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April 2000

View From Hotel Continental Penthouse

More photos here.


4-20 April 2000
Hotel Continental -- Florence, Italy

It is now Friday night, 14 April and I am in Florence, installed in a top floor penthouse with a back terrace and 2 huge windows facing the Arno River and the Ponte Veccio is right below me....If I am able to get online, which I'll try shortly, I'll write more later...No rain, but cloudy skies. Who cares?

I arrived in Florence to the Hotel Continental where I climbed the last two curling flights after the elevator’s six to a penthouse in an old stone tower. Salvatore the smiling porter dealt with the stuff problem while I threw open the two tall windows to the River Arno, where I stared down in awe with a pigeon’s view of the Ponte Vecchio.

This famous bridge is an ancient pedestrian shopping zone now occupied by more gold jewlery stores than I’ve ever seen assembled in one place before. The human tendency to not want to miss out on what someone else may have discovered is alive and well here, as tourists and locals still bunch around the windows of these stores ooohing and aaahhhing and jostling for a good position to view this or that particular batch of booty. Behind the storefronts are living quarters of some sort which form a row of colorful buildings, viewed from the river on either side of the central porticoed portion where lovers hang out and over the bridge looking down at the water, kissing.

This hotel splurge directly borders the long shopping street which is a continuation of the Ponte Vecchio, housing the customary array of redundant designer shops for leather purses, gloves, coats, silk scarves, cafes, bars, and oodles of tiny chic stores with tiny chic clothing for tiny chic women. While the traditional style for Italian women has always been high quality items in basic black, grey, and camel, there appears to now be a hot trend afoot towards vivid colors--perhaps mostly reserved for the young. Lavender is WAY in, especially lavender down vests. And skimpy shocking pink or orange or yellow tops to go with the essential black pants and high platform black shoes.

In both Florence and Venice, I compete for space in constant battle with tourist groups of noisy kids wearing black down coats, black pants, black everything. They cram every museum, gelateria, self-serve food joint and pedestrian walkway, lining the sittable outside spaces with MacDonalds’ bags and Quarterpounders in hand. Most of them don't give a whit about the art, and, to be fair, they were dragged here on a trip which promised freedom from home and fantasied partying galore. Maybe my annoyance tells a story about my own youth and adolescence and how unpleasant it is to be reminded of the layers of desperation. The adults who take these kids on tours deserve patience sainthood.

15 April 2000
Hotel Continental -- Florence, Italy

Today I rose early, off to the Uffizi Gallery, a block from my hotel. Since I’d pre-purchased tickets to anything which would have a line, I enjoyed the satisfaction of freely walking past the VERY long queue of tourists to the little room where I entered, blessedly long before the loud kids in the black down parkas could dare be organized enough to show up behind me.

The Uffizi began an experience which, after the Palazzo Pitti’s Galleria Palatina and royal apartments, Galleria dell’Accadamia, Museo del Bargello and the Boboli Gardens really confronted me with my lack of religious education. Not being Catholic, and having cut Sunday school as a kid when sent for “exposure” to the local Presbyterian church, I guess I never developed as much affection for Mary, the bambino Jesus, Joseph, David, the angels and fears of the devils and such--much less an understanding of the annunciation or the pieta or the rest of the stories so beautifully portrayed in paintings and on endless frescos--as the average person. In short, I felt a little dumb, and got bored more quickly than others might with the repetitive themes.

The variety of ways Mary and baby Jesus were portrayed awes the imagination. The only one I took a picture of was one where baby Jesus was squeezing the tit of Mary, as if to extract milk, while looking in the direction of the painter. This struck me as oddly Freudian. But, the magnificence of artistry, the colors, the infinite patience of painters, the breathtakingly tender or fearful or devotional or savage or yearning expressions on the faces of this endlessly repeated cast of characters moved me deeply. I took a particular liking to della Robbia’s sculptures, and captured several lovely ones on my digital video camera.

Once outside, the peace of the museum inside me was lost to a crowded piazza-full of distracting open air market stalls selling an endless array of knockoffs of the same handbags, gloves, and leather coats as those in the fancy stores on Via Porta Santa Maria. And then there are the black guys who unstuff huge canvas bags of yet more purses after the marketeers shut down, hoping to talk someone into a better deal. One time I saw an Italian man talking quietly to one of these guys. He looked so Mafioso, and was speaking to the guy with such a sense of foreboding that I made up how these guys are somehow working off debts to the Mafia to stay alive rather than simply trying to make a living.

It’s unnerving how few blacks I see. Pretty much only these guys who sell purses and black women dressed scantily by Italian standards who look like they’re out to sell themselves. There are exceptions--a black male tourist here or there, often coupled with a white, possibly European woman, or an occasional black tourist couple. But in general it's a Eurocaucasian community. So are Marin County and many other places back home. I’m sure there are historicopolitical sources of this phenomenon different than those in my own country, but I fear it’s another vacuum in my swiss cheese education.

16 April 2000
Hotel Continental -- Florence, Italy

Staring out over the Ponte Vecchio and River Arno this morning, I notice a rolling neon sign across the river saying...”Email anytime...Internet connection available...” Since today’s goal was to research getting online from this penthouse which should, by all rights, allow access, I headed over there with questions and ended up waiting in line for access to one of the 23 computer bays FILLED with American students--mostly girls with the same bright, beautiful round faces with full lips--intently reading and responding to their hotmail.

There are apparently two universities nearby which take exchange students for a semester, so when they get out of class, they cram the place. The guys running the joint, “Internet Train”, had little to offer to my questions except that the Italian dial tone is different, and blah, blah, blah.

Meantime, I’d asked the front desk woman to find out for me where in Florence one finds a Mac technician who speaks English. When I got back, she’d actually found Lorenzo, who works for “Mac Friends”, an apt name in Florence. After a long troubleshooting effort over the phone which got nowhere and left him challenged, he ended up coming to my hotel on his scooter to save the day, because, as he said, “Well, I was on my way home and wanted to see what the penthouse looked like.”

Typical of Silicon Valley techies I’d known, he made little eye contact, settled into the chair, and proceeded to zone into intimate rapport with my Mac for a good hour trying to solve the problem. He was pretty impervious to my occasional efforts to personalize the experience, like, “Where are you from?” or, “Your accent sounds English”, or, “I’m so sorry you’re spending your evening this way...” Anyway, he finally figured it out, grabbed his cycle helmet and was off. I gave him 50,000 lire, about $25, and he was shy about taking it. Back home the same event would cost $100 if a dime, and wouldn’t likely occur in any case.

18 April 2000
Hotel Continental -- Florence, Italy

Most of the day I wandered around taking pictures in alleyways and dropping into interesting shops. One was being cared for by a delightful, blessedly English speaking Italian couple. They were store-sitting for their beautiful 22 year old artist daughter. They proudly showed me a picture of her which will grace an Italian art magazine soon with a feature on her....a gorgeous blonde with long hair in a white Grecian dress, holding a striking still life of lemons, oranges and other fruit done in the late medieval style on an almost black background.

There was a similar unframed eight by ten version I could not resist buying from them. They were warm and chatty, and before long we shared stories. I told them I wanted to color my hair and could they make a referral to a decent salon, and they sweetly said it looked great as it was--coming in curly now, praise be, in my adult dishwater browny blonde, maybe an inch long.

But I’ve got this bee in my bonnet to get it colored back to the blonde it was before I lost it all from chemo. Those of you who know my thin-fine hair neurosis know how much I've longed for lush, curly hair. I'm in heaven running my fingers through it, spraying it with light mousse and fluffing it.

Later, I drag myself back into the hotel, only to find that the elevator up six floors before the two I climb was out of order. Oy. No way I was going to climb six flights. Desk man says it’ll be fixed in an hour, which probably means four.

I decide to wander down the Arno looking for this salon which someone had described the location of a few days prior. When I walk in, a bit of a do ensues amongst the customers and staff as I explain my wish to lighten my little inch long curly hair. An Elton John looking fellow says he can do it, and handed me magazines to choose a color. Well, the one I THOUGHT I chose apparently looked different to him than to me, and I ended up with an Annie Lennox platinum head.

OH MY GOD. A sweet woman there getting her boys’ hair cut comforts me, explaining how important it is when facing such life signals as cancer to change on the inside and not the outside. Other customers smile that it is “nice”, or “not so bad”, and the like. In any case, here I am a platinum blonde. Eeeek!

(From this vantage point a couple of weeks later, I don’t mind it as much as I did before. Except it seems to shock people and make eyes turn away from the urge to stare, I think.)

A couple of days later I ran into the male Italian of the couple I'd met earlier, whose last words to me had been, “Leave your hair alone!” He warmly greeted me and said, “Ah, you did it! It looks great!”......and, a few minutes later, his wife greeted me on the street and repeated this act of kindness with perhaps SOME sincerity to the acclamation of surprise, adding her wish that I come back to see them soon at the store.

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