The actual piega on the day
the musical broke out in Caffe Paszkowski.
Seemed pretty normal to me, this hair.
But to the baristi, it confirmed something. 

La bella figura. Never underestimate the importance of looking your very best even on a normal day. There is no such thing as a normal day in Italy! Today is always a great day to look your best. Case in point: I had been a regular patron at Caffe Paszkowski for a year and a half. Once or twice per day, coffee, lunch, sometimes two coffees. I knew all the staff, but not by name, because there is no real way to introduce yourself, as a woman, to a caffe full of impeccably groomed and suited male baristi without coming off as really weird and obviously foreign, which I can’t stand.

So I never said, oh, by the way, ragazzi, I’m Monica. They didn’t need to know that; they were nice to me and addressing me with vanity honorifics, such as professoressa, dottoressa, direttrice, which had nothing at all to do with any of my actual qualifications, but are just titles they use when they want to make people blush, as far as I can tell.

One day in December I walked in to Paszkowski after a successful piega (blowout) at a salon close by.

The baristi sprang to life like it was a Broadway musical.
“Buongiorno bella! Io sono Don Ciro … questo e Michele … quello e Lorenzo… Lui e Rolando. E Lei, signora, come si chiama …?”
I was shocked. Who expected this?
I am sure I was five shades of pink.
“Monica,” I said, looking around.
They all nodded, “Monica, bene. Monica.”
The Italians always like my name. Thanks again, Mom and Dad, for such a nice Italian name.
I heard their commiseration behind the counter.
Then they started quizzing me.
“What’s his name?” Pointing to the guy in charge.
“And his?” His first mate.
And so on, until I had proven that I too remembered all their names.
Bene, bene, bene.
Now I am greeted by name, even on days that I look like a Parisian commoner from Les Miz (not a fresh piega day.)
I am still called cara, or bella, but the younger baristi seem to me to blush ever so slightly when I greet them with a “Ciao, Lorenzo” or “Ciao, Rolando.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed my brief tour of compiled and observed Italian rules. I will be honest when I say, I am stressed when I am not in the know about local culture beyond the most superficial of information, and I find it exhilarating and entertaining when I am learning, so I am happy to pass along my experiential knowledge.

Firenze: Un Concerto Giapponese a Ognissanti / A Japanese Concert in Ognissanti

In a prior post, I briefly sketched a few details about a concert I went to see last Sunday with Sophie, the new assistant choir director at St. James Episcopal. Sophie is professional musician and excellent company.

I had seen the pubblicità for the concert on Via della Dogana, a small side street next to Jason’s office where the tourist buses stop to disgorge their day-trippers. The high stucco wall that forms the back of San Marco is often papered over with posters for all kinds of events. I usually check them, either on my bike, or on foot, or the bus, because they change frequently. (Old school technology ftw.) There is always so much going on in Florence that it would be impossible to aggregate a calendar. So, my eyes and ears are always open for any event that might be even remotely possible for me to patronize, given family schedules, life, and a craving for music and high art.

In any case, here is the pubblicità, in an image I snapped to send immediately to Sophie, now that I have a music-minded friend whose schedule, when she is not traveling to perform, seems significantly less complicated or compromised than mine, what with our small children and germs flying about.

A free concert in Ognissanti, on a Sunday, with a visiting choir from Japan, singing pieces I actually knew. No way was I going to miss this, if I could help it. We had just recently sung “In Paradisum” for mass, and I love it. Seriously, if you feel a little stressed out right now, just take a listen. It will transport you. And the lyrics will make you teary.

In paradisum deducant angeli

In tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres

Et perducant te

In civitatem sanctam Jerusalem

Chorus angelorum te suscipiat

Et cum Lazaro, quondam paupere
Aeternam habeas requiem

The day of the concert arrived, and I was fresh off a morning of singing at St. James. I have already detailed my grief with the repeatedly flat bicycle tire, so will spare the retelling of it here. Fortunately it was a truly gorgeous day, sunny and warm, perfect for a stroll down to Ognissanti from Piazza D’Azeglio. I rarely walk on foot the whole way to anywhere in town, as I tend to speed around, late for everything, on my bike, being occasionally scolded by high-minded Italian nonne whose job it is to correct the errant behavior of members of the public for infractions that barely register.

Sophie wanted to meet first for an espresso. I put together the Florentine layout as I walked, since I am never on this route. Oh, so this is Vigna Nuova – oh, and so it connects here to Goldoni – oh, so now I am just one block from Ognissanti. 

Everyone loves Ognissanti. It is renowned for the Westin Excelsior and its rooftop bar (still have not been there), the French Consulate, with the Alliance Française and Librarie Française, a spacious piazza protected from traffic, a large sculpture in the middle, benches scattered about, and to crown the whole, Ognissanti herself holding regal court from the lower end of the piazza, looking out over the Arno to her friend for centuries, Santa Maria de Carmine. The late afternoon sun of winter bathed the stone in a warm glow.


I went to the entrance of Ognissanti and poked my head in to look around. Plenty of room, pews for miles, no problem. After a few confused exchanges, the usher said the doors were to open at four, and to come back in a bit, asking me as I departed if I spoke English.

I walked up and down the street a few times unsuccessfully searching for the caffe where Sophie had said to meet. It was closed this Sunday, as it happened, and shuttered into anonymity. We finally caught up with one another, and ducked into an empty restaurant where a lone barista shrugged and said he’d be happy to pull us two shots – for a premium price, as we learned when we finished. We chatted about an upcoming opera production she is helping to produce, and her regret at planning to leave the Ognissanti concert early to catch a headliner conductor at the Palazzo Pitti.

Back at Ognissanti, at four o’clock, the church had filled in a matter of moments. Where had all these people come from? I was reminded of a particular train in Croatia in 1995 at dawn (a story for a different time). Many Japanese attendees, the likely relatives of the dozens of choristers, patiently waited.

Sophie and I walked up and down the aisle trying to find to spots together, on any pew. We finally scooted into a pew where someone had strewn their personal belongings, in an attempt to save seats for the free concert.

“Are these your things?” we asked the nonna.
“No, who knows whose things those are? They’re not ours.” She squinted at the jacket and the bag.
We left the things in the middle of the pew, between us and the nonna.
More and more people trying to find seats stopped to ask us about the belongings on the pew.
“Are those your things?” they asked us.
Nope, that purple Members Only windbreaker was still not mine.
“Who does that?” the nonni asked us. “Who?”
We shrugged. Who knew who does that? I didn’t know, I was just here to see the concert.
Soon a bald man with fashionable glasses came and sat down between us, moving the purple jacket to the floor.
No one came for the jacket or the bag.
Another couple came and sat on the pew.
The original nonna, closest to the aisle, now began to feel crowded, and tapped the shoulder of the woman in front of her.
“You know, these pews are meant to hold five people each, and your pew has just four people on it.”
Nonna #2 looked at nonna #1 and held her gaze for a moment, then nodded in agreement and moved over to let nonna #1 move up a pew.
Sophie and I suppressed snickers.
This was such a portrait in miniature of Italian culture, and Come Si Fa in Italia, and the public discussion of what is expected and acceptable. I actually like that, in Italy, one can publicly ask these questions about abandoned personal items, or the correct number of people who can fit in a pew, and the civil discussion continues. No one blows a gasket, or even thinks about pulling out a gun (these last five years or so in Oklahoma really scarred me with respect
to firearms.) Simply civil discourse, completed. I am so overdue for a civil retraining.

The concert was late to start, which was surprising, since the Japanese choir was, well, Japanese. But then, they were in Italy. Finally the 130 choristers filed in, the organist took his bench, his page turner next to him. The soloists came in last.

Sophie received a text that the other concert she had planned to attend in Palazzo Pitti was sold out, and that her friend and our fellow chorister Tabitha would be joining us at Ognissanti. By now attendees were sitting under the altars in the chapels lining the sides of the sanctuary, and leaving against their marble plinths.

The sound was amazing. From the first note, it filled the sanctuary with perfect tone and reverberation, first the Vivaldi, then the Fauré. None of the soloists were miked, and they sounded great. Halfway through the Fauré an angelic voice floated down, and I looked and looked until I saw it was a treble – a boy soprano – aged about 11, Sophie and I thought, singing like a bird from the pulpit. I now understand the seventeenth-century rage for castrati like Farinelli – the sound truly is otherworldly, and with what grief they must say goodbye to that training when their voices change. Many people stood to take video when he sang.

I checked the history of Ognissanti on my phone, today a Franciscan church, but originally built by the Brothers of Humility (not sure what they are called in English). You can visit the tombs of the Vespucci there, as well as Sandro Botticello, Signore Nascita di Venere himself, who receives homage to this day from visitors in the forms of notes and flowers in thanks for the enduring legacy of art he left.

The concert concluded and we returned to the fresh evening. The purple windbreaker remained on the floor.

I feel so fortunate to be bringing music back into my life, as a singer, as a musician, as a performer, as a patron, and one who truly appreciates music. I miss my days in school choirs, and voice lessons and recitals, and subscribing to the Seattle Opera, but I love this chapter where I am singing in a choir in Florence, and understanding more deeply how and why music plays a role in our lives. It is such a true point of entry into Italian culture, and Florentine culture in particular. Gifts will surface when we need them.