Category Archives: Florence

Goodbye, Florence

The morning we left Florence (September 9), we paid one final visit to a cafe in the Central Market where I had bought caffe the previous two days. Always the same lady would greet us with a matronly smile and a gracious attitude toward my faltering Italian. This morning, however, we arrived to find my coffee lady in a bit of a huff, arguing with a boy over the counter. Unsure of what the fight was about, Laura and I waited hesitantly on the side until finally the lady threw up her arms, reached into a small fridge, grabbed a bottle of beer, and handed it to the boy. She then turned to us and rather aggressively asked, “Cosa mi faccio?”

Unnerved by her demeanor, I gave her a blank look, suddenly unable to translate her simple Italian. “What do you want?” She finally said in English, her irritation now directed toward us. Stammering a bit, I placed my order as the boy she was arguing with walked away. She moved to the espresso machine.

“Having a bad day?” I asked, in imperfect Italian. Her shoulders relaxed a bit and she turned back to us. “No,” she said. “He is a minor. He wants to buy birra, beer, but I can not legally sell him alcohol.” She emphasized her last words by waving her hands in disgust, as if shooing away the situation.

I exchanged a glance with Laura, knowing we were both thinking the same thing: Why did she demure in the end and give the boy a beer?

“I’m sorry,” I said. For the situation, for walking up at such a tense moment, for boys who take advantage of nice people. Then, in an effort to enliven the mood: “Today, we’re going to Chiusi.”

“Oh, beautiful,” she crooned, a wistful glint in her eye as she stared into the distance. “So beautiful. Have a good time.”

“I’ll miss you,” I wanted to say, but didn’t have the words. The caffe was good, the prices cheap, and the atmosphere friendly. I wasn’t sure if I would find a cafe as good in Rome. We left my coffee lady then and walked to the train station, destined for the Tuscan countryside and beyond.

Festa della Rificolona

Every year in Florence, for hundreds of years, the locals celebrate the birth of the Virgin Mary. By planned coincidence, the date of this festival also coincides with the autumn harvest. Called the Festa della Rificolona, this holiday is today celebrated with creatively-made paper lanterns hung from long sticks which the children wield like ceremonial standards. Other children, those without lanterns, brandish pea shooters or blowguns, firing small pellets of putty in an attempt to catch the thin paper globes on fire. Whole families follow a band of musicians through the streets of Florence in a parade of light and music, ending in the Piazza di Santissima Annunziata, where awards are given, speeches are made, candies are sold by street vendors, and a few dedicated individuals perform demonstrations of traditional Tuscan dances.

I know all this not because of diligent research, but because we were fortunate enough to be in Florence for this historic celebration. We mingled with a jubilant blend of tourists and locals, adults picking their way through a sea of children. Once or twice, Laura and I both took pellets of soft clay on our backs, failed attempts by the kids to hit a lantern.

A ladybug lantern and a bumblebee lantern

A Noah's Ark lantern

A lantern shaped (sort of) like the Duomo

At some point during the festivities, a pellet found its mark, ripping through a fragile paper lantern to knock over the candle contained within, setting the whole thing alight. The crowd formed a circle around the blazing lantern as the unlucky owner set it down on the ancient paving stones. Other children brought their rificolona closer, waving them to and fro above the flames, tempting fate to see how close they could come to destroying their creations. Eventually, a cheer filled the air as the largest lantern, a dome painted like a rainbow and hung from an extraordinarily long pole, bobbed closer. Without regret, the owner flung the lantern into the dying embers of the original fire, and it erupted once more to life, sending scorched paper scraps hurtling into the night sky.

Revellers cheer as the largest lantern ignites.

Once the lantern fire dwindled and lost the crowd’s attention, they turned toward the stage to behold the traditional Tuscan dancing. We skirted the crowds, surveying the candy vendors, and found ourselves on the front porch of a church, the Church of Santissima Annunziata. Families, nuns and tourists formed a natural ebb and flow through the oversize doors. We joined in, letting ourselves be ushered to the inner sanctum, a nave of astounding beauty. The chapels and ceiling were heavily adorned with gold and ornamental detail, and the central dome was painted with a magnificent fresco.

Central dome of Santissima Annunziata

Nave and front door of Santissima Annunziata

We never would have entered this church if not for the festival. In our case, the handmade lanterns lighted the path to an otherwise unknown source of awe and inspiration. We couldn’t have hoped for a better night.

Le Scalie Piu le Scalie (More and More Stairs)

The day we climbed to the top of the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, we kept a rough tally of how many stairs we had traversed. The dome has 463 each direction; our apartment had about 25 each direction; the Accademia Gallery, which we also visited that day, had quite a few more. We estimate that in all we climbed over 1,200 steps in an eight-hour period.

I’m not bragging, just sharing our activities.

For Sale: Dignity

In the Piazza del Duomo, three young women feign pregnancy and carry photos of destitute children, asking for money from tourists in the names of Jesus and Mary. After making the rounds, they regroup, changing demeanor in a heartbeat to laugh and share stories. Later, we see one of these women with a man, eating heartily, looking anything but needy.

The artists sell their paintings and prints, and the trinket vendors sell their whirligigs and toys, while the women sell their dignity for a handful of coins. We all have something to sell, but I guess the major difference lies in how accurately we estimate its value. For me, dignity is easy to come by. Of course, Bob Dylan tells a different story.

Within a ten-minute period, the same young woman asked us for money three times. The first time, we made eye contact saying, “No, grazie.” The second time, we didn’t look above her chin and simply shook our heads. The third time, we heard the jangle of her coins and saw her coming in our peripheral vision, and we carefully ignored her. If nothing else, these vendors are persistent.

Men of a Certain Age

It seems like a stereotype, but I’ve seen enough evidence here in Italy and elsewhere to believe it’s true: Every Chinese man of a certain age and financial status has a catalog of photos of himself, unsmiling, in front of the world’s greatest landmarks. Just like the tourists who write their names on Brunelleschi’s dome, these men are leaving proof of their existence and adventures in a way that was impractical or impossible for their fathers and grandfathers.

But why don’t they smile?