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.

Firenze: My Life is an Indie Film

My life in Florence is an indie film. It will all seem funnier soon, like perhaps when I am done telling you this story.

It all started last Thursday, when Eleanor decided she would, on that particular day, as never happens otherwise, accompany Victor to I Scolopi for his earlier dropoff. His day begins at 8:30, while Eleanor has until 9:30 to mosey in to the preschool on the top floor. We should have tried harder to dissuade her, but instead we all trooped out to the corner of Piazza d’Azeglio and Via Carducci, where our bikes are always locked up, rain or shine.

Eleanor now weighs 12 kilos, and Victor 20 kilos. It’s no longer possible for Jason to put them both on his bike to bring them in, as was the case until this past fall. So Victor went with me on my bike, and buckled in. As we rode away I was not aware of any meltdown behind us, but Victor said Jason and Eleanor were still at the curb. It was 8:25 and he was not going to be late this morning if he was on my bike, so I pedaled at superhero speed and brought him in.

Riding my bike home, I noted on the bike path next to the viale (ring road) that my tire was flat – like really flat. I rode on the rim for about a hundred more meters, and then hopped off to walk it home, the loose rubber flapping on the pavement. Jason texted me to tell me that Eleanor was face down in the parking lot screaming. These days I call her Attica, with love. A riot lurks just under the surface, ready to flare at any time. She throws things, and far, and at me, when she does not want them, or she refuses them, or she is finished with them, or finds them disdainful – clothing, shoes, cups of juice, plastic plates of pasta, toys.

I walked my bike back in, about 30 minutes, on the narrow sidewalk between our piazza and the bike shop. Flap flap flap. Plus some dirty looks from Italians who may have believed I was walking my bike on the sidewalk for fun, rather than trying to avoid being scacciata (flattened) by the constant line of speeding buses that whizz through that arterial. At the bike shop, I showed the tire to our mechanics. Six pm, he said.

Jason and Victor spent the weekend in Trentino in ski lessons, enjoying mountain air and fresh powder. I stayed at home with Attica, preferring to manage the riot in our own home, rather than in a hotel room. Her skiiing stamina is about 45 minutes, far less than her protest stamina. Our friend Flavia came to stay and help, which meant I got to do things like enjoy a Friday evening prosecco in good company, have adult conversations, practice my Italian with a sympathetic multilingual speaker, observe and learn from Flavia’s child-whispering skills, sing in choir, and attend a concert. (I will cover the concert in a later post.) On Saturday I mailed myself off to Napland in Victor’s top bunk in the nap envelope, while Flavia watched “The Little Mermaid” in Italian with Attica, who does not riot with Flavia. (Nap envelope: a zippered fleece sleeping bag that, when properly fastened, makes me forget I live in Tuscany in winter, and permits me to relax as warmly as a sojourning mouse in an old down coat.)

Saturday evening I met up with friends for dinner on the Arno, accompanied by a fair amount of cross-cultural amusement (I will cover the restaurant evening in a later post.) Wow! What was this magical Florence that could be seen and enjoyed in the evening, as the lights of the Uffizi gallery and the Ponte Vecchio reflected off the quietly flowing, yet glass-like Arno?

Eleanor took a long late nap with Flavia, and so was ready to party by the time I got home. I will confess I let her watch Peppa Pig videos on YouTube on the old laptop after I fell asleep. I woke up around midnight and saw that she had closed it and fallen asleep next to me.

Sunday morning I had choir rehearsal, and rode my repaired bike to St. James on the other side of town. Our choir is growing, thanks to the PR efforts of the assistant director, Sophie, and me, and our two new Venezuelan singers were joined by a Muscovite musician and an English au pair. We performed Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” followed by Rutter’s “God Be in my Head.” I was fortunate to sing next to our professional Japanese soprano, Ayako, whose voice would melt a mountain. I always take notes. Or get teary. In any case, as soon as I was done singing, I sped home to relieve Flavia and host friends for lunch.

The assistant choir director Sophie and I had made a date to see a choir perform at 4 pm at Ognissanti. But when I walked out of the building to go to my bike, I saw, to my horror, that the tire was completely flat again. I checked my watch and prepared to hoof it 4,000 steps to Ognissanti, an area I am never in, and was only vaguely aware of how to directly arrive to. Fortunately, the day was gorgeous, Attica was with Flavia, and this was all ok.

The concert was well worth the effort. The Japanese choir sang Vivaldi and Faure. A treble soloed from the pulpit and it felt like 1730. All the soloists were exceptional, even if the organist was a bit flustered and kept striking wrong keys and chords. But I love Ognisssanti, and the acoustics were superb.

After the concert finished, we were greeted upon exiting the church with a sunset straight out of a dream. The Italians around us exclaimed, “Guarda che tramontane!” and snapped pictures. We went up to the lungarno to get our shots right over the river.

I walked home, where Jason and Victor waited, beat from their sporty weekend up north. Another little boy, Enzo, the son of one of the visiting faculty from Gonzaga, was happily playing with our kids. I told Jason my bike tire was flat again so we could make plans for Monday morning. I advised Eleanor, “either the bus or the stroller tomorrow.” I wondered if my rim was bent, or the wheel was broken. Jason and I agreed that Victor cannot ride on the kid seat on the back of my bike anymore. (Jason upgraded his bike to a better model the last time this happened, after Victor broke most of his spokes multiple times.)

So this morning, Eleanor woke up as soon as the door clicked confirming the earlier departure of Jason and Victor. After a mini riot and multiple outfit changes, I got her downstairs into a borrowed stroller that I found in the building’s basement, which I still need to tell the owners I pinched, since Jason loaned Eleanor’s stroller to a visiting faculty family. Eleanor was mad that the clip was broken, but we were off walking to school in no time, while she clutched her large stuffed dog, to the amusement of everyone we passed. This is probably the fourth time in two years that I have str
olled Eleanor anywhere. She hates the stroller for both its lack of freedom, and for its intimation to the public of the infantile rider.

Walking home from school, I passed by the dentist… oh merda, I have a dentist appointment at 10:30, and it is 9:45, and I must walk home. Well, clearly, that does not leave enough time to walk in with my flat tire and make the dentist appointment. I packed my office into my backpack, and headed back to the dentist on foot.

They were ready for me. I want to say here that I like our family dentist, and I love the dentist in general, but wow. Tough on teeth. In no time I was supine in the chair, getting a dam assertively flossed into my teeth. The filling was going to be all business.

“Do you blah blah blah?” he asked me.
“Excuse me?”
“Anesthesia. Do you want it?”
What a strange question! In the US, they just poke you immediately. There is no debate.
“Not now,” I shrugged, thinking of my pain threshold and delivering two babies without anesthesia.
Maybe this Italian dentist knew some advanced tricks?
How much could a little drill…
I flinched.
What was that?
Ow ow ow.
Note, I have not been drilled in ages. Decades. Maybe since 2001 in Seattle.
I gestured in panic from behind the blue rubber dental dam.
“Do you want the anesthesia now?”
I nodded vigorously. Tears were running into my ears.
They took off the rubber dam, and an assistant came in with a huge hypo.
Surely they were going to numb my gum with a big Q-Tip of lido …
WHOA that needle is all the way in and pumping liquid, oh my god.
I closed my eyes and thought of England. (joke)
More drilling, much drilling, much composite.
Finally it was done, and the dam came off.
But no, more drilling and polishing.
At this point I was semi-dissociative, but I am vain about my teeth, and this dentist is good. He was trained in the US. And he speaks English. And his whole staff speaks English too. And his daughter is in school with our kids.
Then the dentist announced he was really done, and off came all the accessories. I wiped all the spit from my chin and around my mouth. I could taste blood where the metal ring of the dam had been anchored onto a molar.
“We’ll do the other one later,” he reassured me.
I felt like I might pass out.
“And your night guard, we can fit you for that after we do the second filling, because it will alter your bite.”
I was wondering if it was too early for an apero.
I went to Jason’s office and told him the story, but he stopped me at the imitation of the drilling sound. I have meant to blog about my Italian dental experiences before, but today’s session seemed particularly memorable.
The entire right side of my face was numb, and I could still feel the place where the hypo had gone in. Jason and I went to his local caffe to order a double espresso for me, to end the anesthesia before I chewed my own lip off.

So I walked home, again, got my busted bike, again, and walked it into the bike shop, again. The bike tech looked at the wheel and said I had punctured the tire again, that the wheel was not broken or bent. 6 pm, he said. Again.

Back out on the street, I downloaded the Mobike app, and after a number of tries, got it to work. I picked up a Mobike outside of Jason’s office, and rode it into my office. Cost: 50 cents. Umm, seems a bit high, so I will only resort to Mobike in cases of emergency (theft, wreck, flat).

At this point today I have walked almost 10,000 steps already, my mouth still tastes like blood, and the espresso did not, in fact, terminate the effects of the anesthesia.

My life is an indie film.