Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Florence, Italy - A Traveler's Tale, Part 2

My first language is English but I speak enough French to get by, even to enjoy myself. In fact I like it when my French is better than the English of someone I meet because, more often than not, people will default to English and I miss an opportunity to practice my french.

English is so widely spoken in Europe that, as an English speaker, it seems possible to avoid any other language since there's always someone nearby who can translate, and a surprising number of people in the service industry speak English. Add a little French and you can do well in most of Western, and even Central, Europe. It doesn't hurt to have a little Spanish from High School under my belt either - although I can't carry a conversation I can often figure out what was said, and make sense of simple written sentences. But Italy is different. Italians are not as multilingual as other Europeans.

View of Ponte Vecchio from San Niccolo neighborhood
We are staying in an apartment in the neighborhood of San Niccolo, Florence, and I was surprised at how alienating it is to be unable to communicate even simple thoughts. I have had short experiences of "inability to communicate" in the past but they were easy to dismiss because they were quickly over. It's different to face a couple of months in a foreign country where contact with most of the people is restricted to meeting simple needs like "un cappuccino per favore."  It can make you feel isolated even though surrounded by people, and
 the phrase "Water, water every where, Nor any drop to drink" from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner could easily be translated to it's cultural equivalent: "People, people every where, Nor any one to meet."



Via (street) San Niccolo



View of San Niccolo Tower from in front of apartment 


San Niccolo from across the Arno river


San Niccolo Tower at sunrise



The importance of human connection is impossible to ignore when it's presence in every day life is suddenly restricted or eliminated - it is as important as water, and it's absence could be just as lethal, though death may take longer and come at one's own hand. So it seems no coincidence that suicide is associated with loneliness and isolation, and I suspect that the inability to communicate the nature of one's inner life would feel as isolating as not understanding the language of those around you. Or they understanding you.

Man walking home on San Niccolo
I find even my rudimentary Spanish interferes with my attempt to remember simple phrases in Italian. The Spanish phrase keeps overwriting the Italian phrase in my head, and I can see the confusion on the listeners face. Simple words like "prego" and "ciao" are used frequently and in a variety of situations. Italians easily understand the context and usage of these common expressions, but I remain confused at times. I imagine it is like when North Americans say "Please" as in "You go first," versus "Please" as in "I can't believe you just said that."


Lovers on Ponte Vecchio
Italians don't smile a lot. It's a bit unnerving at first but it's just the surface and does not reflect a lack of friendliness, empathy, or affection, which is often on full romantic display. North Americans smile a lot, often out of habit and training. Consultants teach sales people to smile for effect. Whether you want to or not, you must smile. In fact we value 'the smile' so much that we can be suspicious of someone who doesn't smile. We have learnt to smile even when we are uncomfortable, nervous, or sad. I don't think that's a good thing. The 'smile' hides the fact that we are not that "perfect, successful, beautiful, happy and together" person that we are expected to be in order to be accepted. In some sense, this reveals our unwillingness to face the realities of life. The 'smile' separates us.


Lovers on the wall
Lovers in the rain


Lovers on two wheels


Beggars love


Bicycles are everywhere, ridden by men, women, children, young and old. This is partly because Italians have traditionally been poor and bicycles are cheap, but it is also made possible by the fact that most everything is close at hand.


Colorful fashion is common

Business dress code

Business negotiations on a bike

He could be a banker

It's common to see fashionable people chatting as they ride

A lot of elderly people ride bikes as well

Elderly gentleman from San Niccolo

and fashion models

Talking on the phone while riding in traffic is common

Young fellow with ambitions

Riding in style!


Italians will transport almost anything on two wheels, including girlfriends, infants and dogs, and in every manner.


Mother of two


She's enjoying the ride


Families on a ride downtown


Kids seem to enjoy the closeness that comes with this lifestyle. This little girl is being ridden to school, clearly content to be wrapped in the love and safety of an older brother:



Here she is on the same bike, this time in the arms of her father:

Father and Daughter


These moments of closeness would not happen if not for the bicycles. The kids are adorable and the family closeness is enviable:

Father and daughter are of one mind


Kids are really comfortable on the back of a bike


It is common to see Italian men involved with their kids


Young fellow can't stay awake on the way to school


No bike seat? No problem, "I can stand."


It is surprising to see just how much can fit on a bike.

"just one more stop at the grocery store, then home"



Bike plus extras must be 200 lbs

Or on a motorcycle:

Must be moving apartments in San Niccolo


Bicycles are so interwoven into the culture that they are used as decoration, and they form the subject of paintings:

This bike is a permanent fixture outside of a card shop

The painting in this shop depicts cyclists in the rain,
one of whom is riding with an umbrella 


The relaxed attitude about safety is actually refreshing - personal freedom comes first in Italy. This stands in stark contrast to the "safety first," zero tolerance world of the west, which often seems more like "zero tolerance for being human."


Scooters are just as popular as bicycles, and they are used equally by men and women:


Young, beautiful, and confident on a bike

Colorful scarf

Mother and daughter heading home

Father and son, off to school and work


Riding a scooter appears to be a good time to call the wife,




talk about the football game,



... even while turning a busy corner

or to have a smoke:





Italy is a smokers paradise. It seems that everyone smokes and "Tabacchi" shops are everywhere.




Unusual purpose-built vehicles abound in Italy. Some are almost comical to western eyes, but they work very well for the short distances and narrow streets.

"Date Night"
Man and wife after work in San Niccolo

This micro-truck is built to carry glass

The worlds boxiest truck

The offspring of a Smart Car and a golf cart

Smart Cars are common, and they makes sense here. Some cars are so small that the Smart Car looks big in comparison. The little thing above is only as long as a Smart Car is wide (below).

Smart Car in front of its baby

The three-wheeled cyclops

The passenger sits behind like on a motorcycle

One of the larger work trucks


Like people almost everywhere in the western world, Italians love dogs, perhaps even more than in other places.
Boy and his dog in
San Niccolo

There is a stray dog in our neighborhood and he seems to live by the charity of the people and whatever else he can find. This dog regularly wanders into the Casa del Popolo cafe, where I like to have a few Cafe Lattes while doing computer work, and no one bats an eye. The dog just comes in, looks around, and wanders back out when he's good and ready. There's also an outdoor dog water-fountain that runs 24/7 near the Gate at Bastioni di San Niccolo.


Despite the many dogs, I rarely hear a dog bark in Florence, which would be unusual in the west, and this guy looks almost too human as he waits for his boss in this little work truck:



Waiting patiently


Quiet evening in San Niccolo,
the dog water-fountain is on the lower right


Food can be expensive or cheap, like almost everywhere, depending on where you eat and what you buy. Fortunately we have a small kitchen in the apartment and are able to cook most of our meals at home.

Getting ready for dinner, kitchen in background

First meal in the apartment, keeping it simple

Stir-fry is quick, easy and inexpensive 
Bread, salad, and wine makes it awesome










Chicken dinners were quite cheap to make,
add olives and artichokes from the deli

Small produce shops abound,


Typical small produce shop

and the much larger supermarket Sapori & Dintorni Conad at Ponte Vecchio is only about 10 minutes away on foot, where you can get just about anything, including wine, starting at 2.99 Euro per bottle, and beer at 0.93 Euro for 666 ml (that's about 2 standard beers)!


il Bastioni di San Niccolo
But the best wine I've had in Florence was Le Pietrine (Toscana, 2010), a full-bodied red which was 6 Euro per glass just up the street from the apartment at the famous Fuori Porta wine bar, right across the street from il Bastioni di San Niccolo pizza restaurant. Both of these are "must-visit" places when in Florence. Frederico, at il Bastioni di San Niccolo, gave us the absolute best possible service, and their divine stone-oven-baked pizza is only 2 Euros (that's just over US$ 2.00) from Monday to Thursday (I added spicy salami to mine, and Dawn added anchovies, for an extra Euro each)! Their cheese cake with mixed-berry sauce and their orange cake are both to-die-for, and I am usually not a big fan of desserts. On one visit, Dawn and I shared a bottle of wine, two pizzas and a dessert for only about 23 Euros. Did I mention that their pizza is the best I had in Italy? Don't miss it!



Dawn in Bevo Vino
We also ate at several other excellent restaurants in the neighborhood including:

il Rifrullo - Offers an excellent all-you-can-eat lunch for 10 Euros, as well as great cappuccinos and lattes for 1.2 Euros.

Dinner at Bevo Vino 

Bevo Vino - offers "Aperitivo," a custom in which you buy a drink and eat all the appetizers you want for free, usually starting at 7 PM. We had a very good 3 course meal here for 10 Euros each as well.



Italians live a lot of their lives in public and the street quickly feels like an extension of your living room.


Friends gather to chat


You can stroll the neighborhood with a glass of wine or beer, but you can't use a glass container after 10 PM, a very civilized and practical concession since you might reasonably be drunk by that time, and you can continue all night with plastic glasses.


il Rifrullo is a popular Cafe / Restaurant / Pub
There are at least a dozen small cafes and restaurants within a couple of blocks of our apartment and people often spill onto the street but it is almost never rowdy, just very social, like a family gathering. The importance of family, friends, and a sense of neighborhood is enhanced by the fact that the street is chained closed at 8 PM so that the residents can feel more comfortable gathering on the street without worrying about passing cars. I love that!



The community life of San Niccolo is organized by the owners of Casa del Popolo di San Niccolo, which is much more than a coffee shop and is one of the few of it's kind remaining in Italy.

About 7500 Italian Jews, mostly from Florence and Genoa, were sent to Auschwitz during WW2 and Casa del Popolo became a center of resistance to Hitler. Out of necessity, it became a highly secretive private

Casa del Popolo with work truck and scooter out front
club in order to protect it's members. It is now open to everyone except that you still need a membership to buy cigarettes because it is the only place where they are tax free, due to its historical connections.











Many Italians feel that if not for the Americans they would be speaking German today, which may account for the popularity of American music of the 1960s and 70s, folk, jazz and rock. It is played on the radio and on the street. You will hear songs by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Carol King, as well as many classic rock songs.


Singer on Ponte Vecchio

Community events are often held in Casa del Popolo's Piano room just off to the side of the main cafe, which also holds a spin-soccer game table. The cafe is equally popular with construction workers at lunch and families with their children at any time of day.

I have my cafe lattes almost every day at the Casa del Popolo and, though my Italian is nearly non-existent, I developed a friendly, near-silent rapport with the ladies who run the restaurant. With a little strained sign language and badly pronounced Italian, I learned that ordering a "cappuccino lungo in un bicchiere," which means "long cappuccino in a glass," would get me the drink I liked best.

Then one day one of the ladies said "il solito" to me as I stood at the counter. I gave an uncertain smile and we shared a little "sign language" until I said "si," still not really knowing what she had meant but hoping for the best. As she worked the espresso machine, I quickly looked up the translation on my smart phone to find that it meant "the usual?" and I was heart-warmed by this simple gesture of recognition and, more importantly, of welcoming. She would later start bringing my latte to the table where I was working on my laptop, which was a very kind gesture since this was a busy counter-service style of place. I like it there.

The sticky lock that I "fixed"
I came back to the apartment after my morning lattes at Casa del Popolo's one day and decided to fix the door lock, which Dawn found too difficult to open. When I was done I asked Dawn to test it, but she could not get back in. So I went out with her, and we locked the door behind us, but the deadbolt would no longer open. The key worked fine to lock the deadbolt, but it just refused to unlock it!

We were now standing in the unheated concrete hallway without shoes, money or coats, locked out of the apartment in a country in which we could not speak the language. However, soon our neighbor, Martina, came up the stairs and, seeing our predicament, immediately invited us up to her apartment where she made us a delicious pasta lunch while we waited for Linda, our landlord. Linda brought one of the local workmen, whom I recognized from the Casa del Popolo, to help. So we were five, squeezed onto the tiny landing outside the apartment door. We got back into the apartment a couple of hours later, but in the meantime we met two new people and learned that Martina was recovering from lymphoma. Later we had Martina, who speaks English, over for food and wine and enjoyed a little conversation. Linda agreed to an interview about the history of Florence, and the workman, who also spoke a little English, and I laughed about this incident when I saw him next at Casa del Popolo.


To live in a place is to live with the people of that place such that your lives become intertwined, eventually inextricably so. You not only speak the same language, but share many of the same memories of the same events, events that shape both the place and the people who belong to it. To live in Florence for seven weeks is more than a vacation, and it is perhaps just long enough for the small threads of personal connections to sprout naturally in response to a simple question like "il solito?" from a familiar face, or in the drama of getting locked out of an apartment. Shared events, big and small, are how people get to know one another, and it takes time. A lot of time.

The language barrier did limit how deeply I could connect with people in Florence. But they say that 90% of communication is non-verbal, and I feel that I came to know a little about the people of San Niccolo by watching and reflecting on what I saw. I hope that, from these photos, you too will glimpse a little of their story. A story of a community of people who seem to have their priorities right: family, friends, love, food, wine and freedom.


Please check out part three (coming soon), in which I'll look at the architecture, museums, the Cathedrals, the many little shrines, all with a little history for perspective.

Ciao!