In these years he most often planned to go to Italy. He would look forward to the time when he had finished a book or a group of stories and he would be free. These plans were so much a part of his existence that he forgot them, changed them, remade them without consultation or hesitation. —Colm Toibin, The Master
I am staying now in the Oltrarno (other side of the Arno) area of Florence that according to one commentator is the most florentine and greenest parts of the historical center and where the real old and new florentines live, shop, eat and have fun.
Stretching from the Ponte Vecchio to the equally well-known Palazzo Pitti and adjacent Boboli Gardens, this neighborhood is among the most beautiful in Florence. It is also the hippest and most alive, especially around the Piazza Santo Spirito (a block from my apartment) encircled by cafes, “bars,” restaurants, shops, and where so many of the artisans in this city live.
Most of the following “pictures” are selected from my Italian Fragments published in Issue One, Travel Fragments at FragLit.
I am engulfed by history in Florence. Something extraordinary happened here during the Renaissance. How did it happen? Leonardo, Michelangelo, Galileo, Brunelleschi, Machiavelli, the Medicis—all working together, sometimes across the street from one another.
Many of the buildings date from the Renaissance and before. Some are beautiful palazzos or civic buildings, meticulously preserved and thoroughly modernized within. Others are still quite shabby and in need of repair. At first, I am put off by this. But then I am actually back in time, several hundred years. Wandering about the commune then, not now. In the country, the homes and public buildings are painted the most delightful shades of orange, yellow and pink. There are no gray buildings in Tuscany.
On every street there are many small shops, each selling only a few items. The pattern is repeated in the next block, as well as on the next street over. So everything you need—bread, fruit and vegetables, a book, hardware, an espresso—is close to where you live. You go from place to place, as I do with the florentines, gathering the things you need. And along the way, you exchange a few and sometimes many words with the people you know—that is, if they are not already chatting with someone else.
In every town there is a central square and many smaller ones. They vibrate with talk and music and the activity of the surrounding banks, restaurants, bookshops, churches, artisans and whoever else is fortunate enough to be there. The piazza is the heart of an Italian town and brings a sense of community to those who live there. It is the place to go and to be seen. For many it is their “Third Place.”
Here in Italy I am thrown back upon myself like nowhere else. There is no one to talk to. No one I can understand. No one tries to talk with me. The phone never rings. I think this is what it must be like in paradise. There are people everywhere. But you cannot speak to any of them.
Smoking & Talking
Not everyone smokes, but far more do in Italy than in the USA. And as you walk down the streets, you are struck by the large number of men and women of all ages puffing away. Or babbling on their cell phones which are also more prevalent in public areas than in the USA. People engage in animated conversations on the streets, in restaurants, in hotel elevators--everywhere. Yesterday I saw a man with a cell phone in each hand, talking alternatively with the two callers and moments later a woman came speeding by on her Vespa, trying to steer with one hand, while the other was gripping her cell phone as she was fully engaged in a conversation.
It is not surprising that Italians are so musical. It comes with the language. When Italians speak to one another they virtually sing, with a rhythm and gesture that is slightly operatic. Soon the words echo in your mind, although you haven't the vaguest idea what they mean. I doubt it would be difficult to learn Italian. It was not long before I found myself quite unexpectedly speaking an Italian word or phrase in a perfectly appropriate way. When most Italians talk, their hands are usually waving wildly, as if they were conducting an overture. I suspect that if you tied up their hands, they would simply be unable to utter a word.
Where did we go wrong? Where did we go wrong in America? I think it is the scale of things. You see that so clearly here in Florence, where everything is so much smaller than in the USA. The buildings are only a few stories high, at most. The stores are often nothing more than living room size. They sell only a few products and are ubiquitous throughout the commune. It is interesting that Florence has always been known as the commune, the community. It is really a community of small neighborhoods. The streets are very narrow, often barely wide enough for a small car. There are no broad highways crisscrossing Florence. I think that has made an enormous difference. Traffic is forbidden now in the central areas. The ancient cities were not designed for anything like the automobile. At times there is simply not enough room on the street for both car and pedestrian. Indeed, there is often a little fight for survival when the two meet. In a word, this city was designed to be lived in by human beings. I don't know who the cities in our country were designed for.
On the Language
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: I had 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. I like not having a car, living in the center of a city where you can walk everywhere. All the errands that seem to consume one’s life become very few and you find yourself with great stretches of time for reading, wandering, and yes, working…it takes the rust off.