In Case of Firenze

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Banishing the Voices

See the mouths open before you finish telling them you’re going.

Watch the breath being drawn. Watch the lecture-on-the-brink fire their gazes:

(Here is what you should do. Here is what you must see. There’s where you’ll find the darling old couple who will cook you the Renaissance Special. This is the exact street and stall and name to ask for and what you must understand to the roots or you cannot possibly claim to know anything about it.)

(Here is what you must think and feel about this ancient, compressed dream of red-tiled roofs and mustard and rust, salmon pink ochre, cocoa, café crème, Roman archways showing through in patches, fading frescoes across marble. Chunks of felled columns. Seven bridges over a brown river boiling through town day and night throwing light; cold mist cloaking the air, palazzi aligned like tired dowagers reporting to duty. Dark, icy museums packed with dusty relics. Long, sorrowful windows, splintering shutters. Towers of mossed stone buttressed by a sea of Tuscan green; carved passages surging with anthill traffic, cavalcades of light.)

Listen to I envy you.

Followed by You have not lived unless you (—). You cannot comprehend the place, cannot be worthy of it, unless you (—).

Wonder why it must be this way.

Decide it has to do with stories we tell, with ownership, winning, first dibs. Curators of authentic life as opposed to artifice—those frayed, throwaway copies everywhere else.

Now: banish those voices to their own time zone.

Thank God you have no phone.

Let the voices fade as they call the place their second home, claim every speck of history, pageantry, secret rooms and hidden churches and elite villas and locked-away masterpieces in private passageways opened for ten minutes to three people once per year.

Run away.

You are free. Go out to the streets. Wade in.

Try to get lost.


The River

Take an apartment on the Arno in winter: very cold. The building’s old—every building’s old—seven hundred years. Hear all the plumbing. Hear voices echo in the cement stairwell. Once it was someone’s family palazzo: every building was someone’s palazzo. Rush to stare out each window. Stand hypnotized by the glittering river, color of mud if mud were a paste made of greenish stone, branches and debris rocketing along. See the silken light from the water shiver on your bedroom ceilings, walls, window frames, light the color of champagne: there it will bobble and shimmer all day.

Mark how the river swells in rain, seethes and rushes, browner with fresh mud, ragged lines of foam, seagulls diving above it, trying to snatch from each other whatever is fished up.

When the church bells start, decide it sounds like the end of a long and terrible war.



Start a mental list of categories. Long, pale, solemn. Dark and burning. Bone structures of models, statuary, old paintings, Julia Margaret Cameron photos. The gaunt storekeep, standard beige-red-black plaid scarf around his neck, poking his head out to peer down the Lungarno. The old woman in the red coat hunched forward, hands clasped behind as she advances like a bent bird. Notice how the eyes retreat, opaque as the river, freighted, blue-black arcs circling them like rainbows around the moon. Brown and fair, ghostly and private. Proud, wounded, preoccupied, in complicated haste. Discern how beauties of both sexes focus on the middle distance, as if to say Something’s needed. Something’s missing. Believe them.



Read Room with a View first thing, even though you read it long ago. Loathe it this time. Find it foppish, arrogant, a farce of archaic manners, the moneyed English as bumbling leaders pitying a crude, childlike, straw-specked peasantry. Feel ashamed of conquering cultures, especially your own. Feel sad about Forster, whom you’d once thought understood everything. He was only twenty-nine at the time, but still.



Find them homely, small and matted, cataract-blind, white-whiskered, half-mad. Feel baffled that a world of humans devotes itself tenderly to them. Feel badly about your own meanness—at home, you love dogs—but unable to stanch it because they’re crazy here; their eyes dull as murderers’. Watch them hurl themselves at the dividing glass in doorways and store windows, yelping like starved feral things. Notice them lunge at each other, leashed, roaring, to the point of hanging themselves when they pass each other. Watch their owners struggling to hold them apart, smiling and murmuring as if they find this display touching and rather marvelous, often dressing the dogs in sweaters, tee shirts, raincoats, ski jackets. See how beggars put wool caps on them and a cup for spare change beside them with a hand-lettered sign in Italian: I’m hungry, too.

Presume the bigger dogs are smarter because they are calmer—the occasional Newfoundland or St. Bernard in the Piazza della Signoria, the dignified retriever escorting a mother and two small sons. Assume these dogs feel pleased to dwell in a climate where fur is comfortable. Admire their fluent Italian.

Discover almost no cats. Feel unsurprised.

In the courtyard of the building next door, inspect the runty mutt allowed outside its apartment two or three times a day, so maddened by the implications of fresh air that it stands still, takes a few steps, and screams: a sound like an air-horn combined with a slaughtered animal’s bleat. Call the dog horrible names aloud. Invite it aloud, in X-rated language, to cease to exist. Review cinematic fantasies of cooking it for dinner.

Pay strict attention to the matter of feces, which appear daily on the sidewalks. Look away from your feet only at quick intervals. Thank heaven and fate and custom that the city hoses down its streets every morning.



Observe them day and night, in cold and rain and sun, young to late-middle-aged, all shapes, sizes, and styles, trotting through streets and parks in spandex and electronic earpieces, calling encouragement to each other: Eh, ragazzi, forza, forza!

Feel a moment’s envy. Then remember that walking all day (and half the night) is plenty.


Herds and Brigades

Face Japanese tour groups pouring like loud sand into every corridor of the city, moving in mobs, eating and photographing and nattering in mobs. Watch them trail each other for miles in anxious procession, as if in a Bergman film, expensive cameras garlanding necks and hands, dolls and stuffed animals tied to backpacks. Try to figure out why some of the women dress like 1920s flappers, or little girls. Lose interest. Notice that men and women wear surgical masks. Float the idea that for them no experience is real, no object exists, until photographed. Note that none interacts with the city or its features or denizens, except by camera. Watch them standing before a sculpture or painting, a flotilla of sprouted arms raising smartphones high as if in Fascistic salute.

Overhear someone say that the surgical masks are worn to keep from spreading germs to others. Process this as a mild revelation, but lapse back into sourness as each new mob rounds a corner, shouting, bearing down upon you.

Remind yourself that Americans exhibit all the above behaviors. Remind yourself that for that matter, Italians run in rampant herds and screech the roof off.

And yet.



Insist at the beginning that Italian food may be the most wonderful on earth because it is simple and fresh. Feel a corollary pang that because you walk all day, you can never eat enough.

Arrive at these descriptions: that an egg tastes like your earliest memory of egg. That chicken, if scrawny, explodes with flavor, skin crisp and crackling. That cheeses and salamis, hot roast pork piled in slices with a pinch of salt between two simple halves of bread, some of the crisp fatty skin left on deliberately—likewise pepperoni, prosciutto, pancetta, little quiche-like tarts of spinach or onion or carciofi—make you want to whimper. That pesto alla mamma explodes on the tongue. That fruit and vegetables sparkle and taste worlds better than their counterparts from even the most expensive food boutiques in America. Worship daily at the shrines of gleaming purple eggplant, carciofi eaten whole, broccoli, red onions, gleaming greens, giant peppers striped in rainbow hues, clementines, strawberries. Tomatoes like no others. Apples, blood oranges, pears tasting of honey.

Asked if an item is good, the fruitseller strokes her cheek once with a forefinger. It means: killer.

Learn quickly that restaurant meals present problems, because tourism forces them to make dismal adaptations: bored, weary staff, undistinguished food served in small amounts, sometimes cold, often absurdly expensive. Feel sluttishly willing to look past much of this because finocchiona, salami containing fennel, is to die for. Conclude that since markets spill with beautiful food at low cost, one must take home and cook every treasure: fish, meats, fowl, greens.

Fixate, dazed, on the gorgonzola in a small tub, doled out with a spatula; olives shining in multiple colors.

Note that market sellers are patient and gracious. Sometimes they sing.

Glimpse something flinty, just visible, flickering behind their patience.



Let your eyes follow gulls and geese sailing over the river. See them hover low, to fish. Do the same with flocks of starlings; the lone egret, a white treble clef against the brown banks; pigeons of every color and mannerism; ducks traveling in families, leaving a wide V on the river in their wake; blackbirds, street-tough, noisy, and skinny. A single gray heron, gliding upriver. Chickadees flutter and fight in the courtyard next door, hopping in and out of the tiny house built for them, chittering. It has holes for doors, a single red tile for its roof.

Wonder whether the birds sleep in the late afternoons—but no, look: there they are.



Notice the uniform: like Russian peasants, long velvet skirts, ski jackets, kerchiefs, socks with sandals. Begin to recognize them as individuals, each patrolling a zone. Perhaps the mayor or his henchmen, or the carabinieri or Polizia, have cut a deal with them. Notice that some of the beggars are men whose limbs are badly deformed or missing: the stump is held out casually before passers-by, naked to the seam, like a railroad crossing bar. Steer wide and shut down, as you’ve been taught: give no opening. Find it a miserable business and yet older than Job and somehow, in a way you cannot fathom or explain, necessary.


Inevitable Fellows

Rejoice that wine is friendly, inexpensive, ubiquitous. Accept that in most restaurants it is bad, but tolerably so. Exult in window after window of bottles, labels of great beauty displayed like family trophies in chianti shops and salumeria, tableaux of salamis and mountains of cheeses and flatbreads and gleaming focaccia and calzone. Celebrate wine’s brethren: handmade pasta. Pillows and sombreri of ravioli stuffed with carciofi, pecorino, pera. Pestos of brilliant green, but also red. Locate beer, frizzante, and prosecco, cold and diverse and cheap, in the tiniest alimentari. Until you graduate to grappa or hard spirits, find nothing offering a high alcohol percentage.

Grasp early that Italians are seldom seen publicly drunk.

That would be brutta figura.

Decide all this (exempting the bad wine) to be the blueprint for excellent life—until you are hung over.

Notice then, however, that even hangovers here feel less onerous than elsewhere. Notice that with the passage of hours, the hangover begins to cure itself.

Weigh the possibility that many Italians view the whole of life exactly this way.


Shop Windows

Wonder why shops are usually closed, their contents mysterious as Mary Poppins’s rounds. Itemize what you see: dusty, crumbling books, violins and mandolins, vases and dishes, forged bells, paintings from centuries-old flea markets, maps, inscrutable scientific instruments, decrepit birdcages, flags, buttons, globes, chess sets, rusting anchors, pulp paperbacks in multiple languages, bed frames, empty bottles, belts, sconces, trays, mirrors, cracked pages from old botanical texts of hand-tinted prints torn out and framed. Etchings and woodcuts. Bad art. Bad furniture. Exquisite art. Exquisite furniture, draped with insanely expensive tapestries. Chandelier crystals. Kitchen appliances. Living room sets. Faience. Crates of tarnished, unmatched jewelry. Gilt sculpture. Murano glass. Religious icons. Life-sized statuary. Broken toys, cheesecake photos, unclassifiable oggetti from the 1950s. Wooden clocks painted in garish designs, pendulums ticking away.

Fail to understand how the owners of these shops keep the businesses going. Reason that the property must have stayed in the owner’s family for generations: whatever powers could close it (if they wished) have been paid off.

Recall that this is how things roll here, though few speak of it.


The National Mystery

Marvel that almost no one in Italy owns a clothes dryer. Tell yourself you feel comforted by the sight of laundry flying like the national flag on pulleyed lines outside windows. Learn that wet clothes, during winter, must be draped on radiators and little, freestanding Tinker Toy contraptions inside every building. At first fancy this charming, la vie de bohème. Soon find it a supersonic pain in the ass. Note that things take three, four, five days to dry—sometimes never—that towels grow mildewed; window glass sticky with steam; mosquitoes bloated and whirring at your ear all night.

Watch mold blossom across walls.



Size up the formal options: espresso from a thimble (tossed back like a tequila shot) or a munchkin-cup of Americano (espresso with hot water) or cappuccino (hot milk added). Nescafe machines in hotel lobbies produce a muddy, bitter liquid. Know beforehand that Starbucks maintains no presence in Italy. Remember an online statement from Starbucks founder, ruffly with romantic arabesques, about not wishing to interfere with the glory of Italian coffee traditions. Feel amused that Starbucks suffers no second thoughts about interfering with the glory of French or Spanish or Irish or German coffee traditions.

Understand that Starbucks refuses (thus far) to pay off Italian gatekeepers. Suspect that the pressure, from both sides, is building.


First, Wash the Glass

Summon the rental agency rep to solve several problems: patches of fuzzy blue mold snaking across several walls. The oven does not work. One-third of the sliding plastic shower door panels repeatedly falls off. Several lightbulbs have died.

Greet the husband of the agency proprietor, Alberto. He is gentle and courtly, fair-skinned, salt and pepper crew-cut, sweater and jeans, modest build. An Italian Fred Rogers: soft, attentive, his English better than your Italian. He shows you how to work the dials to activate the oven. He peers into the oven’s maw, which of course you have not yet touched.

Then he faces you and says evenly: But before you can use the oven you must clean it first. And you must clean it very well, so no soap will burn.

Stare at him. After a moment, gently explain your understanding that everything in a rented place will be clean and ready to use upon arrival.

Watch Alberto’s face drain and fall: an expression of gravity and deepest sadness.

You have made a brutta figura. Alberto tries to clarify to the benighted foreigner.

Here in Florence, he begins, with visibly mustered patience, it’s never certain how well a previous tenant will clean. His face brightens with an illustrative example. If I, Alberto, come to a new place, and I want a glass of water—here he pauses, watching you carefully—first, I wash the glass.

Stare, alongside your husband, at Alberto. By telepathic agreement, choose to say nothing. How can you destroy the bella figura Alberto is giving his heart in attempting to make?

Alberto asks you to pay for the replacement light bulbs.

In a spasm of largesse, he buys you a can of oven-cleaner and sponges.

Put them under the sink.

Take them out later to paw at the fuzzy blue mold.


Behind the Spectacle

Conclude that the late Luigi Barzini, in his incomparable study The Italians, is the only writer who correctly explains Italian culture and character.

Recognize—through Barzini—that Italians are a sad, embattled lot with an excruciating history. The Church, past wars, a series of disastrous governments, and The Family, followed by organized crime, have ruled them forever. The need to create a bella figura, a beautiful spectacle or show to console, distract, and entertain, works to a degree (and initially dazzles the visitor).

Recognize that behind the glittery curtain lurks a labyrinth of punishing corruption, want, resignation, porkbarreling, favoritism. Those who work are bled by taxes and by religious and mob-related tithing: the rest savor obscene, buffered wealth.

See it in the exhausted gazes of the market sellers, grocers, concierges, and wait staff; in the drawn, laconic faces of clerks and docents; the very elderly being walked by their grown children on Sundays; the grown children themselves; tellers in train station windows.

Life is fuckin’ hard here, yells one black man selling worthless packets of tissue in the Mercado Ambrogio (where the fabulous meats, cheeses, fish, pestos, breads and desserts, and limitless delicacies are also sold).

Remind yourself of what a local friend declared—that all Italians talk about is when Germany will step in to run things.

Murmur to yourself, vaguely ashamed: But the pleasures are real.

Answer yourself at once: Only if you can pay for them.

Crave Barzini’s voice like that of a trusted, tired, wise but hapless father. Be struck by how, above all, Barzini is very sad.

Admire that Barzini does not apologize for his countrymen. He loves them. He grieves for them. He will not cover for them.

Some habits, traits, tendencies, and practices are unmistakably our own. We call them cose all’italiana. . . . a gratuitous beau geste, a shabby subterfuge, an ingenious deception, a brilliant improvisation, an intricate stratagem, a particular act of bravery or villainy, a spectacular performance. [These] can happen only in Italy. . . . They clearly determined the course of the past events. They will surely determine the future. Perhaps there is no escape for us. And it is this feeling of being trapped within the inflexible limits of national inclinations which gives Italian life, under the brilliant and vivacious surface, its fundamentally bitter, disenchanted, melancholic quality.

Admit that however confounding, there is palpable charm in Barzini’s fatalism—and in that of almost everyone here.

Upon finishing this superb yet mercurial book, realize that you cannot clearly describe it to yourself or to anybody else.

Start the book again the moment you finish it.


Reprise the Domestic

Alberto has managed to install a cable box that he assures you will allow your husband to watch soccer. Pay Alberto the requested 50 euro for this service. Thank him elaborately.

Feel amazed as he seizes your hand and kisses it.

Feel less amazed when no soccer appears the first time your husband tries it. The television screen requests special payment to an 800 number.

Feel still less amazed when one February night, the hot water and heat stop. Touch the radiators in the freezing morning: corpse-cold. Take icy showers, howling, in a frigid apartment. Climb into long johns and send emergency email to the agency.

Read the agency owner’s apology: the problem “must be the boiler.” Assume she means the mini–water heater, what the British call a geyser, in a small utility closet. Hope that someone other than Alberto will come.

Alberto arrives.

Stand at the open door as he strides past you, declaring it is two minutes to fix, very simple. Wait while he goes into the closet and twists a couple of knobs. Slowly, the water warms.

Thank Alberto. Ask whether the problem is your fault, whether you yourself can fix it. Feel slightly vindicated when Alberto tells you the problem is not your fault. Feel unreassured when he says it is too dangerous for you to handle, that he is almost sure it will not happen again for the rest of your stay—

But that it might.

But he lives nearby, he adds cheerfully, and can therefore always come fix it.

Alberto takes your icy hands. He pantomimes blowing on them to warm them, and grins.

He asks, still smiling and holding your hands, whether your husband is enjoying the television soccer.



One morning after you step from the shower, discern a sound like the droning of a bee swarm coming from the air vent.

Listen carefully. The sound also resembles the song of a Native American war dance, taking quick inhalations and droning on with a little push of intensity.

Someone above you is chanting. Many someones, in neverending rounds.

Your neighbors seem mainly to be old Italian women who pant as they labor up and down the stairs. But just once, on the stairs, you glimpsed a small, slender Asian man of early middle age.

Decide he is the chanter. Maybe the other voices are recorded. At least the chanter does not pursue his passion late at night. (He does pursue it early some mornings.) Feel relieved that no bee swarm lives in the walls. Reflect that the chanting may somehow act in an anodyne way, help detoxify the building, the city, the world.

Wonder what the chanter does with his life when he is not chanting. Whom or what does the chanter love, besides the Buddha, or the infinite chain of being? Has he renounced conventional pastimes?

Assume that his is one of the million screened-off stories of Firenze, like the courtyards hidden away off the street, that you only glimpse as someone is shutting the tall wooden door upon them while you pass.


Italian logic

The dishwasher has broken. It’s a very old model. You’ve used it just twice, in strict accordance with Alberto’s instruction.

Alberto arrives to explain that the agency must charge you to repair the machine.

Feel your stomach drop. Try again to explain your understanding of rental agreements. No, no: Alberto holds up his hands. It does not work that way here. Here in Italy, he says, it is as if the tenant owns the building.

After surges of discussion at accelerating volume, feel quasi-relief that the agency agrees to share the repair bill with you. Watch the old dishwasher be removed by workmen. Have no faith that you will see it again. The kitchen floor is covered with water.

Alberto wags a finger at you before he leaves, winking.

You are very lucky, he says.


Eternity in a Teacup

Review the places you have walked in silent awe: the bridges, towers, cathedrals, and quilted countryside, ageless hilltop retreats whose names shimmer in and out of existence.

Stand at the highest lookout point from the Boboli Gardens, red-roofed splendor flung in all directions, olive groves, cypress, castles on the horizon.

Read Brunelleschi’s Dome. Feel unbearably moved by what it took to build the great jewel at the city’s heart.

Walk again through the Bargello, the Uffizi, the Accademia, the Strozzi. Stand before Botticelli, Masaccio, Caravaggio—before the David, white god, testament of infinite tenderness. Walk around him. Pinch back tears. Notice that the pupils of the David’s eyes are small holes carved in the shape of plump hearts.

Wander into churches filled with frescoes whose colors seem washed by dreams, into the perfect, small coliseum at Fiesole.

Think: my eyes saw this.

Remind yourself how quickly mortal eyes come and go.

Feel time expand and collapse, like lungs.


In the Stone Streets

Give coins to the saxophonist, the cellist, the Django Reinhardt–style  jazz trio. Wonder how these artists eat. Crave the music like food. Marvel at such sound in stone quarters where other, ancient, unspeakable things played out.


The Basta Moment

As days give over, still rain-drenched and cold well into April—crowds in the streets growing larger, longer, rowdier—be unable to ignore the creeping reversal.

After Rome, Venice, Sorrento, Assisi, Perugia, Siena, San Gimignano, Bologna—realize there’s a template for city and town.

And with it, inescapably, a queer desolation. A sense of entrapment.

Reflect: there is always, in setting out, the dream of the thing. In time, there is but the thing itself. Two worlds.

David Leavitt, in Florence: A Delicate Case, got it right. Generations of Forsterian pilgrims—the young Forster himself—sought “to satisfy in Florence some elusive idea of personal fulfillment with which the city’s reputation has always been bound up.”

But ultimately, Leavitt observes, that “mirage of fulfillment. . . retreat[s] into the distance, and the paradise of exiles reveal[s] itself for what it really [is]: the most elegant, interesting and comfortable of prisons.”

Allow that this must surely prove true elsewhere—and yet—

Consider that what had at first seemed the perfect scale for a city now feels cramped and lurid, smelling of Nutella and sugary fried foods, as though you’ve been camping in the middle of a circus or state fair. Feel sad that more and more Fiorentini must live elsewhere, renting or selling their homes and apartments to foreign visitors. Sadly agree with local comparisons of Firenze to the city of Venice, which is no longer a civic community but purely, irreparably, a theme park. Employees flee at closing time. Understand you’re part of the reason for this. Understand with more sadness that the alternative—desertion, fundlessness, ruin—is no more commendable.

Notice that the Arno is filthy. Plastic bags and other debris catch and eddy along its banks. Feel drained by stone; by hordes of gabbling tourists jamming every passageway while stuffing food into their mouths; by the repeating jewelry and scarves and chocolate and leather bags and restaurant menus like a looping film scrim. Feel suddenly inured to doorways filled with salamis and cheeses and bottles of chianti, to false pleasantries with salespeople. Feel no kinship with the fact that fifty thousand scholars inhabit the city at any given moment. Care little to know that if you spit, you’ll hit an art historian or someone who speaks four languages. Wish never to hear another whining Vespa or see another forbearing Madonna or mortified Christ. Feel little guilt about this. Long for Indian or Chinese or Mexican food. Long for good water pressure, for stark, dry horizons, for mesquite and eucalyptus.

Feel sullen, restless. Spend too much time online. Drink too much coffee. Stalk from room to room aligning objects. Feel unappeased, inchoate.

Start to think you hear the chanters, sotto voce, day and night.

Give no spare change to street musicians anymore. Their excellence makes it worse. Storm past them without looking.

Make lists on slips of paper. Sweep. Laundry. Toilet paper. Drano. Cookies / Whatever. Stuff the papers in your pockets. Lose them.

Drink too much wine.

Commence round after round of push-ups and sit-ups each morning. Stare out at the Arno afterward, breathing hard.

Start recognizing waiters and hostesses from trattorias where you’ve eaten, as they pass you on the street. They are thin, smoking, hurrying away: furtive and spent like actors who’ve dropped character, hastening from the stage. Wish you hadn’t seen this.

Announce yourself sick unto death of draping clothing and towels and linens over radiators and furniture for days on end. Despise the useless radiators. Start to pay 4 euro per half-hour for dryers at the tiny laundromat around the corner. Lug giant sacks of clothing and bedding to and fro, cursing as clean underwear falls to the street.

Fret that Alberto’s agency will charge you for the gummy shower door propped against the wall, for the blue mold, the uncleaned oven. Hate it when the mosquito you smash bursts with fresh red blood. Fester over the fact that Italian detergents don’t seem to understand their purpose, consisting mainly of perfume. Clean the bathroom with Maestro Lindo and note that the room smells like 1952 department-store cologne.

Develop terrible trouble sleeping. Have nightmares. Wake sweating at 3:00 a.m., fanning off the mosquito at your ear. Feel alarm at how your heart pounds. Blame the wine. Find yourself unable to stop thinking of everyone you’ve ever known and everything that ever happened. Stand at the window at dawn and look at the glittering water, the thousand-year-old San Niccolò tower.

Toss and toss in bed, like a fast-forward film. Give up at 6:00. Go to the computer and stare at American life: its big cars and big bodies; its white teeth, braying slogans and bromides, backward baseball caps and flip-flops; its relentless, hypercaffeinated cheer.

Get into the shower as the church bells start.

Feel unmoved by the bells. Sense that the bells now mock you.

Notice the blue mold has sprung back twice as prolific in the kitchen like a merry pox, blooming exactly where you’d cleaned as if nourished by the cleaning fluid.


A Time to Every Purpose

Commence, at last, the countdown to leaving.

Feel complicatedly relieved. Start packing early. Miss—vulgarly—your gym, fresh, dry clothing, objects on familiar shelves. Miss wide streets, modern art, barbecue and gigantic salads, craft beer, the library, swimming, rented movies, cheap drugstores, autonomy, a decent sleep, late summer nights, crickets, pine-spiced air of redwoods, dry golden hills.

The sharp, saline smell of the northern California seacoast.

Miss American English.

Miss a round, rising sense of possibility.

Recall that it was exactly this quality you’d vowed to nurture in Italy.

Feel ashamed.

Recall Shirley Hazzard’s words:

One needs leisure; one needs imagination. And something more: vulnerability. Vulnerability to time interleaved; to experiences not accessible to our prompt classifications, and to the impenetrable phenomenon of place, which no one, to my knowledge, has ever explained.

Repledge allegiance to those words, and to Henry James’s injunction—to be someone on whom nothing is lost.

Understand you will fail spectacularly at this.

Resolve it anyway.

Wake in mid-April, with no prelude, to a hot sun in a clear sky.

See the city fan out in light: ochre, salmon, cream, pink marble, surfaces dusted with gold.

Feel your face open. Recollect Keats’s maxim, that beauty is truth.

One truth, anyway.

Truth enough.

Wade into the streets. The wind is soft. Breathe beneath the sun.

Try to get lost.




Wednesday, January 15, 2014