Getting Familiar with Firenze, Once Again

I thought I might give you a little taste of my days here, in Florence, beginning with my daily alarm clock—which looks a LOT like a dumpster.

Not just a Dumpster, my alarm clock every morning


Here, we all are responsible for carrying our garbage down to the street, and using the dumpsters placed there. One foot on the bar in the front opens the top, a quick toss of a few days’ garbage bundled into a plastic bag salvaged from grocery shopping, and done. Every morning but Sunday, however, the truck that comes to empty the dumpster bins arrives at 6:10, and the banging and clanging start my day. That, or else the one guy who must keep his scooter just below my window, who fires it up and leaves for work at 5:30 wakes me. Either way, an alarm clock is pointless—but I certainly prefer the church bells of San Lorenzo to this cruder awakening. (My flat is just beyond the black car in the background, on the third floor up.)

Here’s a quick look at my “office,” with reference books on history and culture, a cup of tea, and my orchid. Here, in this spot, my laptop can remain plugged in, so I can work longer than the battery alone would permit, as long as I’m here in this one spot on the dining table.

My "office," where I write and work on photos on my Mac


I took a long walk around, just to learn some of the streets in this new area where I live now, and their connections to the areas I already knew, and finding a moment to stop in at CAPA (Center for Academic Programs Abroad) to see Lorenzo, the boss. He was one of the directors of our academic program with Sierra College there in 2003, and we remain in contact when I visit. He is also a very good photographer, gives me hints for events and places to photograph, and has even driven me into the countryside to see places I would not have seen or gotten to photograph without his help. He has two young children–a new daughter, Ireni, born in September, and her older brother, Vanni, now almost 3. His wife is Vittoria—a perfect name for the “victor” who finally landed the perennially handsome and charming Lorenzo.

The palace stairway to our CAPA classrooms, 2003


This shot is one that is very familiar to Dee and Barbara, my original Florentine roomies, and is of the stairway in the old palace that is and was the CAPA center, leading up to the school’s door at the top of the stairs. Here, I learned from a fellow student (Jesse, then about 20, who always arrived to class about 30 minutes late, and then slept on his desk in the front row, right in front of the prof, all the way through class every day), that this angel has no “junk,” meaning genitalia. I learned a LOT of things from those other students, but I’ve never seen these sculptures since then without thinking of Jesse and my new vocabulary word—“junk.”

New at McDonald’s here, and there are three restaurants near the train station, is the “McItaly” hamburger.

As tempting as it sounds, I'm not buying one of these!


I have no idea if it is more widely distributed that just here in Italy, but it’s made from Italian beef, asiago cheese, has an artichoke sauce and is served on a ciabatta (Italian!) bun. This is almost as tempting as the offering last year, with the parmiggiano cheese on the cheeseburgers in Bologna, but I still refuse to buy food at McDonald’s when I am in Italy. I just cannot do it—Sacrilege! Abomination!

Passed this sign on my walk, and I’m pretty certain that word means “hydrant.”

This way to the fire hydrant


What caused me to stop is that my moisturizer (that I bought in a 55 gallon drum, industrial strength), is called “crema idrante.” How much moisture is IN it, exactly, if it has “hydrant” in its name?


One of my first visits here was to visit Anne Boulamakis, a Hawaiian who has lived here in Florence for nearly 30 years, after marrying her Greek fellow student years ago. She has been a widow for as long as I have known her, and her sister-in-law works with Mike at Ueltzen & Co. Sandy, the SIL, sends things to Anne via me, so I had deliveries to make, along with a visit.


Anne Boulamakis, always a friend in Florence


Anne had been having increasing difficulty with her heart, and is now nearly through the testing that will save a place her on the waiting list for a transplant. She needs to rest a lot, so both Sandy and I sent games for her, and she was delighted with both of them. She and Alain, her wonderful French companion with a rich history in the French Foreign Service, hosted me for tea and talk, and it was a delight to see Anne and Alain again. When I have a chance, we’ll have to play those games together, and have more tea.

Here, in a nutshell, is why buses in this city are not on time.

Why the buses are ALWAYS behind schedule


I couldn’t get my camera out fast enough to catch this without some blur (sorry!), but the lady burning down a cigarette was not about to yield to the electric eco-bus, coming down my street. This explains a lot. Yes, as a matter of fact, she DID own the whole darned street!

This shot is directly across the street from my flat, the entrance to the regional headquarters of the carabinieri, who are the federal police in the gorgeous Armani-designed uniforms, red stripes down the legs, white holsters, formal uniforms with tri-corner hats and tuft of red feathers.

She looks like a midget in front of these huge doors


Not that this “little old lady” was microscopic, although she was probably less than five feet tall, but the doors are immense. Together, they were quite a contrast.

Of course, I went back to the Mercato Centrale, one of my old haunts, once just across the piazza from my first rental apartment here. The first floor is full of butcher shops (including the one with horse meat and horse salami and horse sausages), cheese shops, bakeries, a pasta factory, and the fish market. The second floor, where all of the fruits and vegetables and “tourist-bait” are located (the bags of dried porcini mushrooms, small bottles of olive oil, tiny bottles of limoncello and bags of colored pastas) is under renovation. All of the vendors are outside, under an immense white tent, packed with people who have come to buy or just look.

Inviting displays of produce at the Mercato Centrale


Straw porker at the salumeria


The displays are beautiful, and these were a couple of vendors downstairs, but inside the building. The produce vendor must have taken the opportunity to move to one of the empty stalls downstairs, and the salami and meat vender is always downstairs—just not usually with a straw pig on display, or at least never before that I have seen. Benita, my friend who sells the pork sandwiches downstairs in “Pork’s,” is on vacation for 10 days, so I didn’t get to see her. I looked into the tent briefly, looking for Mara, “Our Lady of the Vegetables,” but didn’t see her, either. Since I had come to see Benita and Mara, and I wasn’t there to shop, I just moved on.

It was a good day to go out to our old neighborhood, where Dee, Barbara, Eric and I (plus roomies who have disappeared, in time) lived in 2003. It is called Legnaia, a suburb west of the city, and on the south side of the Arno. There, just about the time we moved in, our friends Cristiano, Martina and Roberto were opening the Chili Bar, and we were among their first customers. Here, in Italy, a “bar” is where you get your morning caffé, cappuccino, or macchiato, maybe with a shot of liquor with it (a caffé coretto), but there are also pastries, panini that they will heat for you, and often simple pasta dishes or antipasto plates for lunch or late night snacking with drinks. Yes, they serve beer and mixed drinks, but the atmosphere is much more like “Cheers,” where everyone in the neighborhood knows all of the people there. I bought the guys t-shirts with huge red chilis on them in San Diego, and carried the shirts and a chili turntable for Martina to the bar—which was closed. The cold, wet weather now is a perfect time for shops to take a break, close for a week or two, and re-open for business after a well-deserved rest. Tourists are scarce, people are not spending much money, but some of the closures (in fact, a LOT of them) are permanent. I’m crossing my fingers that these three will be back, and I’ll return with their things later.

Although I have a monthly bus pass, I decided to walk back home. I still love the details all over town—like this wrought iron gate, and the terra cotta lions standing guard on the pillars at each side.

Terra cotta lions guard the iron gate


Here, it is very normal that I’m considered nutty for taking photos of such mundane things—which are NOT mundane to me. They are spectacular at best, and charming, at the least.

It has been raining almost every day since I arrived, with morning temperatures below zero. Here, and the main reason I decided to walk back to get a closer look, is one of the cascades along the Arno River, which is filled and thundering through the city.

The Arno River filled with run-off from the rains


It’s still well within the banks, not in danger of any flooding, but it’s not the lazy drizzle that I have seen in the summer and spring. Here, on this concrete cascade in warm weather, people strip to their underwear and sit in the sun, with only about 15% of the cascade carrying a dribble of water downstream. They sit and read the paper, students draw or write, and families with kids just warm themselves in the sun. NOT, however, in February, with this torrent!

I passed by the American consulate, and took a photo of the US flag hanging out over the front door, immediately noticing the guards with the Uzzis nearby. They were frowning at me, so I approached them to ask if it was OK to take photos of the consulate—and got a decidedly firm “No!” I showed them my photo, and had them watch me delete it—and so we parted on good terms. No point in getting into trouble for a photo that is not particularly special—been there, done that a couple years ago, near Cortona.

Located next to the Consulate, in the guarded zone where cars are blockaded from approaching the building, was yet another Garibaldi pillar—maybe half a kilometer from the first one in I photographed in Cascine Park.

Guiseppe Garibaldi, Italian hero


This guy is everywhere—a true Italian hero. In the piazza, though, was a beautiful sculpture of Daniel and the lion (a biblical story), but it had the most beautiful muscles, in both the lion and Daniel. Just another astounding bit of beauty here!

Daniel wrestling the Lion


At the north side of the piazza is the former Church of the Ognisanti (“every saint”), originally part of a convent founded in 1251. Not only is Botticelli buried here (“The Birth of Venus,” “Primavera,” etc.”), but also the church is full of frescoes by Gaddi, students of Ghirlandaio, and even Botticelli himself, dating from about 1480.

Chiesa dei Ognisanti


Porcelain ornament from the school of Della Robbia


This façade was built in 1637, and the porcelain ornament over the door is from the school of Della Robbia—not sure if the master was involved directly, or he might have been mentioned in the plaque. Just to the left of the doors, above the sign explaining the history of the church, is a marble marker with the high-water line from the 4 November 1966 flood of Florence, the disaster that damaged or destroyed so much of the historic city center and it’s irreplaceable treasures.

Marker for the high water level, 4 November 1966


This façade is about 100 meters from the banks of the river, but the water still climbed to this height, flooding the church and its artworks. (Just about at the height of my head—five feet plus a few inches.)

Window displays here are beautiful—lots of color, lots of well-thought-out backgrounds, accessories, and graphic design. There are streets of designer stores, where photos of the windows are only “permitted” when the stores are closed at night (and no one can shoo me off). Most of the less opulent stores are fine with photos, and are pleased with the attention to their display efforts.

THIS is how to sell tights!


Loved this wall of tights—just leg after leg after leg. Then, again, it’s nearly “Il Giorno di San Valentino,” so many of the windows are playing to the lovers seeking gifts for each other. This window was in a lingerie store, and probably a bit risqué, more than we are accustomed to seeing in windows on Main Street in the US.

Need a Valentine's Day gift for your sweetie?


Still, beautiful, and worthy of a second look to realize all the thought that went into the eye-catching displays.


I just popped into courtyard of the Palazzo Strozzi, one of the more significant and beautiful historical palaces in the center of the city, now a center for big art exhibitions. (I saw the Galileo exhibit, including his notebooks and telescopes, in the Palazzo Strozzi last June.)


The Strozzi Palace, an art exhibition space


This is the interior courtyard of the immense palace, with a ticket booth just out of sight, but nothing on exhibit called my name. I had just missed an exhibition of some of the best trompe l’oeil artworks of the world, called together for one exhibition called “Deception.” It closed just a few days before I arrived—darn!

Still wandering home, I came across a “mercato biologico” in the Piazza Repubblica, one of the most important of the piazzas (that’s “piazze,” actually) in the city. This one-day market had all small producers, under tents for protection from the rain, selling their own organic cheeses, meats, jams, and pastries—“biologico” seems to mean “organic.”

Organic grower's market in the Piazza Repubblica


Organic olive oil and pecorino cheeses


I bought a small jar of black truffle sauce, and it’s all I can do not to dive right into the tiny jar. I poached a couple of eggs in chicken broth, added a spoonful of the black truffle sauce (mostly chopped black olives, green olives, and regular mushrooms, but 1% black truffle is enough to take over!), and then put the eggs on toasted bread, and poured the broth over the top, finished off with a slurp of good olive oil. Outstanding! I don’t know where I can get black truffle sauce at home, but it’s quite amazing stuff—even at 1% strength. (Sorry, Mike—I’m developing expensive tastes!)

The corner of the Piazza Repubblica is home to Gilli, a Swiss bar and confectionary that is famous for its window displays, and the exorbitant prices of everything sold there except a simple espresso. If we “eat with our eyes first,” then the window glass is no impediment to enjoying Gilli! Oh—and many people are surprised that the prices are “per l’etto,” which means “per 100 grams,” or a hectogram, and NOT per kilo.

Window display at Gilli


By the time the beautifully decorated packages have been prepared for the buyers, and they realize that they are stuck with a price they never intended to pay, it’s too late to back out of the sale. At least that’s what happened to me—once. ONLY once. Now, I just look into the windows and marvel at the selections.


Next, I walked through the San Lorenzo street market, near the apartment I used to rent when I came here for the last few years. The vendors are really having a tough time, with very cold weather and rain taking shoppers into the department stores to shop (not on the rainy street), tourists staying away in droves, and the “crisi economico” around the world meaning that visitors look, but don’t open their wallets to buy. (And they take pizzas to their hotel rooms, shunning restaurants—or so I am told.) 


San Lorenzo street marketplace


My friends Sam and Giorgio are really having slow times, to the point that Giorgio and his new wife (Michelle, a charming American) are moving to LA this summer to sell their designer leather handbags wholesale in the fashion district. The vendors are in serious financial trouble, and hoping that spring will be a comeback for more business, as tourists begin to arrive for “high season.” For now, the vendors just do their best with low prices, and aggressively try to catch customers walking by their stalls.

One of the vendors, on a corner, always has shoes and boots on display in cubicles from the sidewalk level to the eaves of the building, summoning passersby to stop and take a look. Always, always, there are boots and heels and shoes of every description—like these boots.

Boots from the sidewalk to the eaves


A few more blocks of walking, and I found myself in the Piazza Santissimi Annunziata, in front of the Ospedale degli Innocenti (“Hospital of the Innocents”). Here, in a building designed by Brunelleschi (the same designer who put “the dome that could not be built” onto the cathedral that is the city’s landmark), abandoned babies were put onto a wooden turntable and the table was turned until the baby disappeared inside the convent/hospital, to be taken in and raised by the nuns there. Della Robbia porcelain rondels of babies decorate the façade, and twin bronze fountains in the piazza represent mythical creatures, resembling monkeys and fish.

Ospedale degli Innocenti, designed by Brunelleschi


Thus ended my “passeggiata,” my walk through town to get re-acquainted with the landmarks and connecting streets in my new neighborhood and neighborhoods farther afield in Florence. I stopped on the way at a tourist shop to buy a postcard and try my hand at drawing, once again, while the weather had me staying close to the apartment.  The postcard I chose was a black and white photo of a stone stairway in Fiesole, a small town to the north up on the hill overlooking Florence. It took me a couple of days, here in the warm apartment, out of the rain and cold, between walks and trips to the grocery store or the park or the mercato, but I guess I haven’t lost all those lessons that I had in London three years ago—still proof that Casey O’Conner (my prof) could teach a monkey to draw. I’m actually pretty pleased with the results, drawn onto one of the pages of my journal. (Thanks for the idea, Barbara!)

Staying out of the rain, trying to draw again


I suppose I didn't forget ALL of my drawing classes in London! Almost finished!


All goes well here, and I’m still connecting with people here that I know, slowly, as time permits. Three months without an agenda is a long time, but I have a lot of invitations and tentative plans and places that I’ve never visited—and it’s Carnevale time, too. I’ll be searching for my next outing, and keep you informed.

My last offers—two “juxtapositions” that I found this week (two of the many), a part of my perennial “torn posters” series of old advertisements and postings that create a new and unplanned image from old layers and remnants left behind. Making compositions from these tatters is a fun diversion for me, and I cannot seem to stop finding ones worthy of capturing for my “collection.”

Torn Posters series


Torn Posters series


Ciao! Hope all is well with you!