January 4, 2014
The trip to Florence took a long and unpleasant day. It was cold the day we left, and there was so much snow it required a bit of nerve just to drive to my office to pick up a few things I had forgotten. We caught the bus to O'Hare an hour earlier than we should have needed, and in the event, we should have missed the plane had we allowed only a normal time for the ride.
The Swiss Air flight was filled with unruly brats of every age and ethnicity--the Pakistani children behind me were either asleep, crying, or kicking the back of my seat. Their father was quite self-righteous in demanding a "kid's meal" that was also "Asian vegetarian," which he said he had ordered. The very kind Swiss Air hostess interrupted serving the rest of the passengers in order to explain, a) that the kid's meal was never "Asian vegetarian," and b) he had ordered "Asian vegetarian meals for his children, not "kid's meals." I thought of the great scene in the film of A Man Who Would Be King, where Sean Connery and Michael Cain deal aggressively with a watermelon-eating subcontinental, who--as he flies off the train--thanks them very much, but at 40,000 feet the experiment might have struck some sensitive souls as inhumane.
Despite an hour's delay in take-off, occasioned by the heavy snow, we arrived in Zurich in time for an easy transfer to Florence, where we have been enjoying several days of miserable winter weather--rain every day and highs in the 50's. It was pouring out of the gutters in the courtyard of the Bargello. (See photo, where we are not actually in the water.) After Rockford it seems it seems like Paradise, but I am looking forward to the predicted sunshine that will warm our hearts in Pisa on Monday.
Although I have been spending time in Florence every year, I cannot say I like the city. First off, it is filled with Asian tourists of the vilest description. The Chinese are typically rude, bewildered, and badly dressed. When we stayed several times in an apartment on Piazza Santa Croce, busloads of them trooped in to visit a leather goods store that had a Chinese employee to deal with them. Not once did I see the group--which gathered right under our window--enter the historic church, which is the Florentine Pantheon for Italian heroes--actually enter the church. They are treated to a few minutes of trivia in Chinese and then it is off to buy leather bags undoubtedly made in a Chinese sweatshop. The Florentines have been trying to crack down on the knock-off industry, but with the flood of gullible Asian tourists, the task is impossible.
We rejoined the Amici degli Uffizi but the first day we refused to fight the Asiatic hordes to enter the museum. Today, with our magic cards, we got in early but not early enough, and it was nearly impossible to see a painting without having a Chinese group walk in front, gazing absently at art that means as much to them as Chinese music means to me. I have nothing against Chinese civilization and wish I knew much more about it, but the only civilization these people have comes from American mass entertainment. What a horrible place today's China must be--these people are so bewildered, so poorly dressed, so unhealthy. Hilariously, some of the women wear face masks! As if the air pollution and disease rate in their own country did not dwarf anything they will find in Italy.
My deeper objection to Florence does not derive from the mass tourism of all nations or even from the cynicism and duplicity of so many shopkeepers but from Florence's imperial history. In acquiring hegemony over Tuscany, the Florentines subjugated several city-states as vibrant as their. Florentine conquest was the end of Siena and Pisa. In the Bargello Museum, there is a revealing piece of sculpture by Giambologna. It depicts Florence as a serene and beautiful naked woman riding and subduing the rough-hewn Pisan man. "The triumph of Florence over Pisa." Even in the 1500's they were bragging about the dirt they had done to a brave people.
Still, despite all my grousing, I like to walk in Florence, especially in the less tourist-haunted spots--the walk up to San Miniato al Monte or the fairly quiet Oltrarno neighborhood around Santo Spirito. It is nicer in the warmer weather, when the trees are green and the flowers in bloom, but you can't have everything.
Then there is the chance to eat at several restaurants I like: At La Maremma near Santa Croce, I ordered one of my favorite simple dishes, deep-fried chicken, onions, and zucchine. The proprietor and the waiters at Le Fonticine near Santa Maria Novella recognized us from previous visits and I particularly enjoyed my gnudi, a Florentine gnocchi. Da Mario, not far from the Mercato Centrale/San Lorenzo, is (as everyone knows) famous for excellent meat, low prices, and an atmosphere that stops just short of chaos. At any given point from 11:45 AM on, the place is filled with neighbors, visitors, and tourists, who take any seat that is open. Today, the one empty spot--too inconvenient, really, for a chair was taken by a regular who lived for many years in America and now owns a gelato shop on the Via Faenza. After stuffing ourselves with bistecca Fiorentina and patate fritte, we made our way to Conogelato on Via Faenza 52 and sampled the homemade gelato he had so lovingly described over lunch.
Tomorrow we spend the morning in Florence and about 2:30 will take the train to Pisa and move into our apartment.
Thomas Flemingis president of The Fleming Foundation (fleming.foundation).