Sunday, April 20, 2008

12 April 2008

Firenze is not a perfect city. Nor is SACI a perfect program. I have multifarious complaints about both—too much pollution, not enough trees, utter lack of privacy, and Bruno Spinazzola. I apologize for inserting that last one in there without having any intention whatsoever to explain, but I’ve gone on so much about video to people here that I’m even fed up with complaining about it.

So it wasn’t until this afternoon that I realized I’m legitimately going to miss this city. And not for reasons you would expect—friends, the dark room, being able to take the train to Rome and back in the space of a day, gelato. But because, like every place you live for an extended period of time, Firenze has begun to feel like home.

On Friday afternoon Libby and I met at the gelateria Grom, our usual haunt—I ordered one of my two favorite combinations: Gianduja and Stracciatella—walked over to the bus stop next to the Duomo, hopped on the 14, and went to Jamie’s apartment for dinner. We watched the second half of the Colin Firth version of Pride & Prejudice (starting from Mr. Darcy’s first proposal), and at 11 o’clock slouched through the pouring rain to the bus stop and returned to our respective apartments.

* * *

I have places I frequent regularly, a female baker I stop to talk to for several minutes before returning to class (usually photography, sometimes sculpture) with quattro bianco e nero biscotti, a barista who knows my order by heart (un cappuccino da portare via), grocery stores and a favorite brand of yogurt (Müller, specifically blackberry and raspberry), friends who live in nearby apartments, public transportation I’m familiar with, shortcuts and routes, meeting places.

I know how to talk to locals and shopkeepers, where to buy bus tickets, how and when I can ride a bus sans ticket (at night, and by re-stamping a previously validated ticket—don’t worry, I’m not turning into a hooligan, sometimes I just get caught late at night without a biglietto, and no tabacchi are open in which to buy a new one). I know where to find a smidgen of peace and quiet when I desperately need some.

And suddenly, just as I’m beginning to pull together the semblance of a life here, it’s time to return to my real home. I honestly can’t tell you exactly how I feel about that. Which is perhaps why I’ve been having such a horrific time falling asleep for the past week.

* * *

I will not, however, miss the burgeoning mosquito population.

* * *

The final photography project is due this Thursday. As of right now, I have printed 17 photographs. I’ve reserved my enlarger (numero sei) for six hours this weekend and for two and a half hours Monday night.

I canned the environmental idea.

Instead, last Saturday, my camera and I traveled to the Parco Della Maremma near Grosseto, a lovely, small town by the Mediterranean. Jacopo helped me find a place to stay—he and his wife have friends who conveniently live virtually in the park and who also conveniently rent out rooms for reasonable rates. (That alliteration was completely coincidental. As was that one.)

When I arrived at the bus station, Paola, a five-foot-tall woman with black, plastic-framed glasses and reddish-brown hair, greeted me in a mixture of English and Italian. I had been under the impression that I’d be speaking Italian for the entire weekend (as had my roommate Sarah, who has yet to be disabused of this notion). Apparently Paola had also been searching for someone on which to practice her English. Thus began two days of me talking in broken Italian and my host responding in broken English. Eventually she took to walking around with a sizeable dictionary labeled “Inglese”.

The drive up to the house, a beautiful white building covered in vines and ornamented with traditional black shutters, was a dirt road littered with rocks and lined with trees. A wooden fence enclosed a backyard filled with children’s toys and clotheslines laden with recently washed laundry.

I clambered out of the Fiat weighed down by my purse, my schoolbag crammed with clothing and toiletries as opposed to its usual load of books, and, of course, my camera. Their daughter, Bianca, was playing in the yard, and she scampered back into the house upon my arrival.

After I put my bags down in the playroom (which, at the time, I mistakenly thought was where I would be sleeping), my hosts served me a delicious lunch, including a cabbage dish that was one of the only, if not the only, cabbage dish I’ve ever truly enjoyed.

Before it was time for dessert, I told Paola and Roberto (the husband) I was going out with my camera. They seemed flabbergasted by the idea of not eating some biscotti a mezzogiorno, but I rarely have dessert after lunch. So, before they themselves delved into their panforte and biscotti, Paola and Bianca walked me to the first little marsh (which was both extremely kind and unexpected, I expected something along the lines of a finger pointing off into the distance for guidance) and returned to the house, leaving me, at last, alone with my thoughts and nature.

* * *

Much of what I did and how I felt and what I wrote about are extremely personal, and I apologize for not planning to include some of the more interesting thoughts that occurred to me that afternoon.

The weather was perfect. I couldn’t have asked for a better day. A light breeze, a smattering of clouds, just enough sun. Birds calling to one another above me. I stopped to write in my journal after I finished my first roll of film. Sitting on an abandoned pile of bricks out of which weeds and flowers were growing, I was surrounded by ancient, thoroughly rusted, farm equipment.

As always at these moments, I thought about nature’s eventual victory over man. What’s odd is that, unlike the majority of my fellow human beings, I find a sort of solace in the idea that nothing would miss our species if it were to disappear from the earth. Human beings are but one of millions of species, and this notion that we are somehow superior to all other living things is but a fool’s attempt to justify his existence. I do not believe I am any more important than the two snowshoe hare and the dog in pursuit I saw at the park simply because I can think about past, present, and future, feel emotions I can define, and sing and dance and write and read.

But I digress. I did not intend to lecture my readers on the meaning of existence and to try to convince them that we are all insignificant in the face of life, the universe, and everything. This is only what I believe; I don’t want to force others to see the world as I do.

For the most part, I wrote about how much more stable my hands are now when taking photos at slower shutter speeds (1/30, 1/15) than they used to be.

* * *

Thirty minutes, several forays into the mud, and much ankle twisting later, I finally arrived at the beach. The translucent blue ocean sparkled, the sand was a pure white, and the wind blew around the wispy plants scattered amongst the dunes. The hour was four, so after I took several photographs, I curled up on the sand with my black fleece over my face and my camera looped around my wrist and tucked between my arm and stomach, and rested for a good long time. And I was wonderfully, wonderfully… wonderfully alone. (Five U.S. dollars to anyone who can specifically identify that reference.)

* * *

I slowly made my way back to the house, stopping constantly to bushwhack, to photograph, and to write. It was with a touch of sadness that I stepped once more through the side door.

But good things waited for me there. Paola and Roberto have Bianca and another child, 22-month-old Francesco, who had been dropped off at lunchtime by their nonno (grandfather). If there is one part of my life back home that I miss most dearly, it may be being around children—when babysitting, volunteering, whatever.

Francesco was an extremely curious little boy, and he took a liking to me immediately. Probably because I made lots of faces at him during that first lunch. He loved moving things around the kitchen table—his glass, several napkins, a soup bowl, a carton of whole milk—and scaring his mother in the process. During lunch on Sunday he tried to escape from his mother’s arms, and when she asked him where he was going, he said, “La,” and pointed at me. She then explained to him that I was returning to Firenze in a few hours, and he became visibly upset.

Bianca was initially more reserved, but once she became comfortable with me, she began to talk avidly in that extremely dear five-year-old way that is hard to explain but easy to identify. She would talk on and on about school and her friends to her mother, all in Italian of course. When we were going to the beach for a bit before my bus was to leave, she asked her mother if she could lead me to the car, and she took my hand and led me around the house to their little white Fiat.

Sitting on the sand, facing away from the sun and the water, I carefully observed Paola with Bianca and Francesco. An idea that had been unconsciously brewing for the past 24 hours came to the forefront of my mind—next time I live in Italy, if there is a next time, I would like to be an au pair for a family that lives in the country. If Paola and Roberto were interested, I’d love to work for them.

Friday, April 4, 2008

30 March 2008

It’s high season. Every morning when I walk to school I pass through the Piazza della Signoria. At the beginning of the semester, the square was practically deserted; now it almost always contains a verifiable herd of people—tour groups blindly follow a guide holding a flag or fake flower aloft, numerous tourists stop at each sight and hold a digital camera six inches away from their face, nervous-looking wives pose for their kneeling husbands with cameras sporting unnecessary 10” lenses. (A giant lens is a front that attempts to scream serious photographer; however, just like everyone else, the men with these cameras are simply taking yet another wide-angle photo of the Palazzo Vecchio or the Duomo or the fake David. Interestingly enough, almost every tourist schlepping around said lenses that double a camera’s weight is male.) I think the word chaos is appropriate.

Last Saturday I was at my wit’s end. Claustrophobia was setting in. I grabbed my camera with its comparatively miniscule three-inch lens, two rolls of film, my keys (of which I have three—one for my apartment, one for my building, and one for the lock on my bicycle that was stolen), and my mini map of Firenze. With no destination in mind, I picked a direction and walked—away from the bustle of the crowds, away from the illegal vendors pushing umbrellas in my face when it rains, away from the sardine-esque feel of what used to be my favorite piazza.

Eventually I reached the park I’d found myself by the day I first bought my bicycle and subsequently got lost trying to get to video. For my final photography project, entitled “Myself” (otherwise known as “anything goes”), I’ve been playing with the idea of capturing man’s perverted relationship with nature on film. Standing there in front of that sparsely populated park, I began to wonder if I’d set myself an impossible task. Do I overestimate my audience by believing they’ll garner my rather unique point of view on the environment?

Now wasn’t the time to devise an answer. I had my camera, a location I probably wouldn’t return to, and some trees; I might as well aim and shoot. I took two rolls of film that afternoon, most of my photos depicting man’s foolish attempts to assert his presumed power over the natural world—tropical plants forced to grow in a cold climate, a stump filled with cement, carefully pruned bushes carefully arranged in rows, lemon trees growing inside boxes made from some poly-whatever material. The rest portrayed nature’s eventual but inevitable victory over all things manmade—weeds growing out of the pavement, bushes sending insurgent tendrils through wire fences, vines visually choking machinery.

As midday passed into late afternoon, and my sweater-less self began to feel the cold, I regretfully wandered back the way I’d come. At first I couldn’t figure out what to do—the name of the street I was walking down wasn’t on the map. Visual memory kicked in; I found my way back by recognizing landmarks I’d passed earlier in the day.

As I drew closer and closer to Via Castellani, the numbers of people surrounding me slowly crept upward until I reached the Piazza Santa Croce where I was suddenly submersed in tourists once more.

It had been a wonderful afternoon.

* * *

On Friday I slept through our 8:00 a.m. meeting time, groggily arose from my bed, threw a day’s worth of clothing in my B&W Italian bag with the broken zipper, and met Libby at the corner of Via del Proconsolo and Via dell’Oriuolo. We decided to take the pricier but faster Eurostar* train to Roma from Santa Maria Novella due to our late start. Since said tardiness was my fault, I agreed to pony up the difference in price of Libby’s ticket.

The train ride was wonderful. Rolling, lush green hills, farmsteads, and countless rivers and ponds flashed by our window. At one point I whipped out my camera and took three 1/250 of a second shutter speed photographs of the view. I wouldn’t have minded the three-hour plus regional trip, but since neither of us knew when we would next be in Rome, we thought it best to maximize our daylight viewing hours.

We took the B line from Roma Termini to the EUR Fermi station. Exiting from the cool of the metro station into the blazing sun, we searched, squinting frequently, for either the 709 or the 070 bus, both of which would take us to our final destination called “Camping Fabulous”. (You probably think I’m joking; I’m not.) After approximately twenty minutes of broken Italian exchanges, aimless wandering, and discouraging sign examining, we found our way to the right bus stop.

After Libby spotted the campground sign at the side of the highway, we jabbed at the red button to request our “fermata” and hopped off. Twenty more minutes of wandering ensued—including a mistaken jaunt into the parking lot of a swanky athletic club—until we finally made our way to the reception desk, picked up our heavy gold-plated key labeled “H 73”, figured out how to open the door of our little bungalow, and dropped our bags on the ground while simultaneously plopping onto the surprisingly comfortable beds.

Exhausted from a full morning of traveling, we wrenched ourselves away from a bona fide promise of comfort, and lumbered towards the bus stop headed in the direction of central Roma. To keep myself alive and standing upright, I bought a bag of chips from the campground’s coffee bar.

To round out the day’s overwhelming number of irritating occurrences, Libby and I spent close to an hour searching for a locale to eat lunch. The time was three or four in the afternoon, and most restaurants were closed until 7:30 when they reopened for dinner. And if they weren’t closed, they were hella expensive. The two of us were famished, so if we hadn’t found even something akin to a crisp soon, we’d have been at each other’s throats.

Eventually we found this cute, out of the way, packed with goods, tourist shop that sold pretty good pizza. (In our condition, at least, it seemed that way.) Libby ordered the fresh tomato and mozzarella version, and I opted for a traditional slice of pizza Margherita. We settled ourselves at an infinitesimally small blue-tiled counter and, like Macbeth’s three witches, ravenously devoured our food.

Once our hunger began to subside, we began to enjoy both the surroundings and ourselves. The counter was lined with full, unopened bottles of Coke and beer whose necks had been stretched and twisted into loops. Attempts at photographing them with my SLR were made, both by Libby and myself. A foot-high figure of a jazz musician slightly in the vein of Al Jolson stood on the counter to my right. Bags and bags of novelty pasta lined the shelves, as did bottles of limoncello shaped like the boot of Italy. So…nothing new.

We decided to spend the majority of our afternoon by the Trevi fountain, which, while packed with foreigners, happens to be so for a reason. After living for the past couple of weeks in the newly jammed Firenze, I thought crowds could no longer daunt me. But I still wasn’t prepared for the figurative-wall-to-figurative-wall people surrounding the marble masterpiece. And yet…

After we found the last two-foot stretch of bench left on which to seat ourselves, I pulled out a bar of white chocolate and my small black notebook and began to write: “I’ve somehow learned how to feel peaceful and almost solitary in a huge crowd. People’s voices all blend together in a murmur akin to the roar of the ocean.”

* * *

The next morning we woke up at a reasonable hour, took showers (having left my towel back in my apartment, I used one of the two sheets Camping Fabulous provided us with—the provisions, excepting facilities, were rather Spartan: two sheets, one two-inch high pillow, and a roll of toilet paper), and checked out.

We left our luggage at Roma Termini for the day, and headed straight for the Pantheon and Mimi Sheraton’s favorite coffee shop, Sant’Eustachio, home of potentially the best espresso in the world. So what do I order? Un cappuccino con panna e senza zucchero. I’ve had enough espresso in the past three months to last a lifetime, thank you very much.

At around 3:30, we took the subway to the area containing the Forum and the Coliseum and climbed up the many steps of the Victor Emmanuel II monument. Both rather tired, we leaned against the ledge overlooking the Fori Imperiali for half an hour, soaking up the last rays of sun, the streets teeming with life, and the fantastic view of Roma. Unfortunately, the guards soon began to usher everyone out because the monument was closing for the day. At four in the afternoon. On a Saturday. During high season. Are you kidding me?

Our last stop of the trip was the Forum. On our way there we spotted this probably British family, and the father and his seven-year-old son were wearing matching, brown leather, Rat Pack hats. Sometimes you just gotta love travelers.