Letter from Italy

I have this image in my mind of saying goodbye to someone on a river, maybe on the Arno in Florence, on a bridge, maybe the Santa Trinita Bridge, that would do, that would be a good bridge, and I can see the sky, a bluish color, you’ve seen a sky at dusk when it’s bluish,  you know how good it looks.

I’m not sure why the image of saying goodbye to someone comes up. Maybe because I feel I have said goodbye to so many people. There is a big goodbye hanging over me. Like a constant goodbye. Like I should walk around with a big Goodbye sign on me because so many people are now missing from my life, and so much is unfamiliar.

But I love what is unfamiliar. Today for the second time we drove up to Monte San Savino to this little joint that serves lunch but were late for lunch so he made Norma a sandwich and I had a pastry and espresso and aqua frizzante and she had a glass of wine. And then I was antsy. So we walked into that building with a courtyard and then out back is this garden. Sheesh. I’m not Mary McCarthy, you realize. I’m reading The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed and man she is some writer that Mary McCarthy.

So if I were in a conversation with someone and I said, I have this image in my head of saying goodbye to someone on a bridge, and the bridge is over the Arno in Florence and the bridge is the Santa Trinita Bridge that got blown up in WWII and then put back together, and on one side is the Spini Feroni Palace where Salvatore Farragamo has his shoe store and museum, and on the other side is the Harold Acton Library of the British Institute, and somehow that bridge has a hold on me. I stopped there last week and watched a Japanese couple have their wedding photos taken; the bride’s train was 15 feet long and the photo assistant was holding it out and letting it fly in the wind. I photographed it just like everybody else.

Being in Florence feels like a political act but I doubt that it looks like a political act because it is a small, personal act, an act of personal and political necessity, a quiet statement, an act of removal. It is also  the joy of knowing this:  We wanted to, and we did! Driving into the mountains this afternoon, looking across the Valdichiana as the sun came down, we look at each other and we share this knowledge that: We wanted to, and we did. We just took off, like in the middle of the night, and now all the things that were abrading our souls, that were slowly killing us, those things are left behind.

But what of this image of saying goodbye to someone? It is as if a constant goodbye is going on, all the people we used to see that we do not see: We are lonely, there is no doubt about that. Well, I am, anyway. Norma has been swept up by the Castiglionese. Me I think frankly they can take or leave but she has been swept up by the town. Me, I’m the guy who just came here to slow down and stay home and write.

Anyway, I think about this image of the bridge. If I were in therapy maybe the therapist would persuade me to talk about the feelings behind it. And I would do so and probably find something out that you’d think would be totally obvious.

Buried in it is my deep, awful, dispirited feeling about what has happened to America, and what has happened to San Francisco.

On not taking pictures of extravagantly beautiful things, or Florence: Day 3

Is it the restraint of love? Is it reverence? Amid the effervescent joy of buildings that look like music; the muscular formality of a 50-foot-high gate on an ancient wall; the fleeting intoxication of wafting jasmine: Why, exactly, amid these things, do I feel the contrary impulses to stop and snap an iPhoto yet  not snap an iPhoto?

It’s reverence is what it is, no? Reverential surrender so deep snapping a photo would be like naming a nameless God or stealing a soul.

You just plain want the beauty of Florence and that’s enough. Forget the illusion that it can be taken home in a doggy bag. Just want to be here among the Hard Rock Cafe and New York City T-shirts worn by Italians that make sense when worn by Italians. Just want to be here in the shadows of the Italianate style. Just want to stand in the shadow of a medieval gate and imagine its closing in an evening.

Outside our window at the Pensione Crocini a bone-colored awning shimmers in the breeze through ancient wavy glass, looking like nothing so much as a pixellated screen momentarily frozen: emblem of colliding worlds.

OK and lemme say this, too, vis a vis distilling rules from beauty: three stories is the right number of stories for a building and its windows. Three three three three three. All up and down the Arno, buildings face the river and they all have three stories: It’s a river of architectural rules that could be spelled out like this: If you have a river, put some buildings along it. Make the buildings similar enough that there is harmony on the river, yet different enough that there is variation. Color them in shades of earthy amber, sandstone, mustard and salmon; place clay tiles on the roofs; make pale bone and white awnings that ruffle in the breeze off the river. In the distance place a tower with a crenelated wall at the top from which cannons might be shot. Put the whole thing in early spring and make the temperature between 68 and 74 degrees F. Put puffy white cumulus clouds in a blue sky and add the sound of children playing and Vespas whizzing over the Ponte Vecchio.

Tomorrow: to Le Santucce to meet folks and for three weeks spend time dreaming aloud.

p.s. I didn’t take any pictures for the aforementioned reasons i.e. some kind of scrupulosity born of profound reverence. Tomorrow however before we leave it may be different. I said to Norma on our walk today that I’m not taking pictures because you’re just going to have to take my word for it: We were here, it was beautiful beyond all imaginings and beyond all iPhoto renderings and we will leave it behind tomorrow but it will be here for you later, should you come, any time at all, until the inevitable catastrophe of time erases it all but we’ll be gone then too, all of us, won’t we?

In Florence. Italianate facades. Espresso on Magenta and Corso Italia and a boy with a harmonica

Kids are beautiful in cities. They ain’t been ground up yet. There’s harmonicas. After grueling San Francisco-Paris-Florence flight we ride the tiny Pensione Crocini elevator to the tall windows on the courtyard, wash, nap, then espresso at the cafe and luxuriating in the beautiful visual rhythm of the Italianate style, the beautiful rhythm of spring on the Arno, which is rushing past the American Consulate now with the heavy spring rains (spotty snow still on the Alps as we flew from Paris), art students in retro ’80s T-shirts and Deloitte employees in white shirts and black ties on motos, and the carabarini with their carbines guarding the embassy down Corso Italia a block from the Arno, golden buildings in blue light, our tiny cage elevator with the seat where the operator used to sit, our courtyard with the magnolia tree in flower, the salmon-colored apartment block sprouting satellite antennas and bedsheets drying in the warm May air and laundry and awnings and the ubiquitous shutters. A city like a painting, pretty in its particulars, well composed, holding together, yielding up its treasure as long as one cares to keep looking, flowing past on bicycles and Maseratis and scooters. Three euros for two espressos at a red metal table under an awning in the breeze off the river. High walls. High fashion. Mysteries behind towering doors.

Saturday we meet Janet Shepard and Joya Cory and her husband Richard here at the Crocini and Sunday we take the train south from Florence to Castiglion Fiorentino and start the first of two nine-day writing workshops at the Le Santucce residence, looking forward to seeing our hosts Alfeo and Miranda and Luisella and Luca .