Odd bits and pieces from Florence and my front window

I’m kicking around a few images that I wanted to share, but they don’t fit into any category, or any trip away somewhere, or any special designation, therefore I send you this confetti of images whose only common denominator may be that I took all the photos.

I returned from my Bologna trip to see Pamela and Colin Norris, arriving on Monday morning around noon. The rain had already begun (and has hardly ceased since), but I was sitting in my flat doing laundry by hand and unpacking when I heard drums, and went to my window to see what was happening down below.

It seems that a squad of beginner flag throwers was marching into the Piazza del Mercato Centrale, where my flat is located on the fourth floor, and they started their demonstration down below.

I grabbed my camera, knowing that I had little chance without a tripod and at nearly 100 yards away to get any sharp photos, but here are the results.

There was a lot more flag-dropping than with the older, more experienced teams, and most of the “tricks” were uncomplicated, but still a crowd gathered, and the kids did a good job of entertaining the tourists who were walking by or eating at the three restaurants below. When they were done, the squad just formed a line and marched toward my flat, and were gone down the street marching to the drumbeats.

The second batch of photos is of directly down below my windows, in a little triangular park where most of the locals bring their dogs for “business trips,” but early each morning the gypsies gather there, usually both men and women, and there are often loud arguments and empty wine and beer bottles hitting the gravel as they fortify for the day.

This one day, one of the regular musicians who plays for the tourists at the restaurants below me was one of the men at the two benches, but I happened to see one man arrive with what seemed to be the contents of a stolen suitcase, repackaged into a paper shopping bag.

The men were going through all the clothing, holding pants and shirts up and claiming them for themselves or another family member, and then discarding the rest. It is a rare day that I don’t look down and wonder which one of them took my wallet two years ago, and then brought it here to distribute the cash and credit cards, although I understand they take the cash and then get rid of the evidence quickly, rarely using the credit cards or bothering to selling them. Cash cannot be traced, and these are professionals.

I was out going to the Mercato one morning when a couple from Australia caught my eye, with their map open, trying to get oriented in the piazza. I asked them if they needed help, and they told me a hotel name that I recognized, and I could direct them to the place without the map. As they were going, they asked me how I knew my way around, and I told them that I have been to Florence for several years in a row, always staying here in the piazza for some of my trip. “Where do you live?” they asked me, and I turned to point to my windows. “There,” I said, “the place with the two bras and a fish.” That was the last day that any bras of mine made it outside to dry, and the storms have shredded the fish already, so it won’t be coming home with me. So much for a distinctive landmark on the piazza for me! Embarassing!

I grabbed one shot of the fresh porcini mushrooms in the Mercato the other day, knowing that they will be disappearing as the rain ruins their quality. In this photo, the upper right shows the nipitella, or “catmint,” that is given away with the porcinis, but only if you ask for some. It’s a small-leafed mint that is always added to porcini dishes in small amounts, but it’s a tradition.

Walking back from the river one day, I saw these homemade posters protesting the plans to make one of the local universities private, basically selling it off to private interests to run. The students are up in arms, and have been occupying the university buildings for weeks, refusing to go to classes, and similar demonstrations and sit-ins are happening in Rome, Milan and Bologna. I just thought these were crude but sincere, so I took the photo.

Graffiti is an Italian word for a reason. Places that I would think were sacred are defaced with graffiti with abandon, but some of the work is quite good. There is a mural near the Fortezza di Basso on a new wall, probably about 30 feet long, and would be a worthy piece in an “art in public places” exhibition. Too bad it’s just temporary, until the anti-graffiti corps gets around to painting it over. These little stencils have been appearing more and more, and this one just made me laugh.

This is a shot down the San Lorenzo street market stalls as the light was failing in the evening. The tourists are rare now, and the economic downturn means that those who are here are not opening their wallets for buying, but only looking. The leather goods sellers are particularly hard hit, with those jackets and high-end handbags just sitting and waiting for buyers. Prices are deeply discounted, but sale price have not made much of a difference in getting tourists to close a sale.

This is Fratelli Zanobini, my wine source in Florence. When I need something particular, they lead me to several affordable choices, and I always leave with something good. The best thing, though, is that they carry my favorite “varnish,” the Varnelli clear anise liquor that I love.

Barbara and I brought back a couple of small flasks from Ancona last year, from the Le Marche region where it is produced, but only Zanobini carries it here in Florence. Yes, I have an open bottle at my flat. Sambuca and Ouza are a far cry from “varnish,” my very favorite.

At the train station, the local polizia have Segue vehicles to get around in the crowds in a hurry, and I finally got a chance to see one out in the station. They are usually parked inside the office, and I have yet to see an officer actually using one. They seem like a good idea, but why are they never used?

At the grocery store to stock up after my storm trip to Cinque Terre, I spotted the very first Weight Watchers product I have seen here. I tried to locate a WW meeting here online, and never did locate one. I have seen their flyers in years past, in Italian, but could not find the source for meeting sites and times, so I am unofficial here and have no idea what I weigh. (That may be a good thing.)

It’s been raining here daily for two weeks, and some days have been downpours. I have a skylight in the kitchen, so the very first drops alert me by the sound on the skylight plastic top, and I get to look out the window and watch the rogue vendors switch instantly from selling fake watches and handbags to umbrellas—and I mean instantly. Suddenly the piazza lights up with colored umbrellas as the rain begins, and people run for cover or pull out jackets from their packs. A nice sight to watch from the comfort of a dry vantage point, but this photo is from one of the nights after a heavy rain day, with the lights along the street reflecting off the wet pavement.

It’s been rare for the last couple of weeks, but one morning we had three hours of sunshine before the clouds flew in and the rain began. I got out for a walk, and managed to catch the Piazza Republica arch, and then the cupola of the Duoma filled with tourists taking advantage of the clear air and view, while they could do so and stay dry.

Several people have written to ask about the Internet Train, a chain of computer and internet service points scattered over northern Italy, but NOT in a train car or train station. (A better name would be the “Internet Chain.”) I took a couple of crummy shots of my location, just a block behind my flat, and the “Pee Alley” I once mentioned that is between my flat and the Internet Train.

Sometimes I find myself walking alone through there very late at night, keeping my feet on the dry pavers only, and worrying about having someone take my laptop. My personal safety is not a concern, only fear of losing my laptop.

The last photo is of my dinner last night. Now that I am a short-timer here, with fewer than two weeks before I am home again, I have been having very inventive meals to use up what I have left in the flat. This is a slice of the focaccia with gorgonzola, caramelized onions and walnuts on top (that I made with the last of the flour), filled with melted Parmesan cheese slices. The little onions, “cippollini,” are cooked in olive oil, vinegar and sugar, and are a favorite of mine. They are called “cippollini in agradulce,” but the little flat onions are $5/lb. in Sacramento, so I only enjoy them here. Last, I have the most perfect pears here, personally picked out for me by “Our Lady of the Vegetables.” She always lectures me on which day they will be ready, how to see when they are ripe (“press near the stem”), and warns me not to refrigerate them, ever. They are perfection, and I hope I can find some great pears like these when I get home.

That’s it for the “odds and ends,” so now off to the next blog to prepare the photos for uploading and write all about our weekend of wine tasting and cooking classes. Ciao for now!

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