Florence Diary I: Getting There

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Note: I had intended to publish a Florence diary while I was gone, but computer problems made that project impossible.  This reconstruction is based on notes and memories.

I shall begin with a confession.  I have never really liked Florence.  My initial negative impression was formed while spending a few days with our friend the late Leo Raditsa at Ulivello, his family’s villa outside Florence.  The first half day was spent in the Santa Maria Novella Station, trying in vain to reach our host.  Leo lived at a greater distance than I had imagined, and as a result I was not putting enough gettoni into the slot.  I finally paid something like 80,000 lire to a taxi driver, who explained I had to pay for both ways.  I knew just enough Italian in those days to know what he was saying.  Zipping down the Strada in Chianti, I noticed a crazy driver weaving all over the road in an old jalopy (perhaps a last specimen of the extinct Cit).  It could only be Leo, a man whose passionate reading was matched by his indifference to everyday concerns.

It was a hot end-of-August, but Ulivello (which Leo had inherited from his grandfather, the great scholar-journalist Guglielmo Ferrero) was an island of peace and coolness.  When we returned to the hot city the next day, it was crammed with mass-tourists and American women buying overpriced gold on the Ponte Vecchio.  The next week, staying in Pisa, I refused to accompany my wife on a trip to see the Uffizi.  On the half a dozen or so later visits I made, I was struck only by the bad food, acid wine, and cynicism offered by restaurateurs who knew they could get away with anything.  Once I was so exasperated by the crowds that thronged the streets between the Piazza dell Signoria and the Cathedral that I turned back and took a train to anywhere but Florence.

That is why in planning a Convivium in Tuscany in May of 2002, I arranged for two thirds of the time to be spent in Pisa and Siena, and even our three days in Florence seemed too much, marred by crowds of tourists and the rowdy Italian teenagers and indifferent staff at the Hotel Basilea.

Once only, on a brief trip to visit the Navrozovs in a cold December, did I see any charm in the city, deserted (as it was) by all but the inhabitants. I spent a morning prowling through an empty Uffizi, and, one chilly afternoon with snow in the air, I ate an amazing bollito with salsa verde at a street vendor outside one of the city gates.  My few days in December, shivering from cold weather and a miserable cold caught on the airplane, were good enough to encourage me to plan a Winter School program in Florence.  It turned out to be the right decision.  I did not care if it snowed, so long as the city was empty.

We had hoped to fly direct to Rome and spend a few days seeing friends, but the retarded sadists who work for Alitalia were determined to disrupt air travel just one last time before Berlusconi succeeded in reorganizing the bankrupt company.  Instead, we opted for a United flight to Frankfurt, with a Lufthansa connection to Florence.  In both directions, the connections worked perfectly, so perfectly that I am afraid to test my luck by trying it again: I may have exhausted my entire stock of luck with Lufthansa.

Here is a piece of advice.  If you have to change planes, when going to Europe, be sure to change over there, where it is much simpler on the way over, and, what is more important, it makes returning to the States a breeze.  Getting your bags and taking them through customs in New York or Dulles is no fun.  Also, if you are able, do not switch airlines or at least stay within one of the two allied species, the Star or One World alliances.  Otherwise you will often not get a boarding pass for the second flight and in general be treated as excess baggage. “I’m sorry,” the American Airlines clerks will all say, “Air France (or Olympic or KLM) won’t give us that information.”

Our friend Mark Beesley talked us (my wife and I, Chris Check and his son Nicholas) into getting a limousine to the airport.  He booked the wrong time, which would have meant arriving at O’Hare at take-off time, and since I (the old and senile one) caught the mistake, Mark kindly sprang for champagne on the ride.  It is always something of a chore to stay sober on a trip, and Beesley was not making it any easier.  After surprisingly good sandwiches at the O’Hare Berghoff, we spent nine hours listening to a two year old Arab scream as his parents looked the other way.  This is not, I remarked, Al Qaeda material, or, if it is, we do not have much to worry about.  A culture that refuses to repress spoiled brats is as doomed as our own.  A bigot sitting in our row made pointed remarks about all the “A-rabs and Chinamen” on the plane, and he reminded us of the old airline commercials that portrayed passengers flying steerage with gypsies and chickens.  As any frequent flier can tell you, that is no longer a joke.  Being good Americans, however, we refused to give the bigot the satisfaction of a smile at his racist humor.

We arrived two nights early and on Mark Beesley took us to a restaurant he liked, Ristorante Leo.  Leo’s has been around a long time, and the restaurant, while a bit upscale for the Santa Croce neighborhood, is showing its age—a plus so far as I am concerned.  I was determined, as I declared to anyone who would listen, to eat like a pig the first night, and I did my best on a large mixed antipasto, followed by “Ravioli Leo”—an unpromising dish of spinach and ricotta stuffed ravioli with a shrimp and asparagus sauce (just the sort of food I loathe) but it was delicious.

The triumph, though, was the bistecca fiorentina the three of us shared.  We needed a couple of Checks to finish it off, but they were not man enough to stay awake for dinner.  I was so stuffed I barely found the room for a grappa Toscana.  The proprietor, coming to pour wine, was mildly annoyed at where my wife had placed her water glass and treated us to a lesson on table setting, explaining that the waiter had to know to aim the wine just north of the knife, a position to be kept free of cutlery and water glasses.  He was charmingly grumpy on this and future occasions, talking us into the dishes he had prepared and had not been able to serve—the place was virtually empty at the end of January.

The second time at Leo’s we dined with our friends the Culleys and Mark Kennedy, and I went through the entire menu with them, more than once.  (Rick Culley enjoys his dinner and has as insatiable an appetite for information as for good food.)  The proprietor watched the performance and jokingly offered me a job.  We stayed so late that evening he practically threw us out, after providing free grappa.  As I heard him walk by, he was saying to himself, “So quiet, so peaceful.  I love this time of year, before Easter.”  He has obviously been successful enough not to worry about money, but he expressed my sentiments about Italy exactly.  As Rick Culley said, from now on he would always prefer to go to Italy in the Winter.

Before arriving in Florence on the 20th of January, I had several misgivings.  The first was over the Hotel Mediterraneo, which we had booked for our thirty-some participants.  The Mediterraneo, which mostly caters to groups and Italian businessmen, is not my sort of place, but it was much better than expected.  The bar was a lively place, and many of our guests spent a good deal of time, soaking in the atmosphere.

Our rooms were comfortable, and even spacious, especially after the Murphy beds were pushed up into the wall.  Chris Check was able to entertain about 15 people with wine and trail mix.  Even the inexpensive prezzo-fisso dinners were more than edible.

The only drawback was the 12 minute walk from Santa Croce, which translates into 20-25 minutes from the Cathedral.

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