The Watcher: Florence

A quiet car until Bologna. My fellow travelers were an interesting group, to be observed as they observed me.  All men and all Italians, except for a tall thin American. An older mustachioed man in an air force uniform, two fat, short typical businessmen, a young priest, slender like a reed, a small tired-looking man. We sped through the plains of northern Italy with geometric rows of poplars and canals separating one field from another. It was only after we neared Bologna that conversation started, with an occasional word in English and hands flitting to and fro. At least I was no longer simply being scrutinized by five pairs of eyes, probably asking themselves how old I was, what my nationality was, what love affairs I had had, how much money I had.  Night slowly set in, the darkness rising from the ground.  The small man in the corner by the window slept, or appeared to sleep. His brown suit is wrinkled and his moustache fills in the hollows under his cheeks. Worn he looked, like the plush upholstery of the train seats, with a wrinkled brown suit and a moustache filling in the hollows under his cheeks.  I also pretended to sleep. It made things much simpler. The two businessmen got up and left as the train approached Bologna. I watched them through half-closed eyes and sighed thankfully. I could get the gist of their conversation and agreed that Americans often didn’t know how to dress and were too often intent on making money. On the other hand, what were these two if not businessmen and not very cultured at that. I felt a bit unclean from the undressing their eyes had given me. Admiration is one thing, but it doesn’t have to be lasciviousness. I hoped there wouldn’t be any others getting on. It was quite warm enough on the train and with the window open there was just too much noise. I could hear them as they passed below the window, blaming the Sicilians on the state of Italy. My blouse was sticking to my back as I stood up to smooth out my skirt. Settling back into the corner, I carefully stretched out my legs. The American, who had gone out for a smoke, reclaimed his seat on my side. He said nothing but at the next stop when a whole family crowded in, he moved closer to me, giving the children some chocolate and offering me a piece. I wondered how long he had been traveling and where he was going and why. And then the conductor came through calling out the next stop – Firenze, Santa Maria Novella.

Florence, October 1955.

The white light of early morning…. the whine of a mosquito drove me down under the covers as I reviewed the night before.  I couldn’t believe that I was finally in Italy. In Florence. At the station they had given me the name of the pensione and it was across the Arno. Santa Maria Novella loomed up white in the night as a friendly officer saw me to the tram and raised his hand in a military salute.  I was trying to find the house number when a boy appeared out of nowhere and led me up seemingly endless flights of steps. It had been late and the dining room was empty as I ate a meager supper with only my reflection in the gaunt pale mirror of the whitewashed dining room to keep me company. Small curiously amber grapes with a rosy cast floated in a bowl. Translucent flesh with shadowy seeds. Seeds that made me think of Persephone… Would this be my spring or winter?

Time to get up I told myself as I emerged from under the covers into the pool of sound of the day. A jumble of feet and voices, carts and doors, occasionally let a single voice, a word, an escape. I slowly became aware that there was a whole new world out there, waiting to be discovered. I put out my feet and courageously walked over the cold brick floor across the room, giving my face a cat lick with the icy water in the white porcelain pitcher next to my bed.

Looking out the window I could see the bleached red tiles of the roofs of Florence with Santo Spirito, the Pitti Place, and even a glimpse of the Duomo and Giotto’s bell tower with Florentine cypresses and hills in the distance. I was lucky. I had a room with a view.

Firenze 1955

The real world was down below, out in the street, where the Arno was dampening the city with its mist. A lonely boat floated on the reflections in the slow-flowing silvery Arno.

Arno boat

The tiny figure of a man standing at one end of a small scow lowered a long-handled shovel into the water, a proboscis feeding on the sand, then to disgorge it on the bottom of the boat. Upstream a latticework cast-iron arch, thrown from shore to shore framed the Ponte Vecchio. Reflections and reality coalesced into a single image.

The wooden bridge right outside the pensione door was a temporary structure, replacing the Ponte Santa Trinità, which was supposed to be here. My guidebook, which accompanied my grandfather’s German/Italian dictionary, told me that on August 4th, 1944 the fleeing Germans blew up all the Florentine bridges, except for the Ponte Vecchio. It was 4 in the morning and the statues of the seasons on the Ponte Santa Trinità, designed by Ammannati or perhaps by Michelangelo, were hurled into the waters below. I looked across the river and many of the buildings were without facades, revealing their innermost secrets. But so much for more recent history. I somehow still felt very much in charge until, that is, I crossed to the other side and was swept along with the crowd as it eddied into the coffee bars, to drink a cup of coffee standing up (how strange, I thought), or gulp down a glass of wine before rejoining the melee of moving objects of all sizes. I felt confused and terrified, as traffic seemed to move everywhere at once, obeying only the policemen, who directed the traffic with all the grace and calm of ballet dancers.

Facades across the Arno

All was so new yet all so old. I knew I was looking at buildings 500 years old. And we had thought the farmhouse I grew up in was old with its 150 years of history. But here it was like looking at a black white photograph without recognizing the subject. The patterns were meaningless, the words nothing but sounds. I had not expected Italy to be so different and felt alone in this whirling world.

To be continued . . .

2 thoughts on “The Watcher: Florence

  1. Fabulous and evocative reminiscences of Florence post war, with the tram lines running through the centre still in place. I look forward to the next instalments Erika.

    Liked by 1 person

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