We Are What Our Situations Hand Us

I know what it is like to walk the streets of a foreign city as Tatianna did in the Book of Clouds, the novel I discussed yesterday. But city was not Berlin and there were no abandoned buildings, nor were the streets empty and my mood was not the least bit somber or melancholy.

I have been traveling to Florence, Italy during many of the past few years where I rent an apartment for a month and spend my days meandering about some of the world’s most beautiful streets. I walk in solitude as Tatianna did and while my silent apartment also lies in wait, I never dread returning to it or being in Florence alone. Here are a few of my impressions of those years. Since I have no novelistic talent, they are in the form of brief fragments of my experiences.

The Past
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.

The streets are narrow and irregular and it is sometimes difficult to find a place to walk. To pass another person you often have to step off into the roadway. It is like Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. A sense of intimacy is created, but it is sometimes dangerous as the cars go whizzing by.

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 gathering the things you need. And along the way, you exchange a few 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.”

The War
Standing on the banks of the Arno one night I was staring at the Ponte Vecchio. I wondered how that bridge managed to survive the war when all the others, up and down the river, had been destroyed. What led the German general, a man who perhaps cherished his Goethe, to spare that bridge? How little I know of what the war in Italy was like. How young and far away I was at the time. Yet that vague and remote experience, more than 50 years ago, has a place somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind. It was doing its work that night as I was gazing out over the Arno at the Ponte Vecchio.

Bar Pasticceria Curatone
During lunch one day at the Bar Pasticceria Curatone, I observed a riotous display of friendship and camaraderie. A middle-aged man, sitting by my table on the terrace was engaged in an animated conversation with the Bar's owner. Soon some old friends happened by and when they saw him, each one, in turn, burst forth with joy, followed by spirited conversation. In time, others passed by who also recognized one or more of the assembled group. Jump for joy, long embraces, happy smiles, long tales of where have you been? What have you been up to? How wonderful you look. Oh, let me show you the pictures of my baby. As if that wasn't enough, soon after that, I sat astonished as I observed a similar scene unfold at another table.

The Rain
Early this morning the rain began falling on the terra cotta roof outside my window. I could hear the water splashing against the tiles. But now the rain has stopped and the terra cotta tiles are once again dry. When they are wet, they all look the same—dark and wet. Now their colors are apparent, each one a slightly different orange than the other, partly from the dirt or moss or the natural differences between them.

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. There are no broad highways crisscrossing Florence. I think that has made an enormous difference. 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.