Basically, what I’m trying to say is I had to stand there for a long time listening to their inane chatter and generally ignorant comments.
First the mother gets a phone call. To paint the picture, she’s your average overweight, Middle-American-looking woman—mousey brown, closely cropped hair, small gold-rimmed glasses, humdrum wardrobe. She picks up the phone and starts yammering away about where she and her daughter, who is with her, have visited so far—naturally, the Duomo, Galleria dell’Accademia, etc.—whether they were meeting these people or not tomorrow morning, etc. etc. all in an extremely loud and entitled voice. Then she and her daughter start arguing with each other about who’ll be paying for that night’s groceries. And then, “Oh, look it’s those cute Happy Hippo candies. Grandma would love one of them.” After discussing said item for several minutes, the mom gets irritated that she hasn’t been able to reach over an old Italian woman’s head to grab one yet and makes a comment about pushing her aside, hopefully jokingly. And this when they are still about five people from being at the front of the line. “You’ve got plenty of time, lady” was all I wanted to say.
But I didn’t, because I could tell they thought I was Italian! Which was absolutely hilarious. So I decided to keep my mouth shut. When I started packing up my groceries in the plastic bag I’d brought from my apartment, the mom made a comment about how they “bring their own bags here. We should do that next time.” (You have to pay for plastic bags in supermarkets in Italy.) Of course, tons of people could or should be bringing their own bags from home in the United States too… Maybe if the A&P started charging extra, they would…
Actually, ever since I got this newfangled haircut, a lot of people have mistakenly assumed I’m Italian. Also, I had to buy sneakers, and my new shoes are much classier than my ratty, beat-up, paint-covered ones from New Balance. Now when I walk into stores, I’m always greeted in Italian. Sadly, when I open my mouth and try to speak or hesitate and look confused for a bit, they quickly switch to English.
Personally, I believe one of the best feelings in the world is being mistaken for a native. In the spring of junior year I went to Québec with my French class, and myself and two others were wandering around the lower part of the city in the rain. I needed to find a pharmacy to buy contact solution. So I crafted the question in my head before walking into this small art gallery on the corner, and, after I’d asked, the woman answered me in rapid French. I was extremely proud.
I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night so I decided to get an espresso before the long haul that is video. I was meeting some people at four (class starts at six) to work on the homework—editing some sequences we filmed using the program Media 100, an alternative to Final Cut Pro. I went into one of the many small stores near the school that sell various food items, cigarettes, and coffee. Even after I’d said “ciao” and “espresso” they still spoke to me in Italian! I know those aren’t a full sentence, but it was exciting all the same. The downside was I wanted them to continue to believe I was Italian, so I didn’t ask for milk in my espresso. And since I don’t put sugar in my coffee, I drank a black espresso! Which was an experience in itself. That I’d rather not repeat. I mean, I might as well just inject caffeine in my veins like heroin.
Aside from my hairstyle and footwear, the more significant changes in my routine I’ve noticed are the various Italian mannerisms I adopt up as a means of assimilating into the local culture—drinking espresso instead of lattes, riding a bicycle through throngs of tourists, bringing my own bags to the supermarket, always making sure I’m impeccably dressed.
* * *
What I most love about Manhattan are the small details—break-dancers near Central Park, the man who plays the musical saw in the Times Square subway station, this guy named Lloyd Butler I met with Monica who explained the significance of the number combinations on the billboard in Union Square. Most cities lack that distinct brand of individuality—which is why Manhattan just happens to be one of my favorite places in the world.
But I’ve been witness to moments akin to these in Firenze. Tonight when I was walking home from video at nine p.m., I took my usual route in which I cut through the Piazza della Signoria. In the area behind a row of statues that includes copies of the “Rape of the Sabine Women” and “Jules and Holofernes” the shadow of a man was projected onto a wall. At first sight, he looked like he was fooling around and pretending to be a swordsman. Once I’d gotten close enough to see the actual man, I realized he was a painter doing a portrait of a woman in front of a large spotlight and brandishing his brush energetically.
Earlier in the day at an hour when the Piazza is overrun by tourists, I noticed a blonde woman taking a photo of a similarly blonde man pointing up into the sky. I assume they had set up some visual scenario involving the replica of Michelangelo’s David in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, which was immediately behind him. Manhattanites think they are familiar with the worst sort of pigeon; these people have clearly never been to Florence. Pigeons here are fearless; they have a Hitchcock’s “The Birds” quality. One of these pigeons decided to fly about three inches over the top of the man’s finger while his photo was being taken.
Speaking of Michelangelo’s David—yesterday morning when I was walking to Italian class, I noticed a set of small David figurines in the window of a store on the Via del Calzaiuoli. (Four vowels in a row! Holy mother of God! I didn’t think a word like that existed.) The visage of the David is everywhere, so the mere presence of copies of the statue in a store window is nothing to write home about. However, these figurines were enlarged versions¬—what David would look like if he were fat. I was trying to figure out why anyone would possibly want to buy or sell that sort of item, and I finally decided they’re meant to make insecure men feel better about themselves in comparison to the perfection that is Michelangelo’s David. Now Dario, my sculpture teacher, does not envy the David’s physique, rather he feels inept when he remembers Michelangelo sculpted said masterpiece at the age of fifteen. [EDIT: He was actually 26 when he sculpted the David.]
Now, speaking of Michelangelo, on Monday afternoon my sculpture class went on a field trip to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which houses the corner in which scholars believe the David was conceived. But that’s not what I want to write about.
At the top of the stairs to the second floor is a small circular room in which La Pietà di Michelangelo is situated inside a metal barrier. For those unfamiliar with this particular statue (not the famous one in Vatican City), it depicts Mary Magdalene, either Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimethea, and a third unfinished female figure holding up the body of Christ. Dario told us that Michelangelo tried to destroy the statue for religious reasons I cannot recall, so other sculptors finished and restored it in his place.
I love art. Obviously, or I wouldn’t be studying studio art in Firenze. But I’ve never seen a piece of art that stops me in my tracks and makes me feel a tidal wave of different emotions all at once. A sort of artistic transcendental moment, one might say. I am hugely fond of Monet, Degas, Cezanne, and various other impressionist painters, but I’ve only ever been able to appreciate their work; I’ve never been struck dumb by it.
The Pietà is different. Immediately after I first laid eyes on limp and bedraggled body of Christ, I felt I shouldn’t even speak in the presence of such a work of art. There was a woman sitting on a bench in the room. I’d had a feeling that she had been in front of the Pietà for quite some time and that she had no intention of leaving anytime soon. If I hadn’t had two hours left of class, I would have plopped down right next to her and joined in on the revelry.
Anyone who knows me well enough could tell you I have little regard for organized religion. In spite of all that, the story of Jesus has always moved me. When I hear or read it, I become intensely and painfully aware of his suffering. The sight of Jesus pinned to a cross has never stirred anything inside me. The image has become so common and is used inappropriately so often it has become cliché. Instead I found the image of Christ’s body lying limp in the arms of his followers to be much more powerful and to stir many of the same emotions as his disturbing story of betrayal and sacrifice.