Friday, January 19, 2007

Day 15 - Florence

This is one of those days where there is not much to tell. We are in Florence, birthplace of the renaissance and birthplace of our Italian love affair. It is here that we first fell in love with this country, its people, its food, its culture, its everything. It is here that we always find a way to come back, never doing much of anything except, perhaps, paying silent homage to this place and thanking it for changing our lives.

Our morning is spent in our hotel room working, working, working, trying to catch up on unwritten and unposted stories, making arrangements for the remainder of the trip, returning phone calls. We do all of this because we have to. Outside the clear bright sky is beckoning us to come out and play. Surprisingly, we resist.

Until lunchtime that is. Around noon we finally step outdoors and begin to reacquaint ourselves with Florence, an easy reintroduction not unlike when two friends who have not seen each other for some time fall back into the conversation they were having when they last saw one another. We shop, peering in the windows of countless beautiful boutiques selling high end clothing, fine jewelry and touristy souvenirs. And we shop some more, taking a half hour to cross the famed Ponte Vecchio, looking in each tiny jewelry store in search of the perfect gift for our daughter back home. And we shop, strolling through the outdoor market at San Lorenzo in search of bargain pashmina scarves for our niece-to-be’s wedding party.

We stop at an old favorite restaurant on the altrarno (the other side of the Arno), its wooden tables packed in a long, brick barrel vaulted cellar, having an unconventional (by Italian standards) lunch that is seemingly served in the wrong order. We stop for a glass of wine at one of the new wine bars that has sprouted up over this old city, enjoying the proprietor’s Chianti riserva under an awning in an outdoor seating area set up in the street which no longer permits automobile traffic. We give a homeless man a coin and, when his sad eyes make contact with the plate of small sandwiches proffered to us by the waitress to accompany our wine, slip him one filled with prosciutto, trying to avoid the disapproving gaze of the waitress.

We do all these things and more as we seem to float, effortlessly, through the streets and through the life of this city. For us, all seems at peace here. All is completely without effort. All is comfortable, relaxing. All is right with the world in Florence.

This is the place where we first came, fifteen or so years ago, taking an apartment on the altrarno, not speaking a word of Italian, not knowing how to buy a cup of coffee or order a pizza. With our son Austin in tow, this tow headed one year old was our ticket to the hearts and minds of our Italian neighbors. Enter the bread store in our neighborhood and you might be ignored for five minutes, the owner serving all of his regulars first. Enter the bakery with this tiny, smiling, blond haired baby, and you were sent to the front of the line, your order filled with a smile, even if you couldn’t explain what you wanted, and a few extra pieces of special schiacciata for il bambino.

After our first two month sojourn here, this is the place we returned to with friends and family, to share the delights we had discovered during our time here. Here we discovered grappa with my mother and father, the first versions tasting like zippo lighter fluid, flavored with grass growing from the cracks in the sidewalk. Here we improbably ate pizza with hot dogs with my mother after spending the better part of the day in a tow truck, our rental car having been incapacitated by feeding it regular fuel (it preferred diesel, thank you). Here we returned for a second grand vacation, this time with two children in two, but with the same result. Here we made our first Italian friends, giving us an even bigger reason to return. Here we shopped the San Lorenzo market, years later with our nearly grown up daughter and her cousin, drank coffee in the Piazza Repubblica until the wee hours of the morning as Greek expats and tourists celebrated their team’s Euro soccer cup victor and luxuriated in the newly renovated Savoy Hotel. Here we managed a group of 17 friends and family, making a grand convoy entrance through the unforgiving traffic of Florence (fortunately on an Easter Monday) and enjoying the kids’ faces as they tried to eat steamed cow’s foot.

So today we do nothing all that special or out of the ordinary. But with every step, every breath of cool, fresh Florentine air, with every turn around every corner we relive and silently recollect all of those experiences, building upon them with each return visit, brick by brick. Like the elegant bell tower on the Palazzo Signoria or the sturdy Palazzo Medici, these memories create works of art that we can cherish for a lifetime.

As we return to our room on the top floor of the Hotel Pierre, languid music suffuses the air, taking wing from the Piazza Repubblica a few blocks away where a Ukrainian woman is singing Italian ballads, accompanied by an accordionist. We open our windows, wrap ourselves in her melodies and drift off to sleep, another perfect Florentine memory to add to our collection.

No comments: