Saturday, February 05, 2005

Domenica a Firenze (5/20/02)

Sheila missed church yesterday, for reasons that I'm afraid must be ascribed to me, although they present plenty of grist for the teasing mill, and under the circumstances I think she will forgive me. I woke up that morning feeling invigorated, and after a few minutes of lying in bed and thinking about my favorite opera pieces, I looked at my watch to see what time it was; and the luminous dial indicated 6:30. I wondered why the alarm had not gone off -- I had set it for precisely that time -- and I also wondered why it was still so dark and quiet outside. All of those should have given me some clues, but like the dope I was, I simply got up and showered and dressed for church. All of this, of course, awoke my wife, who is a very light sleeper. Then I looked at my watch and saw that it was still 6:30. For a nanosecond I sort of congratulated myself for getting ready in such a short time, but then it dawned on me what had happened, and further inquiry confirmed my suspicion: I had left the watch in alarm mode after setting the alarm. When I set the watch back to regular mode, I was a bit chagrined -- to say nothing of embarrassed -- to see that it was in fact about 1:30. I went out into the sitting area of the Dei Mori to read Isaiah (in Italian), and of course I was never able to get back to sleep after that. Unfortunately, neither was Sheila, who has a serious sleeping disorder to begin with. When the time came to get up, she was simply too exhausted to go to our Sunday meetings, so I went alone. I left the Dei Mori at around 7:45 and was rather surprised to find myself at the church by 8:10, as I had figured the trip would take at least an hour.

I enjoyed the meetings, although sleep caught up with me by the end of the block. In Sunday School I participated in the discussion and was asked to read a rather lengthy passage aloud. (It was Joshua 1:1-9). A missionary in the back of the room who was interpreting for a non-Italian-speaking American visitor told me my pronunciation and pace had been very good, and that he had had no trouble at all following me. That was nice to hear, because normally I talk so fast that I know I would be an interpreter's worst nightmare. During this class I even managed to make a wisecrack in Italian, which was a hit with the people there.

I would have to say this was the noisiest group of Latter-day Saints whom I have ever been around. Although I know they would have driven any Wasatch Front bishop to distraction, I do not mean that as a criticism. Italians are a gregarious people, and they also tend to be a bit loud. So the fact that Italian Mormons make a lot of noise was no big surprise to me. I enjoyed watching their interaction with each other, and I think we could learn a lot from these people. They seemed totally uninhibited about just being themselves.

As I waited at the bus stop for my ride back into town, there occurred an incident that I would neither be recounting nor remembering, if not for the reaction of the other person involved. As I stood there in white shirt and tie, wearing a backpack and clasping my hands together behind my back, a woman perhaps in her 60s, who appeared to be worn-down by the cares of life, walked past the bus stop. When she was almost directly in front of me, I said "Buongiorno, signora." The effect was like turning on a light. She looked up at me, obviously surprised and pleased that I had greeted her in this fashion. The experience made me wonder if anyone else ever had done so.

We did little else for the rest of the day. In the evening I took Sheila over to the Santa Margherita church, where Dante met Beatrice and where Beatrice herself is buried. The church is not big, and dates from the year 1032; but it definitely has a soothing atmosphere, partly because of the music that is constantly piped into it when they are not celebrating mass there. I have been stopping at Santa Margherita as many as two or three times every day since we have been in Florence. Later we went over to the Piazza della Signoria, where we spent 30 or 40 minutes people-watching before we went back to the Dei Mori. That place has sort of been the civic hub of Florence for hundreds of years, and we both wished we had something like that back in the States. Incidentally, during this particular visit to the Piazza della Signoria I also finally found the pavement stone marking the spot where Savonarola was burned at the stake in May, 1498. I had been looking for it for days and knew it was in the Piazza somewhere, but did not know the exact spot, and I got contradictory answers whenever I asked the local people where it was. Finally, a guest at the Dei Mori told me he had found it himself, and gave me such good directions that I was able to walk right to the spot the next time I was in the area.

We have had some exquisite meals here, as the Italians really know how to prepare food. These people could probably make some kind of gourmet version of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I have dabbled in Italian cooking in recent years, and based on my experience here, I think I will take up the pastime in earnest after we return home. (BTW, a word of advice to one and all: set aside a generous budget for meals if you ever come to Italy. I say that in all seriousness, and you will be glad you did. If you have concerns about money, sacrifice good lodgings before you cut corners on this.) The other night we ate at a restaurant called La Grotta Guelfa , a wonderful establishment which, in my mind at least, has now sort of become the acme of Italian restaurants. (The name of this place intrigued me, which was a big part of the reason I chose it.) I had some kind of pasta with salmon, and Sheila had a bass, apparently fresh out of the Arno, although I don't know how it was prepared. The waitress wheeled the bass, head and all, out to our table, and I thought that my wife, upon seeing it, would surely lose her appetite. The waitress then removed the head and skin from the fish, and dished it out on the spot. I wondered why this part of the meal preparation had to take place there at our table rather than back in the kitchen; but then, these people obviously know what they are doing, and who am I to second-guess them? Perhaps this was the way the Guelphs cooked in the 13th century. (I mention all of that partly because, notwithstanding this little incident, Sheila consumed the whole thing and went on and on about how delicious it was.) We both had a side dish of roasted potatoes, which were generously seasoned with olive oil and all manner of spices. A French-Canadian couple sitting next to us were drinking some kind of wine that looked like Concord grape juice, and the sight thereof made me salivate. [Since we are both teetotalers, of course, we never did drink any of the wine we saw in Italy; but man, did that stuff look good. I wondered if I should contact the Brethren in Salt Lake City to see if we could get special dispensation to indulge in this pleasure during our trip; but Sheila persuaded me that it would be no more successful than my efforts to have Don Quixote canonized as scripture and added to the Standard Works of the Church.] I did not give in to the temptation, but even without wine -- a staple in the Italian diet -- this was the best meal I have had in a long, long time. I even ate it slowly, which is something I almost never do. Afterward we found what has to be Gelato Heaven, whereupon we entered into its gates and partook at length of its delicacies. I told my wife that this was it; I knew we had both died and were now in the afterlife.

I hope that rather lengthy description of a meal did not bore any of you, but if it did, consider this: In preparation for this trip, I have read a lot of books about Italy -- mostly travelogues and histories, including such famous works as Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun. A common denominator of all the travel books is that each contains lengthy, detailed descriptions of individual meals consumed by the author. Having been here for a few days and partaken of some choice meals, I can easily understand why. One author pointed out that to talk about Tuscany without mentioning food is like discussing the Titanic without mentioning the fact that it sank. Come here and find out for yourselves!

We were going to go to Siena today, but got up a bit late and decided to go there tomorrow, which will be our last full day here in Florence. After I send this off, I plan to go to the Convento San Marco, which includes such masterworks as Fra Angelico's famous "Annunciation," which I believe is a fresco, although I am not sure on that. But I am about to find out. A young woman whose acquaintance we made on the plane coming over here is going to be in Florence today and tomorrow, and this morning I left a message at her hotel, giving her the phone number of the Dei Mori and inviting her to come have dinner with us somewhere tonight. And I want to climb the 463 steps to the top of the Duomo. Sheila can't do that, and if we go to Siena tomorrow I may miss my chance altogether. They say the view from there is wonderful.

Wednesday we leave for Ravenna, but you should hear from me at least once before then. (BTW, back to food for a moment: on the Via Cavour there is a McDonald's, but I wonder who on earth would ever want to eat McDonald's food in a place like Florence? That would be a bit like hoarding pennies at Ft. Knox.)




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