far too much writing, far too many photos

Florence. One busy bugger of a city. Not a huge, sprawling, monster of a population center like Rome. More compact. And overrun with (a) traffic and (b) tourists.

I will admit that overrun may be a strong a word to apply to the tourist situation here. But that’s how it seems to me. They’re everywhere. (Yes, I know I’m one of them.) And the city — or at least the city center (the area around the train station, the area around the university, the areas with centuries of serious history) — seems geared to cater to them. Unlike Rome, the city isn’t so enormous that it can absorb the furriners without them affecting the basic feel of the place.

At least that’s how it felt to me yesterday. I spent a bunch of time walking, to the point where one of my little feet did some serious complaining last night, sporting an angry heel blister. (Despite me wearing well-broken-in hiking shoes. These things happen.) Groups of young Japanese women everywhere, gelati shops everywhere. And most of all, traffic, including the most intense concentration of scooters and motorcycles I have ever seen, many piloted by women.

Yesterday afternoon: after plenty of poking around various neighborhoods, I found myself feeling surprisingly unenamored of the place. Went back to my teeny hotel room, pulled out a book, chilled. Darkness fell. I’d seen a handbill earlier in the day for a concert of classical music, decided to go. Went out into the evening, the city feeling a bit more sedate. Wandered off in the direction of the church where the concert was to take place. And found that Florence feels drastically different at night. Less people. More of a sense of how the city of narrow streets and centuries-old buildings feels. More of a sense of how life here must feel. Plus, you’re walking along minding your own business, you turn a corner, you suddenly find yourself confronted with enormous, ancient, genuinely imposing old buildings. Churches, cathedrals, palaces, all with a sense of age that goes far beyond what I’m used to encountering in normal life. Unless you live somewhere like here. (Or Madrid — woo-hoo!)

Got seriously lost trying to find the concert, though not minding it very much, my feet taking me along empty streets, passing entrances to winding alleys along which I could see signs for trattorias, small shops. Reached the point where I could see the road that runs along the Arno River, the waterway that cuts across the southern part of the city, knew I’d gone way the hell out of the way, turned around. Wandered further to the east, along more deserted streets, the only businesses still open being restaurants/bars. Followed impulses that led me further and further into a warren of narrow streets where I passed a sign noting Dante’s home (or birthplace). The concert was to be held in the Church of Dante (la Chiesa de Dante), I figured I must be close.

Followed a further narrow street, leading me past a different church in which a choral concert was underway. Asked the woman (in Spanish, natch) sitting at the table outside about the concert I was searching for. She spewed a response, pointing, gesticulating wildly. I backed away, continued on in the direction she seemed to be indicating. The next teeny street to the right — dark, with few doorways — had a small table and chair positioned by one building, a man with a briefcase exiting the street as I paused and peered through the shadows. He glanced at me, turned around and loped back down that street, stopping at the table where he stopped to stare at me as I approached. A pile of handbills lay on the table, similar to the one I’d seen advertising the concert, the sound of a violin drifted faintly from the building behind the man, who stood motionless, still staring at me. I said I’d had trouble finding the place, he simply stared, almost like a junior high school teacher radiating disapproval at a student who’d shown up late for class. I brandished the money for a ticket, he came to, gave me my change. Then he opened the door, looked inside and gestured for me to enter, putting a finger to his lips.

A small church, given a sense of large space by its vaulted ceiling. Centuries and centures old, and austere, with few decorations, little of the usual Catholic frufru. Some paintings, maybe a tapestry. A display of candles off to one side, three or four burning. Dark, cold. Two rows of two-person pews, one to either side of the space, all filled with people listening, except the last one on the left side where I parked myself next to its single occupant.

A heavyset woman with a large mass of dark frizzy hair stood up on the altar playing a Bach sonata. Just her, no accompaniment, the sound filling the space. She played with assurance, the sound of the instrument coming across like a voice, seamless and rich, the kind of sound someone who really knows how to play the instrument can produce.

I hadn’t been to a concert of classical music in, er, I don’t know how long. A while. And I’d never been to one in quite this kind of setting. Afterward, it felt strange to see people in sneakers, jeans, etc. walking out of the place, dispersing along the narrow, dark streets. I made my way back toward the hotel, saw the Duomo of la Piazza San Giovanni looming above the buildings, headed in that direction. When I emerged into the piazza, I found myself dwarfed by the expanse of ancient structures and open cobblestone piazza. As I stood there, a bit overcome, the male of a couple walking by asked me something in Italian. I turned around, saying, “Sorry, what was that?” in Spanish. He asked again, still talking so fast I couldn’t make it out, I shrugged and said “No sé.” (”I don’t know.”) They laughed and moved on, me with no idea what the moment was about. I wandered around the piazza taking the enormity and sophistication of it in, a few other people out, mostly couples. Then I headed back to my temporary dive.

Question: why is there a bottle opener screwed to the wall of the bathroom in my hotel room? Am I supposed to hang out in there and drink?


Two cartoons from an old New Yorker (Oct. 2002), read on the train ride up from Rome:

– A job interview. The interviewer sits behind a large desk on which rests a plaque that reads ‘PERSONNEL.’ The interviewee sits in a chair facing the desk. Interviewer: “How do you feel about doing time?”

– A 60ish couple, well-dressed and well-off, in a nicely appointed home. He’s halfway up a staircase, apparently on the way to retire for the evening, she stands in the foyer below. Him: “Before you come up, dear, don’t forget to secure the perimeter.”

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