A Grouch Abroad: An Idiosyncratic Report

  Jerome Shea       July 28, 2007      Weekend Wonk

(Being an account of the recent trip that Shea and Diana, his long-suffering wife, took to the city of Florence [the one in Italy]. Cosmopolitan readers will note that the perspective is American and somewhat provincial. You have a problem with that?)

Well…before we had even boarded our flight in Albuquerque they confiscated my Swiss Army knife. Yes, it was my fault, and the second knife I have lost to Homeland Security, but I take my bad omens where I find them. For my last sojourn abroad, in the early sixties, I crossed the water the civilized way, by ship (the France and the Queen Mary, if memory serves). This time we emplaned for Chicago, went thence by jumbo jet to Frankfurt, and then made the short hop across the Alps to Florence. We were in the company of our dear friends the “Crupnagels,” “Bruno” and “Gladys”* who had taken an apartment for almost a month; we would be their guests for the first week.

It is a cliché that flying is no fun anymore. It hasn’t been fun since shortly after they enclosed the cockpit and a nine-hour flight, people crammed together like cattle, is the distillation of no fun. I sat back and let my body atrophy painfully. I will spare you all the other details but one: well into the flight—perhaps over Ireland—a meal was served. Accompanying the meal was a full set of stainless steel cutlery! They had taken my knife in Albuquerque and now, at 36,000 feet, four hundred sleep-deprived people were duly armed! Bless the good folks of Lufthansa, where style evidently trumps security. There was also complimentary wine and brandy to stoke your Dutch courage in order to attack the SOB who had been kicking the back of your seat for six hours. Miraculously there was no violence.

But we made it. The Frankfurt airport does not appeal and the flight to Florence was late getting off, but we made it. And the apartment—the guest house of the “American Church” (St. James, Episcopal)—was more than one dare hope for: three bedrooms and baths, sitting room, kitchen, and foyer spread over three floors. Air-conditioning, fourteen-foot ceilings, old-world casement windows, and within walking distance of all of Florence that matters.

The grouch was softening. And after 12 hours of sleep he was a grouch no more, realizing that only through true suffering comes true joy. Remember when you were little and had got over a sickness and fever: that weak but good, light-headed, feeling you had? That’s what it was like when I awoke that first morning in Florence. I never thought I would have that delicious feeling in the middle of my seventh decade, but there it was. And there I was, with three wonderful people in a city beyond wonder.

And everybody spoke fluent Italian! Who would have guessed?

And how to begin?

Please indulge me: I need to talk about the cars (every American man is an American boy at heart). I could not believe the variety! Fiats and Seats, Peugeots and Renaults, VWs and Mercedes, Hondas and Toyotas, Alfas and Lancias. But that does not cover it, not at all. There were—I swear—about sixteen models of each, from tiny Mercedes to outsized, bulbous Fiats. There were even a few Skodas(!) to leaven the loaf, as if leavening were needed. My rubbernecking surely marked me as a rube, a Yankee yokel, but I could not help myself. When I thought I had seen it all, there were makes that, to my chagrin, I had never heard of (Irmscher? Tata?).

And, darting like dragonflies, like pilot fish, were the scooters and motorbikes, taking incredible chances with incredible nonchalance, spurting between buses and lampposts with centimeters to spare. Florence seemed to have no traffic laws, only seldom-heeded traffic suggestions.

One doesn’t need reminding that Florence has been around for many, many centuries. The haphazard streets—some barely a car’s-width—tell you that: no tidy grid plan here. And every few furlongs there is yet another plaza with yet another statue commemorating yet another civic achievement. Florence celebrates itself unashamedly. And with good reason.

It is also a city in constant repair. Here in the States we build for decades at best and tear down or simply abandon what no longer serves us (don’t start me on “big box litter”). But you don’t—praise God!—tear down the Duomo, you don’t walk away from Santa Croce, and you don’t raze the shops on the Ponte Vecchio to make it an efficient four lanes. So the ubiquitous city emblems are the scaffold and the free-standing crane. (When I lived in Switzerland many years ago, the Fribourg cathedral had been swathed in scaffolding for as long as the oldest burgher could remember.)

But surely, Gentle Reader, you did not expect me to cover this adventure in just one column! So I am going to leave you for a bit. You are in the Piazza Della Signoria, surrounded by yet more statuary and pigeons and Italians and tourists. The thermometer (Fahrenheit) is bumping up against triple digits. Your security wallet, inside your shirt, is resting on your belly like a warm blancmange.

But you are having your first gelato of the day (limone, I think) and you just can’t wipe that fond, foolish grin off your face. You are alive and you are in Florence.

See you next week. Ciao!

* Not their real names, of course, but I have always been bemused by the aliases people use when they write to Dear Abby (“My ex-husband, ‘Horst’”…where do they get these names and who do they think they’re kidding?).

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