The days passed punctuated by moments of sun and of fog. Yet I was not as alone in Italy as I had been in Germany, despite relatives. Wherever I looked, there were long-standing friends, somehow soul mates, the pink and yellow toy houses in the hills, the rows of dark cypresses, exclamation points indicating a road leading to a villa. It was a revelation to realize that the Florentine painters had after all painted what they saw. Uccello, Masaccio, Donatello – all old friends and I no longer feel alone. The clouds one day might be Piero della Francesca or Bellini clouds, Fra Angelico had noted the cypresses pointing to the sky and Uccello had been enchanted by the patterning of hedgerows and fields.
Not only did I have a room with a view but I was also in the heart of Florence, in Borgo San Frediano, where the real Florentines lived. It didn’t take me long to fall into a routine.
Buon giorno. Every morning I would be invited to start the day with Carla knocking on the door and bringing in a jug of hot water. C’è il sole. Yes, generally this was the case and the sun had entered on the sly, awakening the white pitcher and the washbasin sleeping in front of the old-fashioned mirror. That hot water really felt good before I pulled on wool stockings, long underpants (very un-Italian), a wool dress, a coat.
The narrow streets had caught the shadows of the night there was little difference for them between day and night when the street lamps with their dark light replaced the shadows. The sun did sometimes make an appearance when I finally stepped outside on my way to the corner coffee bar.
Un cappuccino. Per favore, mi piace la schiuma. Poco zucchero. E una pasta. As I became attuned to the sounds of Italian, I began to be aware of the Florentine lilt and the aspiration of the c turning casa into hasa, and carne into harne.
Every door along the street was open. And in each one people worked.
There was the good smell of newly sawed wood.
Black wrought iron curls in a white painted room formed a rococo jungle.
Lamps. Tables. Objects of unknown use and shapes.
The perfume of fresh bread and baking.
A shower of sparks where metal touched metal. The room behind the open door was dark. The sparks glowed white. And the artisan was wearing a shirt of blue.
A piece of deep purple cloth was hung outside a window. The yellow wall, a ray of sun, and the purple cloth. I stopped to take a picture. An old man leaned out to take in his laundry. He saw me and with a smile waited till I put my camera back into its case.
It was almost noon. The streets became alive as boys played football, or I should say soccer in a piazza. Behind them was an arch, a gate in the city wall of Florence. It made me think of a painting by Ben Shahn. The stores closed, pulling down or up their iron grates and metal gates. But not all. People still had to eat.
In one doorway, a dark-haired woman fried slices of golden polenta over a blue-green table. The frying pan was big, black, smoked. In a smaller pan her husband made pancakes of a deep red liquid batter. Blood?
A tram passed. There was hardly enough room for him and for me.
I walked on.
Suddenly the street was full of children. In black school smocks with white ribbons in their hair or tied in a bow at the collar. They wandered home slowly, looking into the store windows – at the food, or at themselves?
They talked. They laughed.
I moved on into a side street where the shopkeeper who sells me wine had become a friend. As he filled my bottle from a straw-covered flask after siphoning off the oil on the top I watched, fascinated, for I remembered that the ancient Romans had also sealed off the air by putting a layer of oil on the wine.
It was only at dinner that I encountered the other people in the pensione. They seemed to live in a world all their own. I imagined that during the day they were out touring the city, the Uffizi, Santa Croce, but what seemed to interest them most was the price of food in Spain and France as they slowly finished their dinner under the watchful eyes of the cats waiting politely for what might be left. I hesitated to speak with them, to break into their aura of privacy. The woman in the room next to mine had hers wrapped around her like a many layered stole. Her world was one where women were supposed to move inaudibly from one room to another, an age colored in pale mauves and whites. Soft and nebulous, of a plant that has never really seen the sun, a creature reared in the fog of its own knowledge. Her long hair was pinned in a knot on her slender neck as she moved, tall and proud. A gentle voice, a half smile lingering on a melancholy face. Most often she was alone, but once she returned from a long walk with a tiny old English lady who either had a title or was the wife of an army officer. She rarely spoke to others. Perhaps a smile, a nod although once we exchanged a few words watching the sunset. Every now and then I could see her hanging a sweater or a long-sleeved nightgown out to dry, or brushing her long hair in the morning sun. She writes, she told me one day, had come to Europe for only six months – three years ago, and was still here.
To be continued. . .