NOTE TO READERS: The Rome 2014 trip begins with post #30. Posts #10—29 were Rome 2013. Posts 1–9 were Florence 2011. If you'd like to be notified of new postings by email, let me know at

Sunday, December 23, 2012

#9: The last weekend

December 2011

Okay, just when you think you've got all your ducks in a row, all things tied up neatly, and all those other unrealistic expectations, yes, there is always that one last lesson to learn. Here it is:

If you're ever tempted to carry three liters of water home in a flimsy plastic bag with 4 eggs, while carrying a six pack of water by hand, don't.

Fyi: Did you know that it's possible in Italy to buy 2 eggs? Yes, they come neatly packaged in little plastic containers. I needed 4. Two packs. You can also get a six-pack of eggs or a large pack of 10, all in break-proof containers, break-proof that is if the dang cheap sacks from Billa don't give way on the walk home. Even so, I only lost one. Well, didn't really lose it because then I would have had an uneven number, which would have ruined my sense of order. It was a terrible decision: did I honor my obsession with order or my obsession against the possibility of a germ finding its way into the egg? I took a chance.

Anyhow, Punto is back. Punto is a zanzara inhabiting my apartment. Mosquitoes I believe you Americans call them. Every morning for my first two weeks, Punto (the grammatical term for that dot at the end of every sentence) would buzz me. He had several nice meals compliments of me. Then he disappeared. I felt kind of bad, thinking I'd swatted him to death. But then I heard him buzz, and now I have two large welts below my left eye. Still, I'm glad Punto showed up again last weekend.  I'd gotten used to his little buzz.

About the Maratona di Firenze...Florence marathon...last weekend, I was there, standing on the steps of Santa Croce, for the finish. The winner crossed the line to a grand rendition of the Star Wars theme. It was quite festive. Two Italians came in shortly after the winner, and the crowd went wild.

But the grande momento came when the African who was, oh sixth or tenth or something like that arrived. He rounded the bend into the Piazza della Santa Croce doubled over, his face more like a death mask. He fell against the rail. Behind the rail, the crowd was shouting Forza Forza...Strength...Strength...  O Mio Dio, I thought, this man was going to die right in front of us.
The Misericordie in orange EMT suits rushed to his aid, pouring water over his head. The cheering crowd kept cheering, all eyes on the orange suits hovering over the runner. Suddenly, the orange suits parted like a poppy on a summer morning, and the runner sprinted to the finish. The crowd lost its mind with delight.

Finally, I kept saying I wasn't going to describe the art. But I must say this, even though there is no way to describe it. Last weekend I was feeling somewhat burned out, tired of working hard to listen to lectures about the art in Italian, tired of studying, just tired. So I became a tourist, wandering around looking for sweet things. I found a store with cioccolato senza glutine that didn't cost 6 euros a kidding, 9 dollars for a chocolate bar with or without glutine. Not a giant bar. But one that would have cost 5 cents when I was a child. As it was, this bar cost 2.5 euro, about $3.75. One does not rush through a bar like this. I do believe, I might have talked about the chocolate before, but what I didn't mention was that the marble in some places on the Duomo looks like lace when you are eating smooth, velvety, and molto expensive cioccolato.

The supermercato Billa continues to be the personification of the anti-Christ. I ended up with fizzy water instead of Acqua Naturale...they put the word naturale above the Frizzante and made it bigger. I'm sure this was done deliberately to annoy me.

Finally, as we know from history, Italians have survived one invasion after the other, along with the machinations of self-indulgent and ambitious rulers.  And by the way, it seems that the love affair with the Medicis here in Florence does not exist throughout the rest of the peninsula. In fact, the more I learned about the Medicis, the less enamored I became of the art. When I look up at the chapels, churches, and the palazzos, I don't think of the artists who designed them but of the average people like us who built them. Art is not what I thought it was when I came here. But that's a whole other story. 

A short part of that story: I was standing looking at the Palazzo Strozzi the other day and noticed that the massive...and I mean massive...blocks of stone used to construct the palazzo. Some of those rectangular bricks would, I swear, would take up all the space in my bathtub. maybe more. Yes, I continue to be obsessed with getting home to my bathtub.

In fact, on Friday after my final class, I would have made a bargain with il diavolo to be able to leave. On Saturday morning, yesterday, 48 hours seemed like an eternity. But after I packed, ho fatto un giro a Firenze...I went on a little trip around the city. Just for the heck of it, I stopped by the Odeon to see what the next film festival might me. Mamma Mia! An Indian film festival, and in just one hour, there was to be a documentary about Rabindranath Tagore, followed by a film adapted from one of his novels. Fantastico. There were both English and Italian sottotittoli...subtitles. Yippee. A great film experience with the opportunity to work on my Italian by comparing subtitles. Perfetto!

While I'd seen photographs of Tagore, I'd never seen him in film, alive and emanating the spirituality, wisdom and heart expressed in his work. That hour-long documentary was worth the stay of two days. Tagore and Gandhi were great friends, although they disagreed on how to solve the problems arising from British occupation and the partitioning of India. There was footage of the great men together. Tagore was the personification of the peace and wisdom of nonviolence that Gandhi taught. Gandhi was a great man. Tagore was a great spirit. I have never seen a human being that was more spirit than man. Words cannot describe the purity of emotion in his face and in the way he moved.

Following the documentary, the woman next to me asked in Italian if I were going to remain in my seat and if so, would I keep an eye on her coat and save her seat. Si Si, I replied and throughout the intermission had to guard the seat against rather aggressive would-be interlopers. Now this is a huge cinema with a balcony. But in Italy, people don't give you space. Everyone sits in the middle. So the theater could be 1/4 full but with nearly everyone crowded into the best middle seats. At first, I found this annoying. Mainly because in America, you're never sure if the person next to you is going to unwrap candy or crunch popcorn or talk. But in Italy, the silence is profound. If someone talks, there is a chorus of SSSSHHHH! and the person shushes.

So anyway, the movie following the documentary was over 2 hours long. The woman next to me,who returned just as the title started rolling, didn't move, literally, for the entire time. I felt guilty for crossing my legs in different directions on occasion. The movie was, like Tagore, both subtle and stunning, mystical and political. In short, the movie, entitled "The Home and the World," was the tragic story of a woman who learned the lessons of love and politics too late.

After it was over, the tragedy was so complete, the film so exquisite that I could hardly breathe. I looked at the woman next to me and could tell she felt the same. As we were both alone, it seemed to be a minute that needed to be shared. She said something to me in Italian about the colors in the film and how they expressed so beautifully the contrast of tragedy and insight. At least, this is what I thought she said. I wanted so badly to reply but just don't have the language for such profound ideas. I said simply, È lo stesso adesso. It's the same now. She replied Sì Sì Sì and looked deeply into my eyes with the same grief I felt. There seemed to be so much to share, but I couldn't. And so I put on my jacket and departed. 

Outside the theater, it was pouring rain. I had neither an umbrella nor a raincoat. As I turned up my collar and stepped into the rain, the woman stepped up beside me to catch my attention. "Buona sera," she said with so much feeling in her eyes. "Buona sera," I replied, and we smiled the smile of shared understanding. 

I will never forget that moment. Recalling it, I will always know that no matter how discouraged I get about the world, as Tagore was also discouraged, there was that moment shared between total strangers in which grief shared was grief transcended. This was also the spirit in the face and in the presence of the one, the only Rabindranath Tagore.

I arrived home wet but at peace, made a nice stir-fry, watched Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine talk Italian in Irma La Duce, and went to sleep.

Now to end my emails, really, this time, a story about ordering il riso marinara. One day, after a bus trip up the hill to the town of Fiesole, two friends and I stopped for lunch before checking out the church of San Miniato up another hill.  The restaurant was very small. Narrow and maybe thirty feet long. There were 3 employees. A cook somewhere in the back. The waiter: a short gray-haired man who would take your order in a voice that almost sang the words as a tender aria, after which he would remain by the table and shout your order to the invisible cook. At least, I think there must have been a cook back there behind some wooden bars and a veil of steam. Then there was...well, who was this man: He simply stood behind a cash register in front of the veil of steam. Despite the fact that the restaurant was empty, the waiter seated us at a table jammed up against the cash-register stand. The cash-register man just stood, staring down his long Roman nose at us. 

When I explained to the waiter in Italian that I was in need of food senza glutine, he and the cash register man did the Italian arm wave and cried Riso. rice. okay, good. but then they wanted to give me rice with meat. After we clarified that I don't eat meat, they replied with the famous Italian shrug and suggested Riso marinara.  Perfetto. "Riso Marinara," shouted the waiter as if the cook had moved across the piazza. But then I wanted to conform, "Solo pomodori in questa salsa?"  Only tomatoes in the sauce, right? The waiter rolled his eyes and shrugged at the cash register man who shouted at the veil of steam, "No riso marinara; riso americana." 

I looked at him. "You study the language, correct?" he asked. 
Si, I replied.
Allora, he said with grand disdain. "In Italia marinara means fish in the sauce. Mar. Sea. Therefore, if you want marinara senza the feesh, you go back to California."
I thanked him for the lesson. He smiled again with merciless disdain. And my friends and I whispered as we spoke our broken Italian under his relentless gaze.

The food arrived. It was fantastico. I said to the cash-register man. "Questo È più buono di riso della California."  Was my use of comparison correct. I didn't think so.
The cash-register man smiled, his disdain replaced by that special Italian machismo that excuses your American woman dust.

In Italy, the tip is included in the bill, so you leave a euro only if you're really happy with the service. We didn't leave one. We actually were quite happy with the food and service but felt the need to make a statement.

Finally, I have figured out the winners of the Hawaii 5-O contest. I decided the only fair thing because of time differences was to have west and east coast winners:  Laura Ingram and Kathy Chadsey. 1 euro each. There will be a runner-up award to Mary Karlheim for a good try: The Italian Virginian, which gave me a much-needed laugh-50 centesimi. 

Well, that's it. I'm now waiting for my landlady so I can pay my untilities. I will then meet my friend Yoko later for the last gelato, maybe go to another Indian film, and be unable to sleep, eager to get to the airport. It was every bit the grande avventura del spirito that I hoped for, but not at all what I expected. Now I'm ready to go home and so saturated with the Florentine experience that I don't ever expect to return here again. The only thing I will miss is hearing Italians talk. I'm already thinking about which language school I will pick in Roma. But not anytime soon! I've got cats to hug, a book to write, and a lot of Italian to study first. And it will be great talking to you up close and personal for a change.

Again, thank you for accompanying me.

A domani...until tomorrow,

Sent from my iPad

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