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Watercolor postcard of the Ponte Vecchio
A cartolina of the Ponte Vecchio

Idling in Firenze, Part 1
by Diannek

March 1999 Journal entry:  In approximately six weeks I'll be flying to Italy. I've been planning this trip for several months now, savoring the experience each day. I've been reading books on Italian Renaissance art, and I've been studying Italian off and on. You know, those do-it-yourself workbooks and tapes. I've been looking at maps, reading travel guides and talking to friends who have been there already.

Florence is supposed to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and everybody thinks that I will enjoy it tremendously. The anticipation of this trip itself has been a wonderful experience, vicarious travel at its best. Florence is not an out-of-the-way, off-beat travel destination. Rather it has been a tourist mecca since Roman times. I will not discover anything new, it will only be new to me. Florence has been experienced by many, many literary types, it's the home of the Medicis and the birthplace of Machiavelli and Dante. Many of my friends are amazed that I've never been there before, and they take great pains to tell me how much they have loved their time in Florence, as well as Siena, Venice, Rome and all the stops along the way.

Can my trip possibly be any different? Probably not. One of the only things that is just a little different from most of my friends' travel experiences is the amount of time we will actually spend in one place. The usual tour of Italy requires the visitor to move along, spending two or three nights at the most in each place. Lucky me, two weeks in Florence is a relatively long stay. I should have a good opportunity to get the feel of the place.

But that alone will not distinguish my trip. Since it's 1999, it is significant to keep the historical moment in mind. Our trip will use the most technologically advanced mechanisms of the 20th century. Everything that we take for granted today was invented in the 20th century -- from our mode of travel, to our mode of communication, from the way we dress and pack our clothes to the way women are allowed to act and experience the world -- all of it is less than one hundred years old.

But I am going to a city that has existed in one way or another for perhaps 2,000 years. It has withstood time, war, wear-and-tear, famine, flood, fire, and the advance of culture for so long that it is hard to imagine what the world was like in those early times. I can only barely imagine what it must have been like for two women travelers to go abroad in the early part of this present century. And that is what I want to experience on my trip. To go back in time and sort of step into the earlier period of history.

The woman I am traveling with, Marjorie, is probably a very good choice for such an excursion because she has chosen to ignore as much of popular culture as possible. She does not watch TV or go to the movies, she rarely, if ever, reads modern novels, or any novels. She does not listen to the radio or play modern music. She is nearly illiterate when it comes to computers or many of the other conveniences of our time, outside of the FAX, that is. She is a master of the FAX machine, and perhaps the cell phone. Her business requires that she be in touch with clients, so she must use those means of communication and she does so with great reluctance. I am going to have to leave behind the modern communication tools I have become so dependent on, specifically my computer. I will be lost without it for those three weeks abroad but I am sure there will be so much to do that I won't have time to really notice it. Instead, I'll have to write out my thoughts in longhand, and use the telephone whenever possible.

Marjorie says she want to spend three days in the Botticelli room of the Uffizi, just staring at the walls. That's perfect for me. I want to sit in the outdoor cafes with an espresso and sketch the sites, as many tourists have done before me. I want to wander the streets and just look at things, without having the feeling that I'm rushing from one agenda item to the next in a frenzy of activity. It takes time to get to know a place and I want to take my time and wander around.

I am reminded about the many novels I've read over the years that mention travel abroad in earlier times, when travelers would go on long excursions abroad and simply settle in, somewhat like I hope we are going to do. Their trips were leisurely, with just the essentials of life taking up their time. Where to eat, what to wear, where to stroll, what to buy for themselves and others -- those would be the burning questions. A short trip on a tram or a walk along the river might be the most eventful pastime of an entire day. That is the way I want to see Italy.

(From the Phantom's personal collection)

This old cartolina features the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata.  It's not a particularly beautiful postcard but it does show off one of the many piazzas found throughout Florence.  The interesting thing about this card is the message on the reverse:  It is dated 1888, was sent to Mabelle Chase from Smith: 

"This is the statue of Duke Ferdinand, -- the statue which inspired Browning's poem of 'The Statue and the Bust.' We are told that the bust is a figment of the poet's fancy.  But the statue still occupies the centre of the square.  The buildings form a quadrangle, and the lady might have looked out from any of the many windows as the duke rode past."

If you're interested, it easy enough to find the Robert Browning poem.  I thought of posting it here but it's quite long.  Just go to the Poetry Archives when you get the chance.)

May 1999 journal entry: Here it is, the weekend before we leave. I've started packing and as usual, I've decided to try and pack lightly. I do get better at it every time I go somewhere, but there are always a couple of mistakes. I'd like to have a little room in my suitcases for goodies to bring back with me.

Also, I've taken a great deal of care in choosing what kind of art supplies to bring along. I've decided to do a series of small drawings and paintings, all the same size, perhaps suitable for a small portfolio or box when I get back home. We'll see how that goes. Also, my tiny camera and lots of film, and of course, my journal.

I've been reading Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun, which is the area of Italy where we'll be. Mayes only mentions Florence in passing. It's obvious she doesn't like the city very much -- too dirty, full of leaded air, as she says, too many tourists, so many that they bump into each other, and of course, they say the awful things that tourists everywhere say, all in the wrong language.

She talks about the look of Italy and the feel of it, the people, the food, the smell of it. How the plants grow, where the Roman roads can be found, the antiquity of it all. But I begin to regard her rather elitist air with a sort of disdain. She's a cut above the rest of us simple tourists who must return at the end of our two or three weeks. She has her own Italian villa now, even though she's a simple English professor at San Francisco State in her American life.

Many travel writers make their living telling the rest of us about their experiences. We can enjoy their journeys from our armchairs, without the noise, the expense and the hassles that can make travel so difficult. Through their words alone they convey the spirit of the place. Take Paul Theroux, for example. Sometimes he just passes through and manages to entertain us with his rather unique point of view.

Also Jan Morris. She writes lyrically, observes deeply and passes on small treasures to her readers. Paul admires Jan, I admire both of them. She often chooses subjects to explore, like rose gardens or entranceways, and shows them off to us in all their variety. Theroux does the same thing but at a more personal level. He talks to people and goes out of his way to start up conversations with strangers. He usually has some rather pointed question in mind and as he wanders from town to town, he questions the people he meets. He always comes up with rather interesting encounters. In the Iron Rooster, he mentioned what he was reading at every stage of his trip. He spent hours on trains and when he grew tired of looking out the window, he read. Then he wrote about how the story sort of inserted itself into the landscape. It was fascinating. I'll always be more self-conscious of what I'm reading while I'm traveling as a result of that book.

So the questions I'll ask myself along the way are: What would Paul see, what would Jan see, but most importantly what do I see. Robert Dvorak reminds me that artists observe more keenly than others. I should use that notion to inform my writing and my thoughts on this trip.

And I'll want to remember the old Katharine Hepburn movie I saw a couple of months ago: Summertime. In it, she was a lonely middle-aged woman spending her two-week summer vacation in Venice. She reluctantly fell in love with a married man. We know it's a love story that is doomed from the start, but we are happy for her to have experienced such a wonderful moment of pleasure in such a beautiful place. As with all vacations, they are soon over, but the best of them and the worst of them all leave us forever changed, simply as a result of having been there.

Idling in Firenze will continue in the next issue of Clever. 

Find it here!     

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