by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan
My family and I, accompanied by a friend, recently spent a week in an apartment in Florence, Italy. We flew into Milan, and then took a three-hour train ride south, through Bologna, to reach our destination.
When we arrived at the Florence train station we attempted to call the company that managed our apartment. My wife bought a phone card from a vendor at the station, but we couldn’t figure out how to use it. At first we thought that was merely because the instructions were in Italian. However, when we figured out how to display them in English, they were no more comprehensible. We would swipe our card through the phone’s card reader, whereupon it would say: "Hang up and reorient." Well, we certainly were disoriented by these instructions, but we weren’t at all sure how we should "reorient."
I went to ask the man at the station’s information desk if he could explain how to use our card. Between my weak Italian and his weak English we weren’t getting far, until a young woman standing next to the desk stepped in. She volunteered to come over and try the card for me. After doing so, she declared the card wouldn’t work at pay phones.
"Wait here," she told us, and disappeared into the crowd. In a moment she was back with another phone card she had just purchased. She made our call with it. I offered to pay her for the call. When she turned me down, I offered her the card we had purchased. She turned me down again, then led us to the taxi stand. I was quite touched by the kindness of this complete stranger, who expected nothing in return and was unlikely to ever see us again.
The taxi ride to our apartment was my first exposure to Florentine driving customs. As far as I could tell, every intersection without a light prompted a game of chicken. When our cab approached a cross street with a car halted at a stop sign, that other car would begin to pull out. In response, our driver would accelerate hard, signaling that he wasn’t about to stop, and that there would be a very nasty accident if the other driver pulled out any farther. This worked at every intersection we crossed. I assume it had worked many times in the past, since the driver seemed to be of sound body, even if I had my doubts about sound mind.
Soon we arrived at our temporary home, a two-bedroom apartment on Borgo San Frediano, just a block from the south bank of the Arno River, which flows through the heart of Florence. A nice woman from the rental company, Windows on Tuscany, met our cab and helped us with our bags. Her English was fluent, which was a relief to us after having struggled to get by with our minimal Italian for several hours. Once we were inside the apartment, our kids set out to familiarize themselves with their new residence, opening every door and drawer, jumping on the beds, and trying the TV. They were quite surprised to discover that Mickey Mouse and Daffy Duck can speak Italian.
For those of you who have children and are contemplating traveling with them, I suggest settling into each destination on your trip for as long as possible. The kids will quickly become used to it and treat it as home. In our experience, if children are moved from hotel to hotel every day, the vacation is a much more unsettling experience for them.
We quickly discovered that the corner our apartment overlooked was a busy spot. The cross street, Via Serragli, is one of the six streets in central Florence that span the Arno, so it is a significant route between the south and the north side of the city. Below us there was a good bit of foot and car traffic, but by far the biggest noisemakers were the scooters.
Florence has very narrow streets, making for real traffic problems in a city of 400,000 people. One solution is to drive a scooter, a sort of mini-motorcycle, which can fit through spaces far smaller than can a car. During morning and evening rush hour, the streets of Florence are awash in scooters. (My wife kept calling them "Vespas." I thought vespas were evening church services, but I must be wrong.) In my estimate, the number of scooters on the road at rush hour exceeds that of other motor vehicles by roughly eight or ten to one.
To an American, the sight of swarms of well-dressed, middle-aged people riding these little contraptions is quite odd. It is as if a large chunk of the adult population of the city suddenly went fey and made off with their kids’ toys. One day my wife was particularly struck by the sight of a forty-year-old woman, dressed in high-heeled leather boots, a fashionable mini-skirt, and an elegant fur jacket, darting her scooter between a bus and a car with one hand, while smoking a cigarette with the other.
But, as I mentioned, the primary impact Florence’s scooters had on us was aural. Scooters are louder than cars, and they have a particularly alarming pitch, reminiscent of an angry hornet. My family lives in Brooklyn, so we are accustomed to city noise, but New York is chamber music compared to Florence’s rock concert. Unlike in New York, in Florence traffic drops off considerably late in the night – which only made things worse! After five minutes of relative silence, during which I would just begin to nod off, a scooter, enticed by the empty street in front of it, would race at full speed past our building, revving its engine.
Loud conversations were another source of street noise. What’s the right time, you might wonder, to talk loudly on the street in Florence? Eight in the morning? One in the afternoon? Six in the evening?
Well, if you answered any of those, you are correct, because the right time to talk loudly on the street in Florence is any time at all! That’s right, even 3:00 AM is a fine time to hold a five-minute conversation by shouting to your friend who is standing across the road. There are both a restaurant and a bar near our corner, so throughout the evening there was a steady flow of Florentines saying good night below our windows. Like in most places, I guess, Florentine good-byes can take a long time. We would hear "Ciao!" ten or twelve times before a group broke up. And the final "Ciao" doesn’t end your obligations: Lest your friend think that he isn’t already missed, it is important to honk your car horn to him five or six times before you finally drive off.
Florence is a small city in terms of the distance between its main attractions. There was nothing we wanted to see that we could not reach on foot, even with a six-year-old, a four-year-old, and a three-year-old in tow. And the amount of things to see in this small area is stunning. Florence is the city where, more than any other place in the world, the Renaissance took place. Dante, Boccaccio, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Lippi, Fra Angelico, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Machiavelli, and Galileo all were either born in Florence or spent extensive time there.
Despite this plethora of genius, it is the ghosts of the Medici family, who ran the Florentine state off and on for roughly 300 years, who most haunt the city. My children learned to recognize their family crest, six balls on a shield, and would cry out "Medici balls!" whenever they spotted it. Well, the Medici family certainly did have balls!
After we visited the Uffizi Gallery, I was stunned to read that the magnificent collection of art it contained is essentially a Medici family collection, presented today much as it had been 450 years ago. Uffizi, in fact, means offices, and that is what the building was: the Medici’s offices. We also visited the Palazzo Pitti, a gigantic building south of the Arno. Here, I thought, is a magnificent Florentine building not associated with the Medicis. But that night when I read up on it, I found I was wrong. Poor Signore Pitti, it seems, had been trying to one up the Medicis with his grand palace. But the Pittis went bankrupt trying to complete it, and it was purchased by… well, you probably guessed, the Medicis. And those are only two of the many Medici buildings in the area.
Florence is a shopper’s paradise – if the shopper is not short of funds. Most streets in the center of town are lined with clothing boutiques, jewelry stores, and antique shops. Florentines are much more particular about their clothing than are Americans. It was very rare to see a Florentine, man or woman, out in public but not dressed well. The different choices made by Florentine and American consumers are a striking example of what the theory of subjective value, as propounded by Austrian economists, means in practice. Given a certain level of income, an American’s consumption is far more likely to tilt toward his house and his car than a Florentine’s, who is likely to spend much more on clothing and food than the American. Florentines seem to prefer to live in smaller apartments than Americans, and to drive scooters rather than SUVs, as long as they can wear two thousand dollar leather jackets and eat at nice restaurants. How could anyone objectively determine whether Florentines or Americans are making better choices on how they spend their income?
One day, while shopping for a hat, I stopped into a men’s clothing store. A saleswoman ducked downstairs to retrieve some hats from storage. While I waited for her return, I surveyed the nearby racks. A sweater caught my eye. "Hey, that’s a really nice sweater," I said to myself. And since I am not a clothes hound, a sweater has to be particularly nice for me to notice it. Wondering what such a nice sweater costs, I walked over and checked the price tag. It was 625 Euros, which is roughly $800. Since no single piece of clothing in my wardrobe has ever cost me more than $300, the price gave me quite a shock, making me realize that I had spotted a really, really nice sweater.
Another thing Florentines do not seem as concerned about as are Americans are their bathrooms. Our apartment was very nice, but the showers were awful, being more misters than actual showers. Each bathroom did have a bidet, which our kids called "fanny washers." My three year old, in fact, found them to be an excellent height for sinks. He would even wash his hands in one several times while sitting on the toilet.
Speaking of toilets, Florence has a truly bewildering variety of them. There are some that are standard American issue. Some are like American toilets except that the tank is high up on the wall, and they flush with a chain. Some flush with a button on the wall. Some flush by foot pedal. Some are mere holes in the floor with foot holders on either side – we found them at the Palazzo Medici. But the most puzzling toilets were the ones that appeared to be standard American-type models, but with the seat and cover removed. Anyone who had hoped to sit instead had to stand on the toilet’s rim. We discovered them, among other places, in the Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Accademia, which houses Michaelangelo’s David, among other works.
One night I met "Luigi the American," who had lived in Florence for 22 years. I asked him about the strange toilets that seemed to have had their seats removed. "Sure," he said, "the seats were removed. That way the seats don’t have to be cleaned." Some clever entrepreneur might profit from this practice by making seatless toilets, saving the expense of manufacturing, shipping, and finally removing the seats.
We only ventured out into the Tuscan countryside once, on a day trip up to the ancient hill town of Fiesole. The town offers a splendid view down into the Arno Valley, and contains Etruscan and Roman ruins. The Tuscan hills are a gorgeous blend of nature-given beauty and human enhancement, refined over several thousand years. Human presence does not always despoil a natural setting – it can also enhance it.
A striking aspect of Florence was the relative absence of children. We would walk for several hours without running into more than half a dozen, while passing hundreds or even thousands of adults. Italy, so I’ve read, has the lowest birthrate of any country in the world, and the birthrate in Florence is low even by Italian standards. Walking the streets with three children is a cause for astonishment. Florentines generally seemed delighted to meet our children. But for some reason, they just don’t want to have their own.
After a few days of walking around Florence, my six-year-old son, vexed by the narrow streets and miniscule sidewalks, asked me, "Dad, why don’t they just tear down all of this old stuff and build a new city with more room?"
It was not an easy question to answer. Why shouldn’t Florentines enjoy the same 15-foot-wide sidewalks and relatively spacious streets that I do in Brooklyn? For that matter, why shouldn’t I, in Brooklyn, enjoy the even wider streets of an even newer city like Phoenix or Houston? (Do those cities even have sidewalks?)
However, I would be sorely disappointed if what my son proposed came to pass. The magnificent history embodied in Florence’s narrow streets and ancient buildings is the very reason I wanted to go there. I dearly hope that Florence never transforms into Phoenix.
Such a wish is often used as a justification for state-imposed legal restrictions on how property owners can alter their buildings in designated "historical districts," such as Cobble Hill, where I live. However, states, by a wide margin, have been the primary destroyers of historical sites. All but one of the Florentine bridges across the Arno was destroyed by bombing during World War II. Government-sponsored "urban renewal" projects, launched in many cities in the US during the 1950s and 60s, subsidized the destruction of many historic neighborhoods. The Parthenon in Athens stood basically intact for 2000 years, until the forces of the Venetian state blew off its roof during a battle with the Turks. I could continue citing similar cases until the cows come home, or until you stop reading because of the sheer monotony of my examples.
I believe that we can have both freedom and Florence. There are enough people who want to see such places, to immerse themselves in glorious epochs of history, to view firsthand the works of great artists, including the buildings and public spaces they designed, that I think that most of the character of places like Florence can be preserved without state intervention.
But even if my belief is wrong, that does not make the state a reliable guardian of our cultural treasures. It will preserve them just as long as it serves its interests to do so. The moment they obstruct the state’s goals, however "historical" they are, they are just as vulnerable to destruction as any other obstacle to its domination of society.
January 1, 2004