I watched. I wondered if I could call them friends. Acquaintances was, perhaps, a better word. Some did though become real friends. Like il Dottore.
I had been going through some papers to find an address – I must say I hate to throw papers of whatever kind away, including grocery lists – when a lined slip of notebook paper fell out. Of course. Before I left New York, Bob, one of my colleagues, had told me of a friend in Florence and had scribbled the name on a leaf from his history notes. Dottore – Doctor. Not a physician but an archaeologist. It hadn’t taken me long to realize that anybody who has finished university studies was called “dottore”. So one morning I wandered past the modern WWII ruins, along the Arno, and up to the archaeological museum, A guard had me follow him through a labyrinth of corridors before stopping at an inconspicuous door. The modest grey-haired man sitting underneath a Japanese print behind a desk piled high with papers peered up at me from behind thick glasses. He smiled as we identified each other as Bob’s friend.
He spoke a rather curious old-fashioned English he had learned from Indian fellow students at the university. When I told him I wanted to learn Italian, the “dottore” took me at my word. We began to have daily meetings, over coffee or a glass of wine or lunch. “You must write your impressions,” he insisted. “That way we can correct your mistakes.” How often he smiled and shook his head. “Oh, bellissima! How logical your thinking is”. What a strange world, where even mistakes can be beautiful. At least I now sometimes had the impression I was something more than a ghost.
There were of course real ghosts who also become friends. I passed them every day, the Etruscans, reclining on their sarcophagi, navels unabashedly exposed, well fed and comfortable. They may be 2000 years old, but they talked to me more than the people in the street. “We know how to live for our world is full of banquets, dance and music.” The reds and purples, greens and golds and aquamarines breathlessly vie with each other on the small terra-cotta panels.
The days passed as I memorized verbs and words. I became a familiar sight to people on my side of the Arno, and we exchanged greetings, buon giorno and buona sera.
There was something magic about Florence and despite the rain that had finally set in and the three sweaters needed to keep warm, I felt I was in a perpetual state of grace. I was in love with Florence, with the light, the bells which last night at midnight had played catch with the hours, tossing them from one to the other so that twelve o’clock was here before being caught by a more distant bell.
November was suddenly here. I wrote in my journal every day, but what with that and letters home, I figured it would be easier if I had a typewriter. A shop near Santo Spirito looked promising. A portable? Well yes, an Olivetti 22. But it has an American keyboard. Great! Must be fate and I returned home with my new treasure. So now in addition to my sketchbook, my suitcase, two cameras and a light meter, I had a typewriter. Somehow I knew I would manage.
Occasionally, particularly in the evening, il Dottore and his friends, none of whom seemed to be married, got togther for dinner at Nello’s, a small inexpensive restaurant a street down from the archaeological museum. The owner, Nello, was quite a character, gruff and sometimes almost surly. If you were a regular you had your own napkin, kept in a cubbyhole marked with your name. One day a friend of il Dottore asked Nello if he had any caviar at which Nello looked around and said “do these look like faces of people who eat caviar?” It was Tuesday, and as Gina, the skinny elderly waitress with bleached blond hair, was clearing away our plates, il Dottore looked at me from behind his thick lenses and said, “Why don’t you go to Orvieto? It’s only a couple of hours by train and it’s time you see something of Italy besides Florence.” He was right of course although maybe he just wanted to get this American foreigner off his hands for a couple of days.
To be continued . . .