Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Different Degrees of Tourism

"The Good Doors"

I have been very fortunate to have lived in Italy for extended periods not once, but twice. Each of these stays, the one in Florence twenty years ago and the one at present in Bologna, have been very significant parts of my life. They have differed from one another in many ways. Florence is very different from Bologna and my life’s circumstances are very different now than they were then. Twenty years ago I was single and just turning thirty. Now I am married with a ten-year-old son and I’m hoping that people reading this won’t take the trouble to do the math regarding my age.

One thing I’ve noticed on both visits is the way staying in a place for months instead of days reveals new things about it; sometimes good things and sometimes downright ugly. Right now I’ll write about a pleasant episode. Something happened recently in Bologna that revealed the not-so-nice side of the city (don’t worry family and friends, nothing dangerous !) but I’ll save that for another time.

When I came to Florence in 1988 I travelled with my mother for the first couple weeks before she returned home and I settled down in the deceptively rural nearby outskirts of Florence. It’s always easy for me to remember the year because the Olympics were being televised from Korea in caffes and hotel lobbies everywhere we went. We were surprised at the variety of events that we saw, events rarely seen in the coverage from the United States. There seemed to be an infinite variety of games involving balls being bounced off walls and who knew there were so many different horseback riding events ?

The first week in Florence was warm with the golden light you see in the autumn on the days it isn’t raining. Naturally we spent a lot of time around the Duomo, a striped marble monster of a building. Since I was established in my apartment and my mother was staying in a hotel on the Arno we would arrange to meet every morning at the baptistry adjacent to the Duomo. We always met by the “Good Doors,” the ones designed by Ghiberti. I have to say that having visited Florence on this trip I spent a good deal of time waiting to get into the Duomo and I had the opportunity to look at the doors of the Duomo itself. They are quite good. In fact in any other circumstance we would probably be putting asterisks in our guidebooks to remind ourselves to see them. Of course the problem is, they are twenty feet away from really really great doors, like maybe the best doors in history. I always feel sorry for the anonymous Duomo door artist (or artists). Here was his chance for immortality but NOOOO, Ghiberti the genius had to steal all the limelight. Of course I do not begrudge Ghiberti his acclaim, what with launching Renaissance art and all. He’s entitled. Only do have a look at the Duomo’s doors too when you visit.

I seem to have gotten a little off my subject which really had to do with the shops on the street that encircles the Duomo. Of course there were stores specializing in leather, others with tiny replicas of the Duomo and still others with postcards and tee-shirts. The store that intrigued us the most was a narrow shop that sold tarnished iron goods; things like oil lamps and candelabras. In my memory almost all the items were hanging from hooks. It wasn’t clear whether the objects were actually antiques but they certainly looked old and each was one-of-a-kind. My mother was especially attracted to a little oil lamp. Its price was in that tough middle area where it was affordable yet more than she wanted to spend, so she decided not to buy it. As the week passed it was obvious to me that she regretted not buying it so after she’d left Florence I went back to the shop and made the purchase. The owner, an elderly fellow, got it down from the ceiling with a metal hook and then wrapped it carefully in paper. I left the shop in triumph and held onto the oil lamp until I gave it to my mother months later, much to her delight and surprise. The funny part, and a direct consequence of living in a place for several months, was that when I returned to the shop a couple weeks later a new “old” oil lamp was back on its hook, hanging exactly where the other one had been. Apparently the kindly owner had a back room somewhere with boxes of the stuff but he only put out one at a time. The guy really knew how to market his merchandise ! The last thing I wanted to find out was where the items were actually from. Of course if I’d just passed a couple days in Florence I never would have discovered the ruse, but I have to say I got a kick out of the incident and it wasn’t as though I had been cheated out of thousands of dollars.

So, that’s the kind of thing that can happen when you stay beyond the honeymoon period in a place. This probably doesn’t hold true in, say, Cleveland, but in Italy which is so much a confection of our own fantasies you have to expect that a bit of reality will eventually surface. Of course when Bill, Boris and I visited the Duomo last month I looked for that shop. I must have circled the perimeter three times and I never found it. There was a sophisticated-looking book shop and a designer leather shop I didn’t remember from before. My guess is that one of these shops took over the space. This was a disappointment of course. I wanted to see if the Great-grand son of the oil lamp was hanging there.

My mother died almost two years ago, which is difficult to believe. In the aftermath my brother patiently tracked down that oil lamp and sent it to me. It was one among many curios that my mother collected during her travels. To me it’s a record of a very particular place and time and it tells a great story.

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