An innocent abroad, Part Two

A young writer on a semester in Florence encounters enduring lessons in art and love. By Bill Barich.

Published December 22, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Our taxi speeds toward the center of Florence and the piazza where our college is located. We are late arrivals, bad students who have missed the school bus in Portovenere on account of wine, sunshine, Byron and Shelley. The director rolls his eyes at the sight of us. A fleshy, operatic man, he wears an ascot, leans on a walking stick and affects a British accent. Probably he has read too much Henry James.

Cynthia is still nervous, thinking she might be expelled, but there's no way. The college has already banked our tuition. Instead, the director reprimands us -- irresponsible behavior, detrimental to the group, blah blah blah. It's silly. In fact, my free-form education on the Continent is progressing nicely. In the last week, I've almost danced with a sailor in drag and almost made it with a hooker in Genoa. Who knows what I'll learn next?

In another room, Italian families are waiting. They will be our hosts for the next few months, taking us in as boarders. They're dressed in their church clothes and look uneasy about the deal they've struck. To invite an uncultured young American into your home is no laughing matter. It's best to lock up the jewelry and the majolica.

Cynthia is claimed, and so are Gregor and Jessica. Finally, the director summons me and introduces me to an elderly woman with bright blue eyes -- eyes that men must have fallen into, swooning, when she was younger. This is the marchesa. She has on a black dress shiny from wear, and her white hair is in a tight bun held fast with an elegant tortoise-shell comb. Her cheeks are round and rosy. She smiles at me in a serenely accepting way.

I am drawn to her immediately. Some people age with a special grace, without any bitterness, and the marchesa is among them. It's her smile that gets me. She can see right into my soul. Absurd, yes, but I'm certain of it. It can happen like that at a first meeting -- no barriers, no sense of opposition, a kind of purity. She knows I'm up to no good in Italy, but it doesn't faze her. What's youth for, if not for adventure?

I will bring her a dozen roses one day, and she will weep.

At twilight, we set out on foot for her flat. The marchesa limps a bit, favoring her left side. Still, she's cheerful. The walking is tough on me, though, what with a heavy suitcase on my shoulder. My feet are sore from the long taxi ride. I had Cynthia on my lap for hours, and she cut off the blood flow to my legs. How unfair! I've often wished for a woman on my lap, and when I get one it hurts.

It turns out the marchesa has fallen on hard times. Her flat occupies the ground floor of an old palazzo, where she has six cold, dark rooms hung with sun-bleached tapestries. Touch an armchair and you raise a cloud of dust. Ancestors in antique gilt frames loom large. They are brooding presences, distant and unfathomable. I can hear them whispering.

The marchesa calls for her family. They assemble in the parlor. Here's her son Aldo, a 40ish bureaucrat, who lives in the flat, too, along with his shy wife, Lucretia, and their son Giorgio, who's 13 and -- incredibly -- a baseball fan. He says to me, in perfect English, "Hello, sir. You are from New York. Tell me, please, how are the New York Yankees?"

I am thrown off-stride. The few responses I've mastered in Italian will not suffice. "Well, they need a starting pitcher if they hope to win the pennant next year," I say, also in English.

"And Mickey Mantle?"

"He's been injured. It's been a rough year for him."

Giorgio dashes to his bedroom and returns with his baseball glove, scuffed and ragged. He keeps the pocket soft by rubbing it with olive oil. It could be a sacred icon, by his tender caress.

We sit down to supper. The marchesa serves thin vegetable soup, chewy bread and a stringy piece of boiled beef, but not a drop of wine. Hardly anyone speaks, mostly because of Aldo. Frankly, he's a pain. He imposes order. He reminds me of the hawk-nosed Florentine merchants you see in paintings, bent over a pile of coins. My soul is a blank to him and always will be.

For dessert, there is a special chestnut pudding. It tastes awful to me, but I don't let on. Instead, I kiss my fingertips and sing its praises, a gesture for which I pay dearly. Soon chestnut pudding shows up on the table almost nightly, until the stuff is coming out my ears! Only Gregor suffers a worse fate. He lands in a house with a family that worships fennel, and they feed him endless plates of it over pasta, sautied, deep-fried or raw in salads. By the end of the semester, he stinks of anise.

Classes start. It is a torture. Every morning around 7, the marchesa raps on my door and asks, "Permesso?" Sometimes I am awake and dressed, but more often my head is buried under a pillow. She sets a plastic tray on my bureau, always the same -- a hard roll, butter, marmalade and a pot of strong coffee. Always, too, she is smiling. I envy her, really. I crave such equanimity myself, such a perfect balance on earth, but I fear I'll never gain it.

The streets teem with children in school uniforms. They tote books, they run in packs, they are adored by passing adults, who chuck them under the chin and pat them on the head. Kids are the true royalty in Florence, little princes and princesses whose every whim must be indulged. Childhood flies, after all. The madonna's glow? It comes from the glowing infant she clasps to her breast.

The traffic is intense. Diesel fumes, belching old buses, motorscooters that buzz like mosquitoes. I am forever dodging hellbent drivers and also soccer balls. The kids kick them back and forth, bouncing them off walls, cathedrals, monuments and cars. No surface is spared from serving as a temporary goal, even the statues in the piazza across from my college.

Our school building has many windows, and that's too bad. I spend my classroom time staring at the piazza and wishing I were out there, where real life is going on. I watch the ancients seated on benches, their bodies bundled in overcoats despite the autumn warmth. Leathery faces, a white stubble of whiskers, intricate debates over who remembers what, and why. The sun shines on bambini playing in the dirt. All the young mothers are beautiful, even when they're ugly.

The professors drone on. They have an amazing capacity to block out our snoring. It's tedious to listen to a packaged lecture on the Renaissance, when the Renaissance is alive outside. I touch it almost daily, in fact. San Marco is near my flat, and I go there and sit in awe before Fra Angelico's extraordinary frescoes. "The Mocking of Christ," "The Annunciation." He painted them from 1438 to 1445, but they could have been done yesterday. The frescoes are rich in emotion, in spirit, in longing -- a longing I am beginning to share.

What do I long for? I want to be part of a civilized world, not the kindergarten of America. A world where art, literature and music matter, where history is present and palpable. The old palaces in Florence, they alert me to how every human endeavor ends -- chipped, battered, in debris. It's not so bad. I can accept it. That's what I think at the moment, but I am still young and not yet on familiar terms with grief.

Daydreaming again. There's a song running through my head, one by Rita Pavone, a pint-sized belter from Torino, who's a teen sensation. She rules every jukebox in town and will be mentioned in a Pink Floyd lyric someday and even perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show." We hear Rita when we escape into a cafe after class -- un bicchiere di vino rosso, maybe a game of 8-ball if we can find a pool table.

In the cafes, we talk with astonishing energy. We cook up new theories about the nature of existence and advance arguments to celebrate our own brilliance. It's no use, though -- the Italian guys put us to shame.

How sophisticated they are as they linger for an eternity over a single aperitif, their jackets draped over their shoulders and their manicured hands free to punctuate their words! The only thing that interrupts their weary languor is a pretty woman passing by. Then they pant like dogs.

I've decided cigarettes are essential to the pose. Sartre, he's always pictured smoking, isn't he? Hanging out with that Simone de Beauvoir? It must be imperative for an intellectual to smoke, so I spring for a 10-pack of Nazionale con filtro and fire up a couple every day. My eyes water at first, and my throat gets raw. I have coughing fits, but I stick to the program, cancer be damned. Gradually, I do start to feel smarter, although I can produce no objective evidence to support those feelings.

A month goes by. The grapes are harvested, the Tuscan landscape flames with color. I buy a cheap bicycle and ride into the countryside. I ride along the turbid brown Arno and watch the men fishing with long poles. The rains come in November, but the days are often still sunny, if bitingly cold. I go to the Mercato Nuovo for a new wool sweater and rub the snout of Il Porcellino, the famous bronze boar, for good luck.

But things are changing, winding down. Cynthia has an Italian boyfriend, for instance. It's inevitable, really, since those guys will pursue an American blond to the ends of the earth. Guido isn't a bad sort, though, despite his enameled hair and open-necked shirts. He is a pacifist guitar player who lives in a ruined villa in the hills of Fiesole along with his mother and two brothers, one a Marxist and the other subtly and sweetly loony.

We all take the bus up for a visit one Saturday morning. Gregor sings to the other passengers. He's ripped, as usual, on the last of the dope he bought in Tangier. Guido's mother is in her garden, plucking bugs from plants and polishing off a big glass of Chianti. Blowsy yet seductive, the signora shows us around the villa. I have never seen such wreckage, but she doesn't mind it. At an old cistern, she pushes a few rocks into the water. Minutes later, they splash. She knocks stones from a retaining wall with a backhand swipe. Let it collapse, she appears to be saying. Collapsing is our fate.

She serves us lunch on a patio. Some prosciutto and cheese, more wine, fruit in a wicker basket. Guido strums Joan Baez folk songs while his Marxist brother offers criticism and correction. Politics in Italy are hopeless, a form of entertainment at best. Florentines care about the basics, good bread and olive oil, the closeness of family, the soul's ardor. Even the peasants can recite some Dante.

After our meal, the loony boy excuses himself to chase small birds through the ruins. He loves the game. Here's happiness on the wing! His laughter echoes as he runs down a hill, vanishing into a grove of olive trees.

I go for a walk with Jessica. I'm still awkward around her. She is intelligent, academic and forceful in her opinions. Also clever and witty. I am attracted to her mind, and that's a first for me. All my previous girlfriends have been cheerleaders. Thinking was not required of them (or of me), but now I've entered an epoch of discovery and am eager to share my epiphanies. Jessica is the designated muse, whether or not she wants to be.

I light a Nazionale, cough, and tell her how lately in the afternoon I've been sitting on the loggia in Piazza Signoria and writing in a notebook. It's pleasant now with the tourists gone. She doesn't blink, so I confess I'm writing poems. Terrible poems, to be sure, but the act makes me happy. Maybe that's my way of chasing birds, I say. Jessica could slash me to bits at any instant, but she doesn't. Instead, she listens. Soon we will be lovers.

By December, time has become my enemy. The days whip by, and I must face the distressing prospect of returning to my snowbound university in upstate New York. The idea makes me sweat at night, even in winter. I'm irritable around the flat, sick of Aldo and his clerkish routines. "Va via!" I want to shout. Get out of here, Aldo! The marchesa sees how upset I am and puts a chocolate bar on my breakfast tray.

Giorgio and I are still the best of pals, at least. He treats me as if I'm a weird older brother from a faraway planet, somebody who can handle a baseball bat and hit fly balls for fielding practice! That's a valuable talent in Florence, bankable even. A crowd gathers whenever we play catch outside, and I make peppy chatter and embarrass Giorgio by saying he'll be the next Joe Dimaggio.

I bring the marchesa a dozen roses, and she weeps.

The longing just gets worse! I skip classes to visit galleries and museums. I am devouring the paintings, swallowing the sculptures, storing up impressions to nourish me in the dark times ahead. The guards at the Uffizi know my face by now and nod to me on their silent rounds. Can they be laughing inside? Poor young American in love with art, he must return to the land of Norman Rockwell!

Gregor and I plan a farewell weekend. We lie to our families and say we're going to Rome by train. We go nowhere. We wallow in Florence instead, soaking up the city. We roam from cafe to cafe, we get drunk and sappy and find ourselves near Santa Croce, at a medieval open-air bar jammed with grotesques. They're pounding shots of grappa and eating roasted pig ears. We sleep both nights on park benches and wake covered with dew. Sunday, we climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo and watch the sun rise over red tile roofs.

Our city! we cry. Gregor sings to Florence, a lullaby.

Then there are the inevitable stupidities of term papers and exams. The hiss of radiators, those professors with hair sprouting from their noses. How can they issue us grades, when we've been studying the ineffable?

We throw a big party at the end of the semester, but it is a hollow affair. Gregor, in his wine-soaked beret, will head to Paris and try (but fail) to be a painter. Guido proposes to Cynthia, then he unproposes. She accuses him of being unreliable, a Romeo. In reply, Guido shrugs. Cynthia will wind up in San Francisco, hiding her hash pipe in the fine leather purse Guido bought for her on the Ponte Vecchio.

Jessica and I will travel together to Switzerland, Germany, France and England. We'll stop at many clubs and pubs and hammer many pinball machines, pretending we don't have to go home. Rita Pavone is still on every jukebox, no matter what country we visit.

But first I am in the piazza across from our college by myself -- one more time, taking stock. Church bells toll, pigeons flap, doves are cooing. The sky turns pink. At that moment, I should be writing in my notebook, "Youth fades, the loving memories endure," but I don't have the words yet. They are the traveler's final lesson, one that approaches with the speed of light, years after the fact.

By Bill Barich

Bill Barich is the author of numerous books, among them "Big Dreams: Into the Heart of California" and "The Sporting Life." He has written extensively for the New Yorker, as well as Playboy and Sports Illustrated. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow in fiction. Barich lives in Dublin, Ireland.

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