“They fought the whole time: walking single-file on the narrow stone pathways by the River Arno, vital points lost to the revving of motorcycles and the high bright laughter of tourists; gesticulating with gelato spoons as they sat outside a café in the Piazza della Signoria; standing on the second floor of the Uffizi, lowering their voices before a bevy of Madonnas—(grim, grinning, stately, plump, aloof, aloft, alluring; Madonnas electric, dyspeptic, melancholic, myopic, dowdy, dreamy, and delicate)—ranging from buca to loggia; sputtering in and out of leather shops, through churches and palazzi, between market stalls of zucchini flowers and porcini mushrooms; waiting backstage to perform at the Teatro Comunale, the Verdi, or in the sacristy of Orsanmichele; pausing momentarily in convivial wonder over shared forkfuls of broad pasta with wild boar ragu, and chocolate hazelnut torta, distracted by the flavors and the atmosphere, the company and the candlelight, the corny accordion player outside playing “That’s Amore”, and the vendor of cut roses passing; resuming full force over bottles of Nozzole, chilled glasses of limoncello and tiny decorated cups of espresso; their voices becoming slurred, overlapping, lapsing for full minutes into drunken, recriminating silences; and later at night, preparing for bed, moody over washcloths and dental floss, cold cream and contact solution, tending to wine stains on cuffs, and lipstick removal, listening abstractly to the percussive sputter of Italian plumbing, the ardent, aggrieved rhythm of passing street conversation, and the distant brassy strains of Gershwin issuing from a tourist spot near the Ponte Vecchio—both of them weary of their own positions, forgetful of them, almost willing to give them up, if it weren’t for the principle, the responsibility to truth, to reason, until the only recourse was a furious, fast fucking that wasn’t so much truce as it was transliteration, the struggle stripped clear of civilized discourse and smarty-pants articulations, stripped bare and rocking in almost catatonic frenzy, the yielding and the pushing, insinuating and subsuming, the pouring in and crying out, conceding nothing.”
— from The Fetishist
In San Lorenzo Market, I attempt to haggle. I have read that Italians expect you to argue over price, and that they are disdainful if you pay the amount they ask for. I have tried before and failed miserably, so this time, I’m determined. I want to buy some small leather purses for friends and colleagues, and the soft-spoken Bangladeshi man has quoted me a price. It seems reasonable enough, but I’ve heard that the leather goods here are marked way up for tourists. I counter with a lower figure. My daughter, Kayla, who knows enough Italian to help us make our way around, looks on.
The young man thinks for a bit, then, on a tiny scrap of paper, writes down a higher number. This is where I should have just forked over the Euros, but is one haggle really enough? Isn’t haggling more a series of maneuvers, rather than one half-hearted jab? I persist. My pride is on the line, my savvy as a world traveler. I counter again. The vendor is serious-faced, his eyes cast down. He says something softly. Kayla translates. “He said, ‘To you, Madame, two Euro is nothing. To me it is everything.’” Abashed, I give him the money, my haggling days abruptly ended.
We take solace in gelato.
I have stumbled into the Annual Gelato Festival, near the Santa Maria Novella train station. It takes a moment for me to register my good fortune, having just come out of the nearby Basilica, where my mind was busy contemplating the grandeur—the frescoes of Andrea di Firenze, with their colorful, crowded landscapes of angels and crucifixions, horses, dogs, and winged devils; Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, with its linear perspective and tromp l’oeil recesses; Giotto’s attenuated, bleeding Christ on the cross; the swooping, striped vaults, and marbled floors. I am not a Catholic, and I am conscious of all the corruption and greed that attended the building and furnishing of these grand Cathedrals, but I am nonetheless moved by their magnificence—if not in a wholly religious way, then in some humble, heathen appreciation of great beauty.
Both the brightness of the day, after the cool, dark interior of the church, and the pastel-colored banners of gelato spoons that demarcate the festival, are momentarily garish, then welcome. There is something about gazing upon so much splendor that can really work up an appetite. For a few Euros, you can sample the newest ice cream flavors from gelato shops across Europe; I am mildly lactose intolerant, but I do not let that stop me. I’m in Florence to do research for my novel, The Fetishist, and I decide that verisimilitude demands that I taste as many flavors as possible.
We are in Italy celebrating Kayla’s 30th birthday—a blow-out vacation that we have been looking forward to, and saving up for, for more than a year—and I am on a quest. Seven years earlier, I bought my mother and myself rings from the oldest jewelry store on the Ponte Vecchio, Fratelli Piccini. They were identical, though one was white gold, and one was yellow, each with a tiny, slightly asymmetrical, five-sided diamond. The ring was beautiful, but, also, in truth, the only thing in the store I could afford. I want to buy one for Kayla now, as a way to commemorate our trip.
This same ring, or a facsimile of it, figures largely in my novel. The two lovers, Alma and Daniel, are in Florence on concert tour, and Alma sees the ring in Fratelli Piccini. Longing for marriage, she points it out to Daniel, who returns to buy it, later sneaking it into her tiramisu. After Alma discovers him in bed with another woman, she runs across the city, Daniel in hot pursuit, and, on the Ponte Vecchio, next to the bust of Benvenuto Cellini, she throws the ring into the Arno.
She pitched it then, tossed it over the side of the bridge like a spent cigarette. “No!” Daniel shouted, lunging stupidly.
Then time seemed to slow, as the ring spiraled upward, flipping end over end, winking with white and blue light, winking and flipping, before falling, with barely a ripple, into the dark river—the same river that had absorbed countless victims of flood and plague, bodies of Christian martyrs, and the burnt remains of the fanatic Savonarola. And, beneath the surface of the water, the ring continued to fall, blinking in the drowning sunlight—past two fish, medieval in appearance, ugly, gray, and gape-mouthed, that struck and missed the shiny thing—bouncing once and settling at the bottom, winking no more, under the murk, the sand, and the sediment of history—coming to rest finally, beside a burial mound of tiny iron keys.
But now, when we get to Fratelli Piccini, we discover that the same ring is now one-and-a-half times more than it was in 2010, and the salesclerk, sensing I can’t afford it, is haughty and dismissive. Kayla, quite sensibly, tells me that she wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing a such an expensive ring anyway.
We take solace in gelato.
Florence, in iterations
The Basilica di Santa Maria Novella was built in the 13th century, by the Dominican Order, atop the ruins of a 9thth century oratory, while its geometric green and white marble façade was completed 100 years later. The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Duomo, was similarly built on the site of a 5th century cathedral. And so on, with many of the great churches in Europe. It makes sense—sacred ground is sacred ground—and I love the way you can see the different styles and time periods juxtaposed, and peeking through, like architectural palimpsests.
In the same way, the ghostly outlines of my 2010 trip to Florence keep bleeding through to 2016, and because the 2010 trip was all about The Fetishist, the parts of the novel that take place in Florence, also imprint themselves on the present. So, when Kayla and I make our way to the Piazzale Michelangelo, to take in the panoramic view, I see myself, alone, making my own way, past the same African men in suits with their identical merchandise, (sunglasses and hats, mostly), laid out on the sidewalks; looking out over the same Tuscan hills, struck by the same mix of gratitude and awe. When Kayla and I eat pear ravioli at La Giostra, our splurge dinner, I remember Soldano, the bejeweled, bechained, rock and roll biker prince who owns the place, whom I met at Fratelli Piccini’s in 2010, and suddenly, there he is, bracelets, rings, and necklaces jingle-jangling, wearing an apron over a motorcycle T-shirt, ready to take our order. And when we come to the Fountain of Bacchus, (now nearly obscured by construction), in the Boboli Gardens, I remember the scene I wrote that takes place there, where Alma kisses Paolo, the rich Florentine impresario that she will later marry, instead of Daniel.
In 2010, I had just met G., who declined to come to Italy with me, sensing, as I did not, that going by myself was important. I was in the midst of getting divorced after spending almost three decades with a man I no longer recognized, or respected, and I did not know who I was by myself, as a 50-year-old single woman. In 2016, I have Stage 4 breast cancer, with lung metastases, and, though I don’t know it yet, there is a new spot on my liver. The Fetishist long abandoned, I am working on these essays instead.
Wandering the city one night, Kayla and I find ourselves back on the Ponte Vecchio, where a small crowd has gathered around some buskers playing in front of the bust of Cellini. The song is familiar—they play it on the radio all the time—but neither of us knows what it is. “And I find it kinda funny, I find it kinda sad, the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I ever had…”
I realize that, for most of the trip, I’ve completely forgotten that I am sick. In the Cinque Terre, we hiked from Vernazza to Monterosso, and to Corniglia; we took a boat to Portovenere, and walked through the steep, terraced vineyards of Manarola. In Florence, we walk the city all day, from San Niccolo, to the Mercato Centrale, from the Boboli to the Bargello. (At home, I worried that I might not have the strength.) Kayla and I have made goo-goo eyes at babies for two weeks, and I have not said a thing, though she says the plan is to get pregnant in two years. Of course, I wish it were sooner.
I think about my daughter’s baby, who I may or may not live to see. I imagine it growing up, and, one day, traveling to Florence with Kayla, who will remember this earlier trip with me. I imagine them eating handmade pasta with truffles at Osteria La Vinaina, drinking Aperol Spritzes, and glasses of Chianti, and, of course, scarfing gelato at the Cantina on the Oltrarno. They might stroll through San Lorenzo Market, looking at all the leather bags hanging from the stalls, and Kayla might smile at the memory of my haggling misadventure.
The whole trip has been about spending time with Kayla, about just enjoying being together, and sharing a travel adventure. We are big sensualists in my family, and Italy is the perfect place for us to indulge in la dolce vita. But it is also, more selfishly, about remaining alive in the palimpsest of my daughter’s memory, and in the passing of that memory to my grandchildren—a friendly haunting from beneath the foundation of the new, like the 9th century church that lies under Santa Maria Novella. It’s a backward-moving vision of immortality, the ruins can’t know what is built on top of them, but what is built on top can know the ruins.