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from the Phantom's postcard collection
Here's a very early postcard of Florence

Grace notes: Impressions of Florence

By Diannek 

Nearly all my friends had already been to Florence. They did those European Grand Tours when they were college students. I didn't. Then they all went again when they were first married. I didn't do that either. I thought maybe I'd never see Europe.

So when my friend Marjorie suggested that we go, of course I said yes. Yes, I'd like to go and wander through the museums, stumble over the cobblestones, whisper through the cathedrals, shop the malls and tiny stores, and sip wine in the outdoor cafes. Yes, of course, I'd go. We would leave our husbands home and we would go for three weeks, rent an apartment and stay in one place, and take spur-of-the-moment day trips on Italian trains. When my friends heard about this plan, they all agreed that I would have a perfect time, I would "simply adore Florence," to use their words. After all, everybody loves Florence.

We made our way to Florence, via the long flight to Milano, with lost luggage, and the fast train finally making it to our destination. We were both exhausted and had difficulty finding our address even though it was just blocks from the train station. Eventually we got settled in and set off to explore the city. Marjorie had been before so she was the guide. I needed one because I was in awe of everything. At every block I would stop and stare, nearly dumb-founded at the beauty before me. She knew how I felt and said little -- the perfect companion. After a few days we set a routine of sorts, touring by train on some days and other days just roaming around the city, wandering through museums and cafes, taking our time.

from the Phantom's postcard collection
Another vintage postcard, but it still looks like this, only with more people...

One day in Florence when I was home alone in our apartment with the shutters flung wide open onto the busy street below, and the noise of the passing Vespas nearly deafening me, I decided to put my feet up, take the day off, and make some evaluations. I could actually watch Florence from my window and it couldn't see me. That's perfect for evaluations.

I decided that Florentines are:

- well-dressed, even old people, newspaper vendors, taxi drivers, the bar man and maids.  Everybody, no matter what they are doing, looks terrific, thin, and elegant.

- smokers. They smoke in the street, and in cafes, everywhere. I watched old men suck up a last deep puff before hopping onto the bus. Don't they know how bad it is for them?

- shopkeepers. Everybody is selling something. There are small cluttered shops crammed to the ceilings with goods, and there are little elegant shops with just a few exquisite items draped carefully here and there. Certain streets become known for particular items, one has leather goods, another fruits and vegetables, paper-goods in another. But it's not just the shops, everywhere you turn, somebody is selling something. Street vendors, outdoor markets, rolling stalls of merchandise everywhere. It's all so European and old-fashioned. And it’s all very entrepreneurial.

- busy. They are talking on cell phones, which are cheaper than having one installed in a residence that may be four hundred years old and made of stone; or they are driving their little Vespas; they are hopping onto the busses, or driving too fast in their small, beautiful and expensive European cars.

- drinkers, of beer, wine, hard liquor, coffee (of course), and so much bottled water, with and without gas, "con gas" is simply carbonated water to us.

- polite, to each other and to the tourists, except when they get behind the wheel of their cars or they fire up their Vespas. Then watch out.

- good at the business of doing business. They conscientiously open at nine, close at noon, open again at four or maybe at seven, close again at eight or maybe nine, or if their business is a restaurant, they may open at seven or seven-thirty and remain open until maybe midnight, but only they know the schedule.

- animal lovers, especially, they are fond of small dogs. They can Gucci slipper over a small dog turd very gracefully, seeming not even to notice it. There are dogs everywhere. Some business people even keep herds of dogs sleeping in piles on the street corners. When tourists come by to ogle at the pile of puppies, the dog herders beg for money to view them, and they demand payment for photographs. It's an interesting business.

For the most part, Florence is:

- proud of its history and art.
- treeless in the old section near both sides of the Arno.
- crowded with tourists, Vespas, taxis, buses.
- dirty from fumes, cigarette smoke, dog droppings and ancient buildings. There is no graffiti in Florence, except on the sides of trains. Perhaps those are the trains that come from Milano.
- a city of cathedrals.
- in need of more birds. The only ones I saw are the ever-present pigeons in the piazzas, a few sparrows near the cafes, some swifts circling the small church across from my window, and bats in the early evening, chomping up the mosquitoes. That's a very low bird count, even for a city.
- in need of more traffic controls, please.
- a city of fine clothing, shoes, jewelry and leather goods, all for sale, very expensive. How does the average person afford such things?
- a river city, but there are no boats on the Arno, no fishing (maybe there are no fish), no pleasure boats, no launches. Why is that?
- a city of bridges. Its oldest bridge, the only one left standing during World War II is the world-famous Ponte Vecchio, filled with jewelry stores, of course. (And just down the street from it about half a block is an internet café where you can watch the bridge as you check your email.)
- a city of old buildings still in use, that date back to the 12th century, as well as some newer ones made to look that old.
- a city of burnt Siena, a limited color palette from the red tile roofs to the brown medieval gothic churches.
- a city of noise, the most oppressive of which is the whine and sting of Vespa engines, an incessant symphony of noise.

from the Phantom's postcard collection
My view as I checked my email.

So, did I "adore Florence"? Of course I did, at times, but life was difficult there, especially for us. I loved going to the small nearby markets for fresh fruits and veggies and on to the bakery where they would wrap up the purchases as if they were the most exquisite gifts. Our local bar man indulged our penchant for capiccino at noon, something of a no-no for locals. He would smile and prepare them and let us take their china cups and saucers up to our rooms, trusting that we would bring them back safe and sound. I loved that. All these indulgences were welcomed but we still felt like fish out of water.

Marjorie runs a busy real estate business and every day she phoned home to check in and keep things running, which was sometimes quite frustrating for her. Several times every week I walked across the Ponte Vecchio and down the street to the internet café (no café was served there though) to check my email and make sure everything was running smoothly too. Life kept intruding on our holiday.

I felt like I was living in a museum. Every time I stepped outside the door, the wonder and awe of Florence presented itself. The architecture, the sculptures, even the cobble stone streets kept reminding me of its ancient past. But all that old stuff seemed to drag me down, made me feel old too. Another difficulty that most Americans feel is the change of pace. Workers and businesses all shut down during the middle of the day. We had to fit into that schedule. I also felt pressured by the commercial aspects of Florence. It’s all about shopping. Of course, it doesn’t help that the city is continually bombarded by tourists from every part of the world.

Florence seems very self-conscious, like it is Italy's version of Disneyland. In part it exists for the tourists, but then why not? But how can real people live in a place like that? One wonders. But I do have very fond memories of it now that I'm home again.

We saw a great deal of Italy on that trip, most of it by train, watching the beautiful countryside roll by while I puttered at the train window with my small box of watercolors and a little sketchpad. We made the treks to Siena, Pizza, and spent a day wandering around Venice. We traveled by train another day and evening all the way to Napoli, stopping just for a few hours in Roma. But mostly, we just wandered around Firenze, learning our way around and enjoying the moments. 

Pallazo Antononi is where we stayed. It's owned by a princess who rents out villas to tourists, mainly Americans I am thinking. To me it looks like a movie set. We each have our own bedroom and bath. Then there's the entry, a formal dining room, a living room with another dining area and a kitchen. The rooms are huge, the floors are parquette, the windows with huge shutters overlook the street. The stone walls are thick. I can barely lean over them to see the street six stories below. The street sounds rise to greet us. There is a church across the street. I can see into its bell tower and watch the swallows and bats come out every night to swoop up the bugs. 

The kitchen is well stocked with Italian-like appliances that took some getting used to. Like the little espresso pot that I use every morning. We even have our own laundry room with a washing machine. When the princess showed it to us, we asked where the dryer was. She laughed. "You're in Italy now. We use the sun to dry our clothes. There was a little annex room with a balcony for drying clothes. So even doing our laundry was very Italian. Nota Bene.

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