Firenze: Villa Bardini

Today we met our friends from Amsterdam at the Villa Bardini, which is located along the Costa San Giorgio. The coste, or ribs, refer to the narrow streets that snake outward from the Arno and up into the hills of Oltrarno to the south of Firenze.
We snaked and snaked, staring in disbelief as the road became narrower and the voice of “the lady” (as Victor calls her) ever more laughable as she pronounced all the place names worse than an undergrad fresh off a plane at Peretola.
Most unbelieveable of all, we arrived in a parking lot atop the hill, shaded and clean, between the Boboli and the Bardini gardens. What was this alternative universe? We tried to ask fewer questions and hastened to park more expeditiously.
After snaking in the car, we disembarked and wiggled down a narrow flagstone street and up a stair into the biglieterria. I do not have my residence card yet because I STILL do not have my permesso di soggiorno (a topic for a different day; refer to the January post about our day in the Questura). This resulted in a conversation between Jason and the biglieterrista, who made a few phone calls before confirming that Jason and the kids were free, but the wife would cost 6 euros. The city parks are free of charge for residents. But you gotta prove it. The legacy of a stickler bueacracy – again, grazie, Napoleon.
Che bella vista!
Il Canale di Drago – but where is the dragon?

We entered into a fantastic gardenscape of greens, flowers, statuary, gravelled paths, and ponds and streams, with views over the river and the medieval skyline of Firenze. We picked out all the landmarks and set to eating our snacks. The kids enjoyed a disused marble horsetrough as a lunch spot. Oh impecunious nobility…
Noble trough
Our friends arrived and we staked out a table for popsicles, snacks, and coffee. Vic and Eleanor know both of their girls from school so the fun began immediately. In fact, so much fun that soon a garden official came over and asked us to stop sliding down the stair rail.
Get off the stairs, kid.

Garden view into Firenze.
The glicine (wisteria) are blooming in profusion, so many locals and tourists were taking tons of pictures of the purple clouds. We learned that “wisteria” in Dutch is “purple rain” (“paarse regen). (Perhaps Prince only wanted to see his darling in the wisteria? Wisteryah, wisteryah….) I guess wisteria is a thing in the European springtime. Our kudzu-like mess in Oklahoma never looked this pretty.
We were up there a good three hours. It was perfect.
Prince homage.

Springtime Firenze at her most fantastic

Jason and I agree – if anyone asks us when the best time is to visit Firenze, our response is – the first six weeks of spring. All the color, fresh breezes, no heat, tourist crowds not yet at maximum capacity.

Old dude, young female, noble art.
Maybe it’s Zeus and… someone…

Every concrete fruitbowl was different along the ledge. Here featuring: persimmon.

Firenze: Caccia Uova/Egg Hunt at the Museo Stibbert

I am barely on Facebook these days, instead preparing my inner revolutionary by rereading all the Owell we covered in junior high in Oklahoma. (To think of it!) But by chance I spied an event as I quickly scrolled through my newsfeed on Thursday morning. After mentioning it to Jason, I called the number on my Italian handset (which represents less than 1% of my phone usage here) and spoke with a woman who has a lovely Aussie twang to get us all signed up for the Egg Hunt at the Museo Stibbert.

Frederick’s trellis.

Victor had been before, because he is quickly becoming an urbane man-about-town here in Firenze, personally visiting many museums and civic attractions with his preschool class on gite (field trips). None of the rest of us had been yet, though, and Vic talked it up a great deal. The bizarre post-colonial-threshold museum houses rooms of lovingly restored full body armour, shark teeth, shrunken heads, and the like. Miraculously, we all piled into the car with our various accoutrements at a good hour. Vic is now big enough to regularly carry a backpack without too much complaining, so Eleanor’s diaper bag is now contained in one of his. We provisioned a picnic lunch, having split the list with our local friends Court and Tommy, who were also attending with their kids, who are the same ages and Vic and Eleanor.

The event host was International Babysitters (I’ll plug them since they put on a lovely event). We walked up the hill past the Villa Fabbricata to the Museo Stibbert. Kids got their wristbands, we paid the nominal fee, and walked through the gardens to the lawn where the egg hunt was to be held.

Anubis will now receive you.

The park is gorgeous, whimsical, musty with old money, follies tucked into many corners: a shabby terracotta statuette of Minerva here, an Egyptian temple to Anubis there. Paths and trees and leaves glowing green – it looked like a movie set, perhaps for Pan’s Labyrinth, due to its faintly menacing air, the sun shining weakly through the leaves in thin ribbons.

Mini font of Arethusa.

New tree, old wall.

New tree, old wall #2.

Aslan’s stair

Italian pines

19th century glamour

Admiring terra cotta

Oh, Victor.

A number of families milled about on the lawn, and a lone assistant was supervising the art table for the kids. It was quite a mix of Italians and various anglophones. The eggs had all already been hidden, and here was where the cultural clash began. We could see their gold foil and bright plastic winking in and out of stump hollows and tufts of grass.

Cavorting on the path.

Cultural Friction #1

A few of the Italian kids started hunting the eggs immediately with their parents. A pair of British parents in particular got increasingly upset, and began to complain to the art helper. She became flustered and said that there was only one of her, and her hands were full with the ten kids who were busy making rather wet easter eggs out of paper and shaving cream and food coloring.

Brit parents became increasingly upset and began to argue with one another. The father in particular had to retire to go smoke a cigarette very, very fast. Some of the Italian parents noticed that this was not the way to do it, and began to chastise their children to return the eggs to their hiding places.

Eleanor suverys the boomers and sooners of the Italian egg hunt.

Cultural Friction #2

The egg hunt was to begin at 11, but again in a very Italian fashion, it was 11:15, and then 11:30, and no sign of an egg hunt. Parents tried to distract their kids with coloring and the shaving cream (boring) which was pointless next to a lawn of approximately 5,000 pieces of hidden chocolate.

Finally, the kind but harried art help announced it was time to hunt. She blew a whistle for everyone to listen. The anglo childen all listened. You can imagine what the Italian children were doing, and what their parents were doing. I thought the Brit family might have a fit. The helper have instructions in English and then Italian. “Uno, due …. TRE!” she blew loudly, and the kids scattered.

Dutifully listening to instructions.

Cultural friction #3 

The kids were not divided into groups, so the one year olds were attempting to locate eggs behind 5, 6, and 7 year old boys. I will let you picture it.

“Jason! Jason!” I yelled. I practically tossed Eleanor to him. “Take her to the other side of the field! Where we were with Victor!” Jason and Eleanor went in that general direction. Victor was already there, unloading the cache from a few hollows into his receptacle.

A small Italian girl, about 4, cried bitterly in the middle of the lawn while her mother yelled at her. She was clearly overwhelmed by the competitive nature of the whole affair. “Go sit down then!” her mother screamed at her. “If you can’t do it, just go sit down!” Fortunately I did see them later, having achieved a filial detante, and she was collecting a few eggs.

Yay we got some!

Culturally Amusing Point #4

Boy, they did not know how to hide those eggs. What did they expect would happen, if they put 20-30 eggs and pieces of chocolate in one place? Yes, an older boy is going to come by and take them all. Smh. I bet Barbara Sharp could have come and shown them a few tricks to hide the eggs in leafy branches and the like.

Victor obtained a respectable amount. Eleanor was jazzed to have gotten five pieces of foil-wrapped chocolate in her little bag. Victor gallantly gave Jason three of his eggs to re-hire for Eleanor behind a different tree. I distracted her, shooed away the hovering older boys, then showed her where to look.

Victor and Eleanor both also ran the Egg Race, with a hardboiled egg balanced on a spoon. Vic must have run it six or eight times, consistently in the rutty lane so kept dropping his egg. He had a ball though. Eleanor ran it once, and immediately gave her egg to Victor for race recycling.

Fine. I’ll do it once.

Victor on race 4, 5, or 6.

Cultural High Point

The part where all the families spread their blankets on the lawns and had a 3-hour lunch after the egg hunt. This does not happen in the US. I think it should. That way, parents too can look forward to the egg hunt. Why make it just a kids’ affair? In Italy, everything is better with your family along for the ride.

Firenze: Serata in Coppia/Date Night

What do we do when we have a sitter for three hours on a Saturday early evening, and it is a perfect day in Firenze? (Overview: leaves: light green and abundant. Sunshine: glowing, but not hot. Breeze: gentle.)

We don’t want to ride our bikes or walk into centro, because the cat is out of the bag about Firenze’s beauty, and the three piazze that form the belt of the centro – Duomo, Repubblica, and Signoria – are thronged with tourists on all their connecting streets.

Teeming Corso

Oriuolo, Corso, Borgo dei Albizi, Pietrapiana, Ricasoli, Servi, Calzaiuoli, Calimala, Strozzi, all flow and overflow to the buildings with tight group of tourists, couples in arms, single nonne and nonni and mamme scurrying on errands.

We ask our weekend sitter Emily, an Ameritalian high school student who lives in Oltrarno, where she would go.
“Mmm, my parents like to walk in Bellosguardo,” she replied.
We are usually looking for a place where we can grab an aperitivo and a light dinner. “Where is it exactly?” Jason asked.
“Oh, it’s above Tasso,” she replied, referring to Piazza Tasso.
“I think I can get us there,” I said. We headed downstairs to our car parked on our piazza, its laminated ZTL B placard skittering back and forth on the front dash. Our other idea was to go to Poggio Imperiale, where our friend Kim was part of a local fiera/mercato selling some of her crafts. After that, we had no further ideas, beyond a glass of wine.

Heading over to the other side of the river, we meandered through Piazza Ferrucci (helpful, since I always wonder where it is, as it is a capolinea for the tiny D city bus) and around toward Tasso, then up, up, up a hilly narrow lane. And up. We saw a couple of signs for Bellosguardo, but then nothing but crumbling walls and vigneti, the tufts of green grass already thriving between lines of vines slowly coming to life. We lost our 4G signal, no map. We kept turning right, going up, turning right, going up, along what I took to be one of the famous “ribs” (coste) that run up through the hills surrounding the city, perpendicular and outward from the sternum of the Arno.

Is Marignolle like Mary Knoll? anyone know?

We finally stopped, having no idea where we were. I got out to sniff around in the chiesa di Santa Maria in Marignolle, and admire the villas at the end of long lanes carpeted in last winter’s cedar fronds. It was calm. Florence was nowhere to be seen. The wind gently shushed through the tops of the trees, and the avian choir was nonstop and cheerful. The plaque on the church indicated that the Medici and Capponi, among others, maintained their country homes in the area, and I could believe it.

We decided to try to find Poggio Imperiale, where Kim was with the fiera. My phone was back on grid, so I pulled up instructions, and we began to wind our way down the steep hillside again, hemmed in on both sides by stone walls bordering vigneti and oliveti. Halfway down, Jason said, “You know, can we just go to the certosa? I’d really like to go.” I had no objections, and so we changed course to follow the way to the Certosa di Firenze, in Galluzzo. We’d seen it many times from the road, but had never been inside it. The monastery was in the news even in the US a few years back for closing and relocating the few monks left.

Certosa di Firenze

We parked, and were greeted amicably by a man missing most of his teeth doing a crossword puzzle laid across his knees.
“You here for the guided tour? They left at five, you might be able to catch them,” he called.
We walked up the path to the entrance. The certosa was deserted. It was hewn out of solid rock, as is the Franciscan shrine in La Verna. The high walls glowed golden in the evening sun. Gates were locked. The group was somewhere touring. We hadn’t really planned to be part of a guided tour, so not much lost, but it would have been nice.
Just past the distillery was an open shop with another very old man in it. I couldn’t tell with the sunlight streaming in from the window behind him, but he seemed to be wearing clerical vestments. “You missed the tour!” he called out from behind the counter. The shelves were lined with bottles of chartreuse, wild honey, and various liquids described only as “elixirs,” with saint’s names prefixed.

We took a few pictures, admiring the quick peek of the soaring steeple through a courtyard arch, and went back down to the car.
“What year was this established?” I asked Jason.
“1341,” he replied instantly, and rattled off some amusing historical facts about the letters of Boccaccio and Boccaccio’s poor appraisal of the establishment to his Acciaiuoli patrons. “The building was in the middle of nowhere, no one would ever come there, it was crumbling,” Jason laughed. “He was really mad.”
I wasn’t too sad to have missed the tour after all.
“Did you miss the tour?” crossword man yelled.
“Siiii,” we said.
“Well, next time!” he called.

We ambled out of Galluzzo and tried in vain to locate Poggio Imperiale, winding up again at Porta Romana, where the traffic always spins too fast to read the signs.

We parked the car at Jason’s office and walked into centro. Where for the glass of wine? We skirted the outside chancel at the eastern end of the duomo, breathing easy in the cool shadow. Dove? We found ourselves on Proconsolo, and both thought of the fish restaurant with the frescoes we’ve been meaning to eat at. Said fresco in question features the fourth crown of Italian literature, Zenobi, who was deleted from history by the other three crowns, who are recognized today as “le tre corone.” It wasn’t really a frescobombing as Zenobi was prominently featured in the cen
tral foreground.

We did not take our own picture,
but this is the best I could find online,
and I think might I know who took it and posted it!

We stopped outside Fishing Lab to review their offerings and went in.

Soon we were each holding a crisp white in a stem. Jason ordered the croquettes, and I ordered a pan of what was described as “street food.” I will tell you now, the literal hot mess of fried tiny seafood in waxy newsprint was something I have not seen since Pontevedra, Spain, in 2005. Tiny squid, calamari, bitty shrimp, and assorted other pescaditos, tossed in impanatura, then fried in very hot clean oil. British style chips on the side. Housemade rich lemony mayonnaise, fat with egg yolks.

We walked home. The kids were tired from their nonstop play in the last 24 – two different playdates, mass hours in park on swings and scooters. Eleanor fell asleep before 8, which is why I am able to give you this account now.

If anyone comes to visit, I will take you for the fried seafood pentola with the mayonnaise and the white wine. Certosa tour will probably feature Jason. No promises on Poggio Imperiale.

Firenze: Primavera

Firenze in primavera really makes you understand where Botticelli got his inspiration.

The days turn sunny, the evenings mild. Two weeks ago I watched the leaves come out on the trees bordering Piazza d’Azeglio. One Sunday morning there were just the tiniest of tight light greenish brown buds that you had to squint to see, and by lunchtime, their leafy textiles had rolled out like so many small bolts freshly dyed.

Plus: Eleanor’s pronunciation, “primavela.” which poetically might translate to “first sail,” which I like even more than “first green.” We’re setting sail for summer.

Piumini have been hung on hangers in the wardrobes of our apartment, waiting for next year, even though many Italians still have not given theirs up. One armadio is so big and old it looks like the gateway to Narnia, but the kids are too small to know about that yet. The thickest scarves and hats and gloves are put away. I’m going to slip the sweaters into some creaky drawers this weekend.

The Mercato Sant’Ambrogio is taking on new energy as the verdura looks happier and happier, and every ortolano on side streets has pushed their plastic crates of produce a few few out onto the flagstones.

I’ve got a new regular caffe. Far from undiscovered, it is the caffe on the other side of the Roberto Cavalli shop on one of the fancy streets. It’s called Giacosa, which translates into “already something,” perhaps hinting at their brand optimism before they opened. I was referred to it by our friend Ellen, and the place is always elbow to elbow. I randomly flipped into a guidebook recently and saw it was listed for tourists as the #1 caffe in Firenze. But I suspect the average tourist pokes his head in, and unless made of stern stubborn stuff, is immediately put off by the press of people, the noise, the chaos, the cassa hidden behind the rows of bodies, the Italian requirement to munirsi con il scontrino (get your receipt – gotta prepay) before you ask for anything in that scrum.

It is not large, and the ceilings are not high, but they have some seating indoors and out that they don’t charge extra for. I do not know where they procure their pastry case – I seriously doubt they are baking – but their cornetto integrale alla frutta di bosco is something I think about when I am far away from pastry hour. It doesn’t approach the Platonic form of the pastry that I somehow managed to eat at 6 am in the train station in Venice almost exactly four years ago, outbound for Trieste, but it was close.

One of the best things about Giacosa is the people watching is superb. Not many tourists frequent it, and it is full of Italians, nay well-heeled Florentines, who amiably monopolize the leather benches and bistro tables. Impeccably groomed men in blue suits and expensive glasses listening to morose companions and saying repeatedly, “Ma mi dispiace. Non e facile. Che brutto. Mi dispiace.” Or an elderly quartet I snooped on last week, sitting in a row and looking around appreciatively (average age: 80) as they enjoyed their morning coffee and cornetti together. Or the grandmother in a huge fur coat, a glittering diamond brooch fastened askance atop her head. I suspect there are quite a few stealth nobility in Firenze, all about 80 now, who recall a Very Different Time.

Palm Sunday is this week, and for a while already the fancier caffes and pasticcerie in town have been putting out their fancy eggs. It seems the egg hunt, that most Saxon of pagan rituals, has not spread across Italy. Instead, Italians prefer a huge chocolate egg. Who tortures people by hiding the chocolate and then watching them look for it? Barbarians. Just give me a gigantic gorgeous egg please. Solid chocolate is preferable, artful bunny face ideal. These, from the case in Gilli, the sister bar caffe of my other haunt, the always welcoming Paszkowski.
Jason’s program, Gonzaga in Florence, did host a group of children from Victor’s school yesterday for Easter activities. It’s a fairly international crowd of multilingual, savvy kids, so they were into the Easter card making, and the face painting (I finished a few Princess Jasmines, to great delight), but they were into the egg hunt. Caccia uova! The eggs were hidden in various nooks and crannies of the library, and the children hunted for them in three heats. There was a strict egg audit on: two plastic, one decorative. Some of the eggs were crayons shaped like eggs, which was VERY confusing to little hands. The event was a success – next year they might do it across the street, in the Orto Botanico, which is as I write bursting with effusive color.

Firenze: The Hands of the Medici/Le Mani dei Medici

Yesterday, Victor, Flavia, and I went out to see the Bill Viola exhibit that just opened this past week in the Palazzo Strozzi.

Incredibly, we were able to take the 19 and the C1, which made the day pretty much perfect for Victor. I was surprised the schedules lined up on a Saturday.

The tiny C1 makes its way down Via Cavour but then detours through San Lorenzo on the way to Piazza del Duomo. I love how the drivers patiently nose their way through hoardes of tourists and locals.

In Piazza San Lorenzo, I asked Victor, “Do you know where we are?”

I often ask him questions of orientation when we are in town in case he gets lost, but also, like his mama, Victor likes to know things.

“No,” he said.
“This is San Lorenzo,” I said.
“San Lorenzo,” he repeated.
“We almost named you Lorenzo,” I said. “Do you wish you were named Lorenzo?”
“No,” he said. Well, that’s a relief.
“Do you know why this church is important?” I continued, hoping I did not sound too pedantic. “It’s a very important church.”
“Why?” he said.
“The Medici are here.”
“They’re HERE?”
“Well, what’s left of them.”
“They’re buried here.”
“Like, super horsey times.”
Vic looked out the window as the bus curved around the Cappella Medicea.
“I want to see them,” he said.
“You can’t see them, because they’re buried. You can see what’s left of them,” I said, with a half chuckle. Now an Italian woman to my left was laughing and glancing back at us as we discussed this topic.
“What’s left of them?” Victor asked.
“Not much,” I said. “They’ve been there a really, really long time. What do YOU think is left of them?”
Victor really put this question to some thought. The lady bus driver gently beeped at a tour group gawking at leather items hanging out of a store. “I don’t know,” he said. “Their… hands?”
I laughed, picturing the phalanges of the Medici in the great stone vaults, cast like some augury. “Hopefully it’s more than their hands,” I said. “It’s their bones. Le ossa.”
“Ossa,” Victor repeated, looking out the window.
The hands of the Medici.

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.