The molten sun beat down mercilessly. The hot, slow afternoon was a furnace. The parks lay green and motionless. Pavements shimmered like burning lakes.
When I arrived in Florence that summer, I was overwhelmed by the incredible warmth in the air and the prospect of days of bright, sunny days in the 90s. I had not experienced such days in months, maybe years. Early in the morning I stepped outside on to the street to find myself engulfed by warm air and bright sunlight.
I had to stop for a moment to take account of what this was. What it was was blissful. I had forgotten it still existed. And then the questioning began. Does it only exist here? Isn’t there a place like this closer to home? I’ve been yearning for this all year and now I was in its midst.
It galvanized me into a frenzy of work that I’ve not known in years. Others wilt or find the heat oppressive; I flourish in it, especially when I’m in Italy. Robert Penn Warren once said that he liked to write in a foreign country “where the language is not your own and you are forced into yourself in a special way.” A Paris Review interviewer asked Tobias Wolff: “You’re just back from seven months in Rome. Why were you there?” Wolff replies in a similar vein:
I had no immediate reason for going. It wasn’t to do research. I speak some Italian, but living in a country where I can’t be completely aware of what people are saying around me puts this sort of bubble around the head, in which, for a time, not indefinitely, I find I’m able to work with more than the usual concentration and joy.
In Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer Nathan, the aspiring writer asks Lonoff, his literary idol: “How would you live now, if you had your way?” Lonoff replies, “I would live in a villa outside Florence.” Nathan then asks: “Yes with whom?” “A woman of course.” Clearly that is the solution—live with a beautiful Italian woman who can translate the Italian essays and articles I cannot read here
The Parco Delle Cascine is an enormous park on the western edge of Florence that stretches along the Arno for miles. Over the years I have gone there often, first as a runner, then as a walker, and now as a sunbather. I marvel at how few people I usually see in the Cascine. It is surely because the park is so vast and so heavily treed that the people are simply hidden in between the bushes and shrubs and down the long pathways that traverse the park from one end to the other.
A few miles into the park there is a public swimming pool, the Publico Piscina where I have been going of late. It is far from luxurious; I am reluctant to shower there. But it is the sun and surrounded by lovely tall trees and open fields. On day I realize that the sun that shines on the sunbathers at the Publico Piscina is the very same one that shines on the beautiful people by the pool at the Splendido in Portofino.
As I prepare to return home, I am once again reminded that we are what our situations hand us. In Florence it is warm; at home it is cold. In Florence it is quiet; at home it is “noisy.” I am a different person in Florence. I am turned upside down mostly by the warmth that seems in some strange way to be remarkably therapeutic. Each time I go there I realize how much difference the temperature and light can make, how much they seem to matter to me, how noticeable they are. I feel more at home here than anywhere else.
In the final analysis, however, Florence can only be for me much like Andre Aciman said Illiers was for Proust.
Illiers itself was simply a place where the young Proust dreamed of a better life to come. But, because the dream never came true, he had learned to love instead the place where the dream was born.