Update from Italy: Florence, Forlorn and True

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Italian_Garden_at_Duke_Gardens.jpg

Florence without the tourists resembles a Renaissance courtesan without a royal patron. She is majestic; her public squares are grand, yet empty. Streets normally choked with taxis and coach buses and throngs of tourists in day-tripping groups are now safe to cross on foot, to jaywalk at any point. Even the beggars wear face masks.

Her gardens are festooned with early summer blooms, their iron gates inexplicably closed: who would dare to enter? The oft-touted low rate of full-times residents in centro now needs no further evidence. Seventy percent, is what people say; 70% of the centro storico are short-term rentals to tourists. In the past decade small alimentari and purveyors of fine furniture have quietly gone out of business, closed their books, and gone homes, to be replaced by scores of bars and restaurants, almost all offering the same staid menus of crostini, prosciutto, bistecca, spritz, and plum-colored Chianti. The few Florentines left in centro seem bemused but worried. The courtesan’s duke was a tyrant, but he kept her in jewels and furs.

Florence, like her sister Venice to the north, is far more delicate than many realize. The crowds seize upon her and consume her. The stays on her corset were strung so tight she could barely breathe, although she looked stunning. The banquets became unmanageable. Her medieval blocks could barely manage the throbbing pulse of pedestrian traffic. How uncanny to sit now in the Loggia dei Lanzi, to walk down Via dei Neri, in near silence. True, she was beautiful at court. To look at her you could barely breathe. But it was not sustainable. The duke clasped her too tightly, demanded she focus on him, dance with him, laugh at all his poor jokes – for you see, the man was, in the end, ill-bred. All purse and scant education. How vulgar! Florence became frantic; she knew she must please him, she must dance, she must laugh, she must stay up til early dawn, but expectations took their toll.

Now the duke’s gone away, on some business or other, high markets, they say. Only a handful of courtiers remain in the drawing rooms, somber and speculating as to his return, will the dinners and dances resume? Florence pulls up her skirts to sit at her inlaid walnut writing-desk, pulls out a pen to make a few notes, finally that she has some time to herself to collect her thoughts in silence. The birds trill in the garden. She gazes out the casement windows, caresses the bauble on her necklace, and dips her quill into the ink. She has things to relate.

Update from Italy: Of Private Banks and Rosaries, and L’appel du Vide

My daily walks around Florence after May 4 ended the month at 120 kilometers total, all around my three main circuits: river, piazze, and hill. How strange to be outside again, to notice not only what is new, but to see with new eyes was before was invisible – what I took for granted.

Italians are wearing the face masks without complaint. Weeks cooped up inside will do that. Whatever it takes to go outside, it will be done. Of course because it is Italy, many masks are fashionable and downright flattering. The fit is tailored; dark colors are favored. A popular version is the Italian flag mask, the fabric blocked out in bright red and green, with the white block covering the mouth. I passed a fit Italian man with his girlfriend and wondered if his patriotism compensated for the insult to his vanity, both trounced by the sheer pleasure of being outdoors, holding his girlfriend’s hand. I wondered how many neatly trimmed Italian beards and insouciant whiskers were hidden by the masks.

In the early weeks of my freer walks, I kept seeing lost rosaries. Perhaps, literally a sign from God, or the evidence of anxiety on a walk, rubbing the beads, muttering Our Fathers and Glory Be. An opal rosary rested on the base of a lamp post in the park. Many people looked at it, but no one touched it, no one took it, their magpie curiosity chastened by the spectre of possible cooties. Does a virus live on the smooth surface of opal rosary beads for 72 hours? On our block I almost stepped on a wooden rosary knotted with waxed black twine, surely the comfort of a Franciscan. It looked professional, yet lonely, and well-loved. I picked it up without thinking, charmed by its lack of pretense. It now hangs from my vanity mirror in our bedroom.

The private gardens of private banks explode with blooms behind their iron grilles. Nothing is more Florentine than a private bank. A bank where you must know the secret knock, the secret handshake, before you are even permitted to ask to store your euros among their original art and frescos, their marble floors. I walk by private banks now, all the time, and barely notice, but when we first moved here, my inner Communist was outraged. Private capital, deposited in a private bank, make luxurious and comfortable for private people with loads of private money to enjoy counting their money, putting it in, taking it out, of their hushed account, surrounded by bronze statues of Hermes and Augustus. Somewhere in Mugello, Bicci’s father is laughing in his grave.

No private bank with private garden? No problem. A quick call to a local florist and a bouquet can be delivered, anywhere, in a large box, or a huge paper cone. They wheel up in those glorified mini tractors, an Ape with a clever logo painted on each side, ring the doorbell, pause. Sì? a voice calls out. I’ll leave it here, the deliveryman replies, and sits in the Ape, calmly, until the door opens, an arm extends, and the bouquet is retracted into the building as though by Inspector Gadget.

The lungarno along the Arno after dinner has been transformed from a tourist melee to the equivalent of some Slovenian or Lithuanian outpost. Just locals stroll along, so far apart that the river is always visible, winking and glinting in the slanting light. I am glad the Arno and I are getting to know one another in this way. I love water: I always have. Drawn to it like a moth to flame. Or like a mosquito to the Arno, which is less flattering but equally true. How astonishing to realize we live mere blocks from the majestic Arno, even as it floats flatly brown after rains, the white man-made cascades foaming and churning as the water rushes over.

How odd this feeling at the bottom of my stomach, crossing the Ponte Vecchio or the Ponte di San Niccolò. What is this impulse, this desire to jump in to the river? Was it exacerbated by weeks of quarantine, in our rooms with no views, our secular cloister? L’appel du vide. The French have a phrase for it, the call of the void, of emptiness. I look around. No one sees me; no one follows me. The Arno swirls and churns her way under each bridge, carrying along twigs and sticks and dirty plastic bottles. What would it mean to hop over the rail, to look down, to jump in, feet first? How deep is the Arno, anyway? On a normal day, I mean, of course; not on a tossing and angry day after rains. The little man continued to jitter deep in my gut. I took a breath and quickly strode to the other side, to land.

Update from Italy: Lemons, Etc.

The lemons in the garden of the palazzo where we live hang in mythical perfection among the palms and under the hulking cedar of Lebanon: dimpled globes of sunshine, speckled with green, dappled in the sun. The lemon trees winter over in the limonaia, or serra, a simple greenhouse built against the main wall of the garden, its frame painted green. The day that the lemon trees emerge from the limonaia is one of great joy, shouting and pushing and pulling of their enormous terra cotta pots. Family members who are recruited to the project maneuver them each into a suitable position in the garden.

Eleanor admires the lemons, their firm shape, the way they catch the light.

“Let’s grow one,” she suggested one day, and so I saved a few seeds from a store-bought lemon, and dug out some brown paper starter pots, as miniscule as a Beatrix Potter illustration, and spooned some dirt from the garden into each, poking a seed into the dirt with a pencil. Two transparent plastic clamshells that had previously contained rather soggy oily egg rolls from a delivered dinner during quarantine were handily repurposed into individual greenhouses for the little pots. I snapped the lids closed and we placed them on the windowsill where they might be monitored for light and water as we awaited their sprouting.

Before long, one seed had sprouted, its shoot waxy and bright. It quickly stretched up, up, up, then sprouted a second set of leaves. Eleanor and I squealed together to admire the tiny leaves, “it is growing!” she crowed. We watered it diligently. The second sprout showed some green, but seemed stunted, even as its companion thrived on the same windowsill.  

One day the sun shone too brightly on the sill and fried the first sprout. It wrinkled and wilted, and its proud stem bent double. Eleanor and I discovered this in great dismay. I felt a genuine grief in equal measure to the joy we had felt together when we saw the first shoot. The sprout was then accidentally overwatered in an attempt to revive it, and drooped even further as its damaged single root struggled in the thimble of muck. No amount of care could revive it. Mold crept up its stem. I finally swallowed the lump in my throat, pinched the root out of the dirt, and recycled it into our organic waste bin in the kitchen. The root came out easily, partly because it had never branched, partly because the mud was so wet. I spread the wet dirt out on a piece of plastic on the same windowsill in hope that the strong sun would dry it. 

“What is this!” Jason exclaimed. 

“Dirt. I am airing out dirt.” 

“You’re airing out dirt?” 

“Yes, the lemon shoot died,” I answered impatiently. “I will try again as soon as that dirt dries out.”

Meanwhile the second shoot had been quietly growing. No early starter, but rather a dogged dot of green, doubled over into a U-shape atop the dirt. Had it hit a pebble? Why did it not rise? It did not reach upward like its friend, whose early energy was no match for the challenges to its survival. I wondered why it had not straightened up. So a day after I recycled the expired shoot into the organic trash, I took a toothpick and carefully poked holes all around it until I could gently lift it up out of the thimble of dirt. The single root dangled. The suspected pebble was, in fact, its own seed germ, the hull a tiny helmet for the shoot, too heavy to lift. I gently removed the dirt with a toothpick, and placed it root-down again into the dirt, the hull atop its leaves, hoping that the leaves would stretch toward the light, that the hull would be gently discarded through the natural course of nature. That new leaves would emerge and unfurl their tiny cones. The slow starter came to my attention days after its companion expired.

Gardening and activity with seeds of any kind always remind me of the days before Victor’s arrival, when I would scatter whole packets of seeds onto raked dirt in our garden plot, and marvel at how few seemed to sprout, much less thrive. Basic botany and the literal metaphor science of seeds provided me with no small measure of comfort in those fraught years. What are the odds, I asked myself over and over in tears. The odds are infinitesimal.

The seed is essential, yet the hull is pushed up first with the shoot into the air. The remains of the seed do not remain in the ground; the root, nourished by the contents of the seed, pushes downward. And yet, what if the seed is too ponderous, too heavy, too awkward, and prevents the shoot from thriving? The vital information contained in the seed is in fact impeded by the information of the container itself. 

We cling to our origins in ways that prevents our shoots from straightening tall and reaching up toward the light. How often a quick start full of promise leads to unforeseen circumstances that threaten survival. The remains our own seeds prevent its growth, and thus our growth.