Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Florence, Florentines & the Dalek invasion.

We decided to mark my birthday with an excursion to Florence. We travelled from Arezzo by rail getting the slow train by mistake. There must've been a station every 200 yards - or so it seemed - the fifty minute journey expanded into an hour and a half. It was nice to look past the industrial sprawl that litters the Arno Valley (fair enough, you can't put your factories in the mountains) and out to the hills, the fortified towns and villages and the lines of cypress trees thought of as classically Tuscan.

Having gorged on ancient art already, museums and the galleries were off the agenda. On the agenda was a visit to BM Books which bills itself as the original Florence outlet for literature in English. I was hoping to find some new titles I'd seen reviewed. I've read a fair bit of fiction lately which is unusual for me, but it was really only to substitute for the politics, polemics and philosophy I normally prefer. I read my first Italian novella recently Citta di Fango (City of Mud) set in Kabul, Afghanistan. It didn't present too much of a challenge and I think it was possibly written for the teenage/young adult market. I have no idea how it came into my possession. Anyhow, we were also going to have lunch at Dolce Vegan - a vegan pasticceria (patisserie) as I was thinking about reviewing it for The Tuscan magazine.

The usual queues for the Uffizzi and the Duomo snaked around the block - nobody it seemed, put off by the cold. The best entertainment was listening to visitors, especially the youngsters. The Ponte Vecchio was "rammed", as a young Australian satisyingly noted, the modern language and the old bridge making an interesting juxtaposition. An American girl holding court with her friends said, "I've been like studying and shit. I so like forgot what that was." She must've been all of 16! Another young American meeting her mother off the train, cheerily introduced her to Florence thus, "You'll love it here. Everything's like so renaissance", with "renaissance" stressed in the peculiar way that Americans do, exaggerating it's Francophone origins. By the way, did the young insert "so like" into every sentence before Friends blighted the airwaves?

BM Books was a delightful little place. Crammed to the rafters with English titles. I looked in vain for The Rational Optimist, Zombie Economics and The Worldly Philosophers. I suppose they are just too recent or too minority interest to have made it to these parts. Please feel free to send your old copies! The average Brit, would consider books here to be expensive. Since I'd just read Alan Bennett's Untold Stories, I settled on his Four Stories which is a slimmish volume for €16. Some of the difference is no doubt accounted for by import costs, but it's also because Italians insist that authors, publishers and distributors get properly paid. They take their literary culture seriously. http://www.bmbookshop.it/

I wonder if this is why book shops thrive in Italy? They are often open long hours and it is not unusual in the bigger towns and cities for them to open until midnight. I heard on Radio 4 Book Programme that Waterstones had closed 11 branches this year. Waterstones has dumbed down in recent years with the smaller branches adopting sections titled 'Celebrity Chef' and 'Richard & Judy Bookclub' instead of 'Politics', 'Medicine' etc. But in my old home town of Harrogate, it was the only choice. I suppose most people look no further than Amazon these days and the pleasure of a good book shop, run by people who actually read books and know their stuff is destined to become an anachronism. It doesn't look like book shops will go that way here. If I could just understand even a tenth of the stuff in them!

Dolce Vegan - Dogs Welcome
Dolce Vegan turned out to be fantastic. It would have given a Vienna patisserie a run for it's money. The display of cakes was simply amazing and I wouldn't mind betting that anyone who stumbled off the street wouldn't even realise that all it's wares are vegan. The Florentines looked gorgeous. The woman who runs it was chatty and welcoming and we noticed they were displaying our leaflets. It's in the old part of Florence, north of the centre. Ethnic food shops, young clothes designers, artisans and all manner of experimental businesses give the place buzz. I love this part of Florence.  http://www.dolcevegan.it/

The last blog entry was all about linguistic clangers so I must mention that it's important to distinguish carefully in one's mind between 'cinghiale' and 'ciliegia'. It's another instance of two words I mentally mix up. If one wants the torta ciliegia (cherry pie) don't ask for the wild boar, particularly not in a vegan establishment. A slight digression I know, but I wanted to share a technique I've developed to deal with these faux pas. Just completely deny speaking Italian in the first place! Even better, used successfully, the method leaves your interlocutor feeling steeped in lingusitic ignorance. Of course you must do this in Italian. "Sto parlando Esperanto" - I am speaking Esperanto. A word of warning - it's not 100% foolproof. Freakishly, the person on whom I tried it was a competant Esperanto speaker. What are the chances? It only occurred to me after I'd slunk away (steeped in moral turpitude) that it might have been a double bluff.

Swifly back to Florence and the florentines. Around here it's take for granted that sufficient explanation for anyone's foibles or oddities is that "they are from Florence". However, I recently discovered that one such person is in fact Neapolitan! Then the penny dropped. It's a remnant of old rivalries when many of tuscan hill-towns passed backwards and forwards between the city states. For example, Castiglion Fiorentino, a little way south of Arezzo, was once known as Castiglion Aretino. Apparently the inhabitants of such places took regime change in their stride and one can imagine the exchange across the yard, "What are we today Maria, Florentines or Sienese." Italy may have ben unified about one hundred and fifty years ago, but obviously old habits die hard.

Last few days.
The last few days have been bright and sunny but cool, perfect for landworks. Pruning and chopping, slicing and lopping. We deconstructed an old shed and recycled it into a compost store. We had a bramble bonfire. They burn fiercely like fine wire wool. It feels like revenge for the cuts and scratches I have endured. Brambles won't give up without a fight and I am still pulling thorns from various parts of my body. Moreover, everyone's at it. The hills are alive with the sound of chainsaws and the clanking of logs dragged by tractors. They have all the right gear. We've got secateurs. We had lunch outside on the swing seat today. A gargantuan salad with lollo rosso, ruccola, carrot, beetroot, olives, capers, white beans, toasted almonds, sweetcorn, bottled artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes. A creature not unlike a teradactyl flew overhead - it's shadow on the ground drawing our attention upwards. A low-flying military helicopter emerged noisly from behind a hill, it's rotars pummelled the air - thud, thud, thud. Hope it doesn't presage the Dalek invasion of Savorgnano. We took our mugs of tea and headed indoors.

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