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
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
|Lovers on Ponte Vecchio
|Lovers on the wall
|Lovers in the rain
|Lovers on two wheels
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!
|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
|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.
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
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:
|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
|Dawn in Bevo Vino
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
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
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.
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"
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.