It’s cold, but it’s ITALY! I’m here!

I’m back in my beloved Florence, moved in, and moving around. This has been a slow beginning for me, and I’ve been wondering if jet lag hasn’t finally attacked, after toying with me for several years. I read in the Wall Street Journal while on the plane that the Arabs believe that a man’s spirit cannot travel more than a camel can walk in a day, and therefore jet lag is just the time it takes to get your spirit caught up to your new location. Maybe that’s the issue—I’m going with that as my explanation, and slowing down my camel.

I left Sacramento on Friday in the dark of early morning, and landed in Chicago to see about 6” of snow on the ground, but no worry to me with dry runways. (No, I didn’t have to fly the plane. I was just worried that weather at O’Hare would make me miss my connection to Frankfurt.) Not only was the sun shining, but I got off the flight through a warm jetway and boarded my next flight only about 4 gates away—some kind of miracle of planning. I boarded a 777 for the connecting trip to Frankfurt, nearly half empty of passengers, and got to claim BOTH an aisle and a window seat for myself. (Cannot top the last trip, sitting next to writer/director/Oscar winner Paul Haggis on my first flight!) Later, the flight crew paged any doctor aboard to assist a passenger having difficulties, and I quickly realized that the stricken passenger was only a few seats away when the huddle of doctors and the flight crew with the huge box of medicines and an oxygen tank all assembled to deal with the emergency.

Standing to watch the commotion, Vladimir (across the aisle) spoke to me for the first time. Although he was concerned for the passenger, he had gone to the O’Hare Airport in a hurry to catch the first flight to Moscow, where his 83-year-old mother had just suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized in intensive care. He is a research physicist, working for decades at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab outside Chicago, and he was watching and imagining that his mother had undergone the same rush to treatment as our passenger—although we were at 35,000 feet of altitude between Greenland and Iceland, and there was no rush to any emergency room or hospital possible for our passenger.

Once Vladimir began to talk about his mother, he was rolling. He jets all over Europe for great skiing, is a very senior manager at Fermi, and has two daughters who prefer living in Moscow, who are also caring for their grandmother. Both have advanced degrees in physics, but work in dress shops in Moscow, not in research labs—much to his disappointment—although they are helping his mother to live independently. We parted at Frankfurt, after I explained how a heart attack works (NOT his area of training—“no, the heart doesn’t actually burst”), and I explained blocked coronary arteries and stents and angioplasty, and assured him that the problem was NOT what he had imagined. 

I gained a young American college student at the Frankfurt airport as a sidekick, she on the way to Rome for a year of study, traveling alone and totally unsure of where to go and what to do to find her flight. I helped her through Passport Control, found her gate, and then found my own. I guess I didn’t realize how familiar I have become with the transition there, after so many trips, and how foreign it would have been to me if I’d done it the first time alone and not speaking German.

At Frankfurt, passengers are loaded into a bus at the gate for flights with smaller airlines and driven out to the plane on the tarmac (for me, Lufthansa CityLine, the final leg to reach Florence). I experienced my first fish-tailing bus ride ever on the way to the plane, on a sheet of ice, and then got MY chance to walk only 15 feet to the stairway into the plane, but on ice and in shoes and clothing that were no match for -6C! (about 21F) A successful short “skate” to the stairs, but I watched the crew trying to remove the chock blocks frozen to the ground in the ice, while bulldozers were busy scraping ice from our path to the runway for take-off. Then, the de-icing truck came and sprayed down the plane, leaving a curtain of solvent covering the windows of the plane, too. By the time the windows cleared, we were airborne nearing the Alps, with fantastic views of the snowy caps, breaking through the cloud cover below.

My landlord, Paolo Casillo, was waiting for me at the airport, and even carried my bags upstairs to the flat. The apartment’s all familiar from the last stay here, so I was “at home” almost immediately. In fact, despite the stock of food he had left for me, I went right away to the San Ambrogio market nearby, just to get fresh vegetables, see familiar people, and to get my bearings. (I resisted the urge to stock up on bufala mozzarella, made from the milk of water buffalo, near Naples, and a real treat for me.) The flat, long green beans that I love to eat always let me know I’m in Italy—and they are called “mangiatutto,” which means “eat it all.” Lemons, farro (an ancient wheat grain, that looks like barley), leeks, and Tuscan cabbage (“cavolo nero”), and I was back cooking lunch right away, with warm food to counteract the slow radiant heat just beginning to take the chill from the apartment, previously unheated and vacant.

I’ve been faithful (so far) and logged all my meals in my Weight Watchers journal, and I’m planning on working on my last 10 pounds to my goal. Now, I have only 11 months until the deadline (I will be 60 on January 1), and this is a good opportunity, as long as I keep away from people who try to feed me more than I want to eat (They know who they are!). I set off the next morning, after returning twice to get dressed with MORE layers and warmer gloves AND a hat, for a long walk to Piazzale Michelangelo, a big piazza overlooking Florence from south of the Arno River. It’s about a 1.5 mile walk, uphill and up stairs, with the San Mineato church still higher on the hill, with another 100 or so stairs to the front doors. THAT is my regular walk—over the river, up to the doors of the church and back down to my apartment. It is sub-freezing temps here each morning, and I have learned already to put on more clothing that I think I will need. I have brought good clothing choices, and can dress for the cold—even with the wind coming down from the Alps at about 30 mph in addition to the cold. My cheeks are quite rosy after a walk, and I had to invest in a bucket-sized jar of sturdy moisturizer to keep my face from getting chapped.

One of my regular hobbies here is looking for torn posters. Much of the advertising for fairs, festivals, political gatherings, and theatrical performances or concerts is posted on the walls along the streets, pasted up and often pasted over, layer upon layer. When old posters get torn partially off, or the weather or vandals remove layers, sometimes the images left behind in tatters make interesting compositions, never intended to be seen together. Thus, my several years of looking for “torn posters,” and especially ones with people and text juxtaposed due to chance. Here are a couple examples I found on the way to the Piazza: the first one just a hand left from a previous poster, and the second one with a nude nearly hidden by the addition of posters over the top.

A disembodied hand, a few layers down
A disembodied hand, a few layers down
A shy nude, nearly covered up

A shy nude, nearly covered up

THESE are images I seek with my camera, and I’m always on the lookout. Well, this time I hit a “jackpot shot,” with two posters pasted up side-by-side: one an advertisement of an art exhibit, and the other touting the Florence science museum.

Side-by-side posters

Side-by-side posters

Together, they made me laugh—the boy appears to be frightened or startled by the pelican on the next poster. In the opposite order, I might not have noticed the humor.

The rain (the day I arrived) and the cold wind have cleared the air of the perennial Florentine smog, so I knew the views from the piazza above Florence would be exceptional. I took a couple of typical “postcard shots” on my walk, including a partial panorama of the Florentine skyline.

Partial Florentine skyline, from the south

Partial Florentine skyline, from the south

From the right (it’s just easier to explain from the RIGHT), the Santa Croce church and its dark bell tower, the red dome of the Duomo (Santa Maria dei Fiori church), and it’s square white bell tower, forward of that the twin square towers of the National Library (where the Flood of 1966 did the most damage, filling the basement with mud) just across the Arno River, the brown square tower of the Bargello Museum of sculpture (behind one of the library towers), and the slim, pointed bell tower of the Santa Maria Novella church, near the train station. The morning sun was just up over the hills south of the city, and the visibility was terrific.

This "Stairmaster" will have to suffice for me

This "Stairmaster" will have to do

I threw in a shot of my personal “Stairmaster,” centuries in the making. This is a portion of the pathway to the Piazzale Michelangelo, and a good part of the reason that I chose this hike to get my heart pumping harder for some exercise.

Postcard image, on a clear day

Postcard image, on a clear day

Turning back to the city, I had one more clear shot of the Duomo, probably THE most recognized landmark of Florence. THESE are the days for climbing the 462 stairs to the top of the cupola, for an unexcelled 360-degree view of the entire city from above, without the smog and haze.

It was freezing, but they didn't notice

It was freezing, but they didn't notice

Up at the Piazzale, an Asian young couple were being “managed” by both still and video photographers, trying to record them with Florence’s landmarks in the background. How she was faring in bare arms was beyond my imagination, as I watched in my ski hat, scarf, down coat, gloves and many layers. I was just a week beyond watching my own daughter’s wedding in Sacramento, and I could not help watching the photographers arrange shots, straighten the veil and move the flowers to a better position for the shots. How could she be smiling in this freezing wind?

The Green David and his groupies

The "Green David" and his groupies

Also, featured in the Piazzale, is one of the copies of Michelangelo’s “David,” this one in bronze with a green patina, accompanied by lots of “people” lounging around the pedestal of the sculpture—some human. The people here were seeking shelter from the winds, but reading the newspaper, or guide books, and having a snack at the foot of another landmark of Florence.

A city of many bridges over the Arno River

A city of many bridges over the Arno River

I pointed my camera down the river, with a good shot of the many bridges of Florence, and one of the main attractions, the Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”) covered with its ghastly expensive gold shops and the Vasari corridor overhead that the Medici used to get from their banking offices in the Uffizi to their new Pitti Palace, without setting foot on the street below. This was the only bridge spared from destruction during WWII, saved for its historic value, but the gold shops were wiped clean of their sparkling inventories on the night of 4 November, 1966, when the Arno jumped its banks and flooded the city after an upstream dam failed during the night. This flood was the SECOND catastrophic flooding of the city by the Arno, the first also on 4 November, but in 1333. The “high water” marks are noted all over the central city (and there is even an ancient one from the first flood, written in Latin), and it is difficult to picture so much water hitting suddenly in the night.

Just a typical neighborhood sight

Just a typical neighborhood sight

I walked back along the south side of the Arno, through a quiet neighborhood called “San Niccolo,” where I found an iconic shot of the neighborhood: laundry out to dry, but hanging over a Smart Car, so common here and only recently imported to the U.S. 

Giorno della Memoria Day of Remembrance

"Giorno della Memoria" is "Day of Remembrance"

My arrival put me here in time for some of the commemorations of the Holocaust, including one large gathering in Piazza Tasso near the Santo Spirito church, where people assembled to remember those who were killed or imprisoned, and to sing Hebrew songs to their memories. I had thoughts of going myself, but the distance away and the bitter cold had me reconsider, so I spent my first night in Florence in my still-warming flat. This poster is one of many advertising events to remember the Holocaust, and the “Day of Remembrance” is a solemn and very honored tradition here. The poster reads, in Italian, “In ricordo dello sterminio e delle persecuzioni del popolo ebraico e dei deportati militari e politici italiani nei campi nazisti.” In my feeble translation, that equates to “In memory of the extermination and of the persecution of the Hebrew people, and the deported Italian soldiers and politicians in the Nazi camps.”

Beautiful old buttresses and always the graffitti

Beautiful old buttresses, and always the graffitti

Walking back, passing through “nothing special” streets, I’m always amazed at the little architectural treasures I find—like these buttresses. This street isn’t in any guide books, and most people here don’t even notice these beautiful carved supports, in stone, but I see these small treasures everywhere in the old city, and marvel at them each time.

Today, Tuesday, is the weekly market at Cascine Park, about a 40-minute walk away in a big urban park. Vendors of produce, meats and cheeses, and hot tripe or lampredotto (another stomach of the cow, thinner and stringy and brown) sandwiches are assembled in a long succession of clothing and household goods vendors, stretching about a kilometer on both sides of the parkway road. There are dogs on leashes, babies in strollers, people pushing their bicycles, and crowds of people looking for bargains, or buying food or pets (birds, puppies, hamsters, chipmunks, and goldfish today), or flowers or clothing and shoes. (For me, a 3 Euro Sicilian pork salami about an inch across, with fennel seeds and hot peppers—and a 7 Euro orchid for my apartment.)

Italy's hero, Garibaldi

Italy's hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi

The entrance to the park is guarded by the huge monument to Garibaldi, the “liberator of Italy,” who lead the army that unified the city states of Italy into one country, just about the time of our Civil War. A phrase here, “ala Garabaldina,” means to set out on a task unprepared, untrained, with no set plans, and (somehow) triumph over stupidity. Apparently Garibaldi took unprepared troops on a loosely-planned mission and lucked into success with little opposition—and now his statue and likeness adorns every corner of Italy, with piazzas and streets carrying his name in every town.

The Citrus Artist strikes again!

The Citrus Artist strikes again!

I passed an interesting sight (OK, to me), of an orange peel cut into six sections, looking like a starfish on a stump beside the soon-to-be functioning Tramvia tracks in the park (a light rail system scheduled to begin running on Valentine’s Day for the first time, connecting the suburbs to the central city for workers and tourists, and replacing many of the bus lines into the central city). As I continued walking, this “mark of the orange peel” was visible all along my pathway: in the grass, on park benches, set on top of garbage cans, on the ground. Someone is leaving “a mark in the park” when he or she visits, and is getting PLENTY of Vitamin C!

Reaching the vendors, I came across a couple of my perennial favorites. When I first began Weight Watchers, I used the photos of this produce vendor on my refrigerator as my motivating “before” photo, until I finally found one of myself at my highest weight.

My stand-in for my Weight Watchers "before" photo

My stand-in for my Weight Watchers "before" photo

She is STILL on my fridge at home, but secondary to my own photo evidence, a photo showing that I once weighed a lot more than I do now.

Never silent, ever

Never silent, ever!

She is loud, always streaming invitations to buy from her stand (today it was “12 artichokes for 3 Euro!”), and sells aggressively. I have photographed her year after year, and she makes me smile—from her rumpled leg-warmers, to her Velcro orthopedic shoes, and always the apron.

I love this guy's face!

I love this guy's face and humor!

My second “regular” is the tripe and lampredotto vendor. I never tire of taking his photo, and he always recognizes me behind my camera. When I brought him back an 8×10 print of one of my best shots of him, I was rewarded with a plastic cup of red wine AND a lampredotto sandwich, moistened with hot chili oil and pesto oil. I couldn’t refuse his offering to thank me, but I made sure I got lots of bread with each bite, and missed biting the lampredotto—until I could pitch the sandwich into a trash can, out of his sight. Thanks, but “No, thanks!”

Shopping for bargains in an expensive fur coat

Shopping for bargains in an expensive fur coat

Today was an excellent chance to see the ladies in their fur coats bargaining for bras, panties, curtains, shoes and produce. It was certainly cold enough for fur today, and the Italians have superstitions about the Devil getting into your soul on cold air—so under-dressing in the cold is really suspect here. I suppose, though, that if you can save enough in your household budget by buying at the Cascine Park market on Tuesday, you can AFFORD a fur coat! (Students and young families I expect to see, stretching every dollar—but the fur coat ladies still surprise me.)

No sale here

No sale here

One vendor (illegal, no stand, probably not licensed to sell at the marketplace) was selling wind-up puppies, which barked and jumped and walked a few steps forward, over and over. This guy was trying to interest a little boy in one of the toys, after the mother left the decision to her son, and I doubt very much that he made the sale, based on the body language of the boy. I think the little puppies only scared the boy, and he was having NONE of the vendor’s pitch.

The last two photos: proof that I’m no longer in California.

The first is just the entry hall to a business I passed selling marble and stone statuary, with room after room full of huge pieces—the size we see in museums and statuary gardens in famous art galleries. I’m not sure we have anything like this at home, or I would not know where to begin looking if we have such a merchant.

The second image is a fur store—and I’m from California, where the weather rarely warrants such a warm coat, but the politics make it dangerous be in public in such a politically incorrect “product of animal cruelty.” That’s what the picket signs say, anyhow, and then the red paint representing the blood of the slain fur animals gets thrown on the coat, ruining it forever. It’s dangerous to wear fur in California.

 I haven’t been here a week yet, just a few days, but I’m getting established slowly. I am delighted to have wi-fi in the flat, so that I am in touch with my husband, my kids, my family and friends. That, and I can sit at the dining table to write a blog, and you cannot see the glass of wine beside my laptop! (Just kidding—too many Weight Watchers points!) In addition, I have brought with me two DVD courses to teach myself: a powerful computer program which uses photographs as the basis for creating paintings (Corel Painter 11), and a course on using hot shoe flash attachments OFF the camera, as studio lighting. I hope to progress in my understanding of both, taking advantage of my time here and the winter weather, and staying in front of the DVD tutorials I brought along when going out is “troppo brutto.” (too ugly)

I’ll write more later, as I get myself into the culture and see my friends here. Ciao!

1 comment to It’s cold, but it’s ITALY! I’m here!

  • Judy LaGalante

    Molto Bene! How I wish I hadn’t passed up the chance when you first suggested that I might want to come along on that first trip. I might not now be married to the best man in the world, but what experiences I would have had and what stories to tell. Ciao Judy

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