Fragments from Florence

It is the city itself—the city understood as a self; as a whole, a miraculously developed design. It is the city as what Italians call an insieme, an all-of-it-together. R.W.B. Lewis

Every June 24th Florence puts on a colorful celebration for its patron saint San Giovanni Battista. During the day, there are parades, concerts, a rowing competition along the Arno, much good cheer, and in the evening a fireworks show launched from the Piazza Michelangelo, a hillside square with a panoramic view of the city below.

The finals in a sport that is a combination of ruby, wrestling, and soccer also takes place in the afternoon at another square. It is said to be a rather bloody battle that has been cancelled in the past because of the violence among its spectators. While the match is scheduled this year, I have no desire to join the throng in attendance at this gladiator-like event.

The ease of walking everywhere is one of the delights of being in Florence. I walk to the market, to the bookstores, to the magazine stand and the trattorias that I go back to each year. This is what a city should be like, a place where everything is close by, it is not difficult to get by without a car, and as you saunter about the city, you are presented with one surprise after another.

Tomorrow the celebration continues with an event known as White Night in Nottarno in the Oltrarno (the other side of the Arno) when the shops, restaurants, and bars stay open well past midnight. Every piazza in the area will hold concerts and live performances. There will be street art demonstrations, late night dinners, jazz, Latino and rock concerts. Clearly there is far too much to do. What a place this is!

And yet at times I am taken aback when I read about the wartime experience of people who were living in Florence then. Now the streets are crowded, the people are smiling and there is gaiety everywhere. Then the streets were empty with threats of bombing and that knock on the door. The Jews were in hiding if they had not already been rounded up, everyone was hungry and had much to fear, there were worries about what the retreating Germans would do to their city and only hopes that the Allies would arrive soon.

“A grim long winter lies before us, at the end of which none of us can tell whether our homes will still be standing, or our children safe; and we must meet it with what we can muster of patience, courage, and hope” Iris Origo

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 picnicker. I marvel at how few people are usually there. Perhaps it is 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.

The Number 7 bus takes travels up into the hills above city to the little town of Fiesole that was first a Roman and later Etruscan village and where I have dinner one night. On the bus trip back I sit down next to three young women who immediately try to engage me in conversation. I see at once that they are a little tipsy. So we have a lively conversation although they do not speak English and I do not speak Polish, their native language, or Italian which is what they are speaking or trying to speak to me.

Still we have a jolly time for a while, until another women approaches us and says with a note of exasperation that she can’t stand listening to us any longer. So she begins translating what everyone is saying, although I thought we were doing just fine before she comes to our “rescue.”

The three Polish women are heading for a pizza restaurant a little below Fiesole and they invite me to join them there. I had just eaten enough lasagna for all four of us, so regrettably I decline. Who knows what might have happened on that lovely evening up in the hills above the city of Florence had I accepted their invitation. In retrospect, I am glad that I had eaten a substantial dinner.