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
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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?)
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
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.
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.
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.