Friday, December 12, 2008

from Italy: occasional traveling companions

I read that Italy is experiencing severe winter rainstorms. And with that – flooding.

No kidding. Yesterday, the Arno looked like a river on a summer evening. Still and quiet. With lights reflected from shoreline buildings (see previous post).

Today, it hurled water furiously between bridges.

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Camera crews were out taking films. Others watched and took note.

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Me, I was remembering my very first trip to Florence. It was in 1966. Just before the great flood that destroyed so much of the city.

Water follows me. Or does it? Today, the rain hovered and came and went and it barely touched us, even as the skies were so dense with cloud cover, that you could not even imagine a patch of hope.

I write this from the Osteria de' Benci. I am eating dinner here and I am half listening to the dispute at the table next to mine. She is so angry! And he, in his attempt to add normalcy to their evening, is not hearing a word that she is clumsily speaking to him.

Such passion! An Italian thing? No, not at all. The woman is American, the guy is British. But their voices stand out beyond the buzz of Italian in the room. And it’s not that they are louder, or more comprehensible to me. It’s that I hear their agitation over and beyond whatever else I hear. You can't not hear it. We're programmed to pick up signs of distress.

The early afternoon remains wet, though not especially cold. We walk across the Boboli Gardens, Ed and I, and Ed wonders what the fuss is about. It’s hard to explain why I love this quiet corner of Florence. The view? Sure, great view…

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…but that’s not it. It’s the peace amidst all the (admittedly beautiful) chaos. The smell of Mediterranean foliage after the smell of…city. Ed listens and pets a cat that seems to live here. And then another cat. The second pet is much longer because the cat responds with great fondness.

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Now, at dinner, the pair at the table next to mine is talking about a living funeral. My God. Really? I want people to celebrate me for who I really am! -- she says to him earnestly, dramatically. Is it the wine? No, they seem to be working through a carafe, much like any other dining pair.

At the Boboli Gardens, I could not have my anticipated cup of espresso. I could not sit down and scribble nonsense. The café was closed for the season.

We make our way to the Medicis and Science exhibit at the Pitti Palace, just at the edge of the Gardens. I look at the exhibit through the eyes of a person who understands science, understands how invention takes hold. I look at it through Ed’s eyes.

Outside the Pitti Palace, we find a café. I want tea to warm up, but I see that it is 4 Euros. Too much. We leave.We enter another place – a corner bar/café/bakery. We both order a large cup of vegetable soup. The bill comes. Ed remarks that it is the most expensive bowl of soup he has ever had. (I believe him: it was 8 Euros per person.)

Early in the evening, we stop at a wine store to pick up a very basic bottle of wine. Ed hands over a 5 Euro piece and the wine is ours. I am listening to the music in the background. Lovely! – I tell the shopkeeper. Who is it? He writes down the name. There’s a CD store a couple of blocks from here... Let it go, Nina, Ed tells me. But, the song is sticking and I want to hear it again.

It's very late now. I'm eating dinner alone. Ed had too many biscotti by the kilo. He’s not hungry. I have within me an eating schedule, he does not.

I think about people who travel together. I admire them. Me, I can only travel with maybe a handful of people out there. At the end of the day, I like quiet.

Some ten years back, I had eaten dinner here, at the Osteria dei Benci, with my young-ish kids and their dad. We sat outside then and one of us loved the food, but I do not remember the who or the what. Just that one of us loved the food.

I’m finishing my meal now. Ending with a Florentine steak. Have you ever had it? It’s thin, very thin, very rare inside, swimming in olive oil, garlic, herbs. It’s interesting that my last meal in Florence ends with a Florentine steak. No dessert. It’s as if I thought about this meal when I was climbing the mountain in Riomaggiore.

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And I tell myself: this is a dumb way to end a meal. I'll get an espresso and a dessert on the main piazza. I remember a night when I sat there with daughters and some money grubbing guy was singing “don't worry, be happy.” It was sort of sweet.

But the piazza is wet and empty and the café is closed.

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Did I mention that not all the narrow streets of Florence are decked with holiday lights?

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I walk home, to our warm little room of the Albergotto.

On Friday we return to Levanto for a final night in Cinque Terre.