Wednesday, September 24, 2014


I felt I hadn't finished with Florence. Just one day wasn't enough. Rain or shine, I would go again.

But it didn't rain. Instead, I woke up to this sunrise out my window:


I know the clouds are going to roll in, but it looks like once again, I'll be spared the wet weather.

But it is a cooler day. Maybe in the 60s. So I'm going to get a more autumnal immersion in the city.

And immersion it is: I hike over to Rignano sull'Arno -- oh, and did I tell you? I found a partial short cut through the olive groves, so now the hike is down to 50 minutes!


...and apart from the fact that I don't like having to step off the road every time a big vehicle comes barreling down the hill, it's a hike with quite lovely scenery. Let me pause on this a little:



Okay, let me return to the narrative. About immersion. Oh, one more digression -- I wanted to note that I have concluded that Italian men have more fun than their American counterparts. I have seen too many animated conversations, like this one to think otherwise:


Now, about the immersion, which simply refers to the fact that on my reliable (I'm a regular!) 10:10 to Florence, I take my seat on the upper deck, plug in my iTunes and listen to Fiorella as we speed toward Florence.

Once I'm in the city, first thing's first: breakfast. I'm at the Piazza della Repubblica again, only at Cafe Galli -- the competition to yesterday's Paszkowski. My verdict, based on the entirely reliable sample of one: yesterday's vibe and waiters were better, but oh, that ricotta pastry today!



A glance at the coffee drinkers standing next to me:


Okay, let me now take you again on a walk, though this time, I'm less focused on the splendid stuff that really does distract you from the Florentine everyday. I'm trying to keep away from the monuments. Or at least to mix them up a bit. Like this one - because somehow it never struck me that Florence should have a movie theater just a block from the Piazza della Signoria.


Predictably, I cross the river pretty quickly. Here is a view looking away from the center, toward the hills (in the distance) in which my olive farm is nestled.


Florence itself is hilly here. And empty.


But I actually don't quite want empty. I want a mix. So I head toward a neighborhood that offers it: the Santo Spirito blocks on this south side of the river, named after this church:


There's a small market here today. Nothing extraordinary. Just simple stuff you'd pick up if you were cooking at home.


People pass through the square in front of the church, pausing for a rest on one of the benches...


The buildings in the Santo Spirito neighborhood are somewhat more colorful than in central Florence.  Here, someone inadvertently matched the laundry to the colors of the building:


I pass what must be a school on recess for lunch. I can't really be certain that it's high school. It could be the first year of university. They all look about 18, which makes it hard for me to fit them into an academic slot and I saw no sign on nearby structures indicating what scuola we're dealing with. I quickly snapped three photos of the three groups mingling on this block. Did you notice that here (as in France), all young women seem to choose to keep their hair long?




Further down the block, I came across this woman, somewhat agitated at her husband. Possibly because he is not helping her with the bags...


I do a lot of this: walking, looking, often times not photographing at all. And very soon it becomes lunch time. My one real meal of the day!

I go to Osteria De' Benci. It's a place that swirls in my mind with memories! Of eating with daughters. Of eating alone, while Ed slept in the hotel room. And especially of the most wonderful dish that completely breaks my habit of not eating red meat: it's the Florentine steak. I love this so much and I cannot get it across the ocean: it's maybe a quarter inch thick, smothered in garlic and olive oil, generously sprinkled with oregano and salt and pepper.  So this is the place to come for that. But  luck is so with me because today, they also have on the menu an arugula salad with raw artichokes and slivers of parmesan. Again, a real favorite of mine and I do not understand why I cannot replicate it back home. We have the arugula. We have the artichokes. We have the cheese. Why can't I do it? It's something about the artichokes... So, my two beloved dishes:



...and now a comment on my surroundings. The outside tables are stuck somewhere between the sidewalk and zooming traffic (we're outside the pedestrian zone). So you have to learn to shut out the city. Easy: focus on what's taking place at the tables around you. I am very surprised that until the bitter end, all the tables are occupied by Italians. In the days gone by, this restaurant was a real mecca for Lonely Planet or Frommer guide book readers. But guide books fizzle and fade. Probably Rick Steves has introduced different players on the culinary scene (he has THE top selling book -- I see it again and again here). In any case, I'm enjoying this suddenly Italian moment. Here's a photo of a  lovely couple. What's especially warming is that he is so affectionate with her, even though they already have a child -- a three or four year old that is darting about on the sidewalk as they concentrate on their intimate moment.


Toward the end of my meal (and everyone's meal actually), a small group comes in. Three couples. Americans. You can see them gather in this pic, while the waiters are sort of smiling between themselves.


The issue is that the Americans aren't satisfied with the arrangement of the tables. They want them to be perpendicular rather than parallel to the curb. I didn't quite catch the reason for it.

The waiters are willing. The group sits down. The review of the menu begins.

And here is an editorial comment from me. A rather long-ish one. And I feel that I have credibility in making it because it cannot be said that I do not pay attention to those around me when I travel. Since I am most often alone, that's all I do: watch and listen.

Based on all that I've seen in the past years, I'm giving Americans abroad (in Europe) a real thumbs up. (Caveat: I have little experience with the back packers out there and I have no experience with the high enders. I'm talking about the middle.) I like watching them, listening to their observations. There'll be the exception, but most often, I find Americans to be genuine, curious, open, ready to experience something new. Sure, they sometimes misinterpret. That happens when you switch cultures. [From this group: Look Ray, it says service is added at 10%. That means they don't want you to leave anything..]. Sometimes they're not comfortable with what they find. [From this group: Anyone needing instructions on the bathroom? I found it! It's downstairs! Is it okay? It's strange. Dirty? Not that. It's shared.]

Gone, really gone is the "ugly American" (or maybe they're staying home?). Truly, I think our people are heroic in their efforts to be friendly and outgoing. [From this group:
Look, Meg, right next to us! A Harley! He point to a motorbike just at the side of the eating space. The owner comes up to ride it away.  
Excuse me, but do you speak English? -- our American diner asks.  
No, mi dispiace...
Undeterred -- where do you buy a Harley here? Our American shoves a map at the guy on the bike.
The Italian relaxes a bit. His mind is no longer on getting away. He points to a street on the map.
Could you write it down? Here's a pen! Obligingly, the Italian scribbles the name of the street on the map.
The American thrusts a camera at his wife: here, take a picture of us! He leans in toward the Italian and says, by way of explanation -- my son, he has a Harley!

I just have one big grin watching this exchange. You rarely see such genuine appreciation for the similarities coming from other nationalities.

I have only one tiny little issue with Americans: I wish they wouldn't feel so compelled to always comment -- usually in negative ways -- about the service. I see it mostly in restaurants. We are a nation of eaters who like service. Wait staff that checks in on us. That scribbles their name on the paper table cloth. That asks if you want another refill just as you slug down the last sip of the one you had. Americans like that attentiveness. And they don't like it when the wait staff has a different approach elsewhere. But that's minor stuff. Americans in Europe are an obliging, friendly lot. And to prove my point, I ask the waiter this same question -- do you like American guests? Sure!  - he says. Not all, but mostly, yes, very much. Very friendly people.  So, another scientific survey with a sample of one!

One more walk toward the more crowded epicenter of the city...


...with a stop at the same ice cream store, this time sampling their pistachio...


...and I'm done.

At the train station now... So long Florence...


Hello train ride, with Italian music in my ear.

We approach Rignano sull'Arno and I see from the window that there is a bridge over the Arno here, too. That's tomorrow's task: to look at life here again, on both sides of the river.


It's cool tonight. Mid sixties at most. Still, I don't want to break my routine. I drop my backpack in my little studio and plunge into the (very unheated) pool.