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Florence - La Dolce Vita

LA DOLCE VITA

Some things are true: everybody in Florence is rich and beautiful; everyone wears shades and looks good; you cannot get tired of beauty. Only the British would say: “You can have too much of a good thing.” You can’t. When I wrote about Milan last year, someone left a horse’s head on my motorino. That couldn’t happen in Florence. As expert in misery as I am, you cannot seriously complain about your life in Florence. Not unless you’re Florentine. Now and again I try, but it really doesn’t work; it just doesn’t wash. I’m reminded of that line in White Mischief: “Another fucking beautiful day !”
In Florence, it’s: “Another fucking beautiful church/statue/palazzo/fresco” etc. Plus, of course, the sun blazes. Even at night. (Some things are also not true.) I don’t mind living here. Someone’s got to do it. I’ve known people to moan, “Florence is like living in a museum” and maybe it is, but, you know, other people have to live in Scunthorpe. Living in a museum doesn’t hurt. In Florence, physical pain and mental suffering have been removed. Put plainly, living in Florence is not Real Life. But then who needs real life ?
The Florentines have made moaning into an artform, like everything else. Maybe they thought it was the only way left to them to spite God, to prove to him that they exist, that they are mortal: I moan, therefore I am. They moan about the volume of tourists, the sporadic absence of tourists, about the restoration work, the lack of restoration work, about bloody Fiorentina (their half-decent football team), even about the heat. The phrase “Che caldo, ragazzi” [“Boy, it’s hot”) ranks next to “Si mangia bene in Italia” [“You eat well in Italy”] as my most-heard, most-hated phrase.
The considerable clique of hipsters, kingmakers and beauty victims also expend great amounts of energy moaning about the nightlife. With the most modern club, Paramatta, wrestling permanently with residents’ protests, serious clubbers have the shallow acid club Energia, the perennially dependable Plegyne, Tenax (acid disco), and the all-but- inaccessible Manilla to frequent. For reasons of their own, they contrive to turn their noses up at some or all of these. “Nobody goes there at the moment,” they’ll sigh for a day or two, turning up instead at places like Stud and Central Park or gay clubs like Tabasco or hard(ish)-core Krisco.
My own favourite haunt, KGB – where you can find ‘Mongoloid’ and ‘The Theme From Hawaii 5-0′ next to The Ramones, Tone Loc and The Marvelettes – is generally disdained, despite the atmosphere, decor and cheap, late-night refreshments. KGB lacks Florentine style. Still, Italian punks retain a lot of their London ancestors’ style and KGB is the only place in Florence where you’ll find a Mohican with a plastic dinosaur pinned to his leather jacket, or girls who know no English beyond streams of Nick Cave lyrics. In Florence, one should arrive at a club so late, it’s early.
The Florentines are creatures of habit, always setting up quaint little trends to follow. Life is one long giro [a stroll or walkabout]. Saturday afternoon: check out the funny, abstract window displays of Luisa and Gerard and the horrifying, abstract prices; stroll past the laughable Sandro P, take an espresso and a cake (I recommend the bomboloni) at Café Gilli or Rivoire, classically deluxe bars with standard prices. At night a cafe droppia [a double hit], or corretto (with a large shot of grappa or brandy) and by 11.30pm, a spumante at La Dolce Vita. Then onward, with a sad inevitability, to Pleygne.
Life is about belonging. For kids, Saturday afternoons means hanging out at the top of Via del Corso, having a last Marlboro if they’re on their way to palestra [working out: another fad]. The dads are hanging round Totocalcio [the local betting stalls for football pools – 13 results out of 13 to win]. Grannies gather in gangs in the parks. The granddads are probably playing boccette or Napolitana. Down in basement pool halls wily, be-suited old buffers are challenging exiled Iranians or Sri Lankans to a frame or two. Never play an Italian coffin dodger at Italian pool for money. They’ll take you to the cleaners and all their ancient friends will laugh at you. Saturday nights and Sundays are devoted to the giro. Italian teenagers wouldn’t dream of staying in. The giro has replaced playing records, watching tele, going to a friend’s house and, for all I know, having sex (except on the back of vespas – while stationary that is). On Saturday nights, they cruise for hours, mass motorists out looking for pedestrians to mow down, by accident or design: they don’t care. They have an extra chromosome, one that means they cannot stop at a white line that says STOP, indicate or drive less than maniacally. Hooters, brakes and gentle crashes are the sounds of Saturday night.
Florence is the city of couples, and groups of boys/men, all carrying their car radios like metal handbags for safety, walking around aimlessly gawping at unaccompanied girls/women as if they’d just been invented. They will stop and stare, turn right around and follow them, with their tongues hanging out, their knuckles scraping the ground and their IQs quivering towards double figures. No wonder they touch their balls for luck. I once saw two men chatting up some poor English deb, translating an Italian postcard as a prop: “It says ‘Find her, fuck her, forget her’, you see ? For example, I find you…” Subtle – and then some. Unhappily, sexism, like all other -isms, is infectious. When I was last in London, I was slapped round the face in public three times.
Sundays are spent walking, or sitting, or driving around. Last year, the council created the Zona Blu, banning all forms of traffic (except the million motorinos and buses) from the city centre in a belated effort to preserve the city’s million monuments. Inevitably, there was much moaning about both the city’s deterioration and the traffic ban. Tradition is a powerful beast, however, and with typical legal logic, Sundays are exempt, leaving Florentines free to spend most of Sunday sitting in grotesque traffic jams, polluting the city and fondly recalling those distant days when they could do so every day. Mostly they end up in the park, with radios in their ears, listening to the football scores. One Sunday, the entire male population leapt into the air when Fiorentina scored. The parks are packed with grandparents pushing prams, kids cycling round mowing down pedestrians (practising for later life) and throwing bread at the swans. There are baby fashion victims everywhere, looking like big baby dolls all dressed up in Armani, Trussardi, Benetton (I want one, I want that one). There’s impatient, often violent, snogging going on every bench, hillock and Piaggio saddle In the vicinity. I go to the park quite a lot.
I suppose, by now, the women feel obliged to give the men something to look at. Legs are the current currency of sexuality. Mini mini-skirts are no longer fashion, they are a social requirement. The way these women manage to ride their bicycles with such dignity, while wearing skirts the size of a large handkerchief (all right, a medium-sized handkerchief), has earned them my constant admiration. If you’re a teenager with fat legs, you might as well stay indoors or buy a wheelchair.
Florence has become a paedophiliac’s paradise; home from home for Lolita’s Humbert Humbert. All of age 12 and dressed exactly like the smart tarts that parade the city, these kids look more and more like Madonna’s offspring. Another rebellion turned convention.
Fashion is Florence’s nemesis. Teenagers wear BOY caps, cycling shorts or thin black flares, cutaway red leather jackets, Junior Gaultier T-shirts and big-buckled shoes, or long, double-breasted jackets – clipped at the small of the back – with heavy black jeans and giant, clumpy Olive Oyl shoes. Their turn ups are somehow always just right. Florentine colours are claret, mauve, russet, scarlet, bottle green, lime, orange. The motorbike is just another fashion accessory. Piaggio Si or Ciao is all that goes. The Vespa is dead. Bikes are to be driven – preferably one-handed – while smoking, talking to a friend alongside and wearing shades. And that’s at night.
The rich hip are pampered and painted, Brylcreemed, sporting a lot of gold jewellery, long coats, big furs and poncy little dogs. And that’s just the men. Florence has a large clique of fancy nancy boys, wrists flapping and flopping around like broken Thunderbirds. Polka-dots, embroidered shirts full of flourishes, emblems, frills, paisley-patterned waistcoats, neckerchiefs, white coats, cool shoes. All of that. Florentines would rather set themselves alight before they would dream of considering the British concept of second-hand clothes.
Can we blame the mini-gonna [mini-skirt] for producing a porn boom? Visitors must occasionally think: Oooh, they have a lot of fancy dress parties in Florence, look at all those men in drag waiting for buses. There are more transvestites in Florence than pigeons (honest). Whilst the ladies are sad figures, haggard housewife types, sour scrubbers, the transvestites round the casine [park] or viale [ring road] are evidently more exotic fare. In Milan, the boom has provoked whore wars between the Camorra-controlled Napolitan and Milanese prostitutes and the Brazilian transvestites. Certainly in Florence, there’s no disgrace in being seen curb-crawling (although it makes walking home alone inadvisable for women, or indeed men as I once discovered to my cost). Presumably sex doesn’t infringe upon the Italian concept of love or respect for the institution of marriage. Transsexual Anal Stars and Anal Machine are showing at the red light cinemas, and by evening, lonely, grey men are circling the porn-stand at Santa Maria Novella like hyenas, timid in their taste, in their shame. Paedophilia or bestiality sections are standard in many titles like Hard or Superlesbo. (For fans, I’m sad to say, Cicciolina is strangely muted these days.)
At night everybody is on the street and no wonder. No sane human being could watch a night of Italian TV. It’s worse than ITV on a Saturday. No, it really is. Italian soaps make Neighbours look like Nabokov. The quiz shows make 3-2-1 look like Panorama and their comedy makes Benny Hill look like Germaine Greer. Italian TV is like American TV without the good stuff: no Cheers, Golden Girls, Roseanne or Hill Street Blues. Plenty of Mannix, Hardcastle & McCormack, and Charlie’s Angels every day. The $6 Million Man is a highlight. Anyone looking forward to a 24-hour video channel should think again (or just think). Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ sandwiched between Rick Astley and The Reynolds Girls was the limit. I wonder whether TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi has sent Maxwell and Murdoch videos of Italia 7’s Colpo Grosso [“Sexy TV”], in which a series of strippers builds up to a naked contestant who sits caressing herself on a tatty haystack. Or the strip-quiz show where housewives peel down their knickers and suspenders in a version of Scruples. It’s a dismally sexless TV: The $6 Million Man is more erotic.
There’s always lots of news, what with the Vatican ($60 million in debt), Mafia, Red Brigade, Christian Democrats, Calabrase kidnappers, and of course football, which like most things thrives on polemica – rumours, bitching and back-biting. If you missed the recent Hungary-Italy Under-21 match (shown live on National TV), you missed a corker. Admittedly it was only a friendly. On European Cup days, you simply stay in. Take a day off. Three live Italian matches followed a recording of another in its entirety, time-wasting included.
The Florentines have made moaning into an art, like everything else. Maybe they thought it was the only way left to spite God, to prove that they are mortal: I moan, therefore I am.
I recently read an alarming survey on crowd violence in Italy. Fifty- nine percent of those asked said the violence had not affected their attitude towards Italian football. Thirty-eight percent said it had affected them negatively. It was the other 3 percent that worried me. They said it had made it more appealing. Of course they could be Florentines. Their Calcio Storico, a historic, barbaric version of Gaelic football (if you can imagine such a thing), is an extraordinary spectacle.
With a population of less than half a million, last year there were seventeen deaths from heroin in Florence. It’s too pure. By March 1989 there had been two more. The last of these was found in his car after four days and was photographed as such in the local paper. You see syringes in the street, under benches, everywhere.
Italians are more likely to meet their auto-deaths in more standard ways. This month, Italy becomes the last European country to bring in obligatory seatbelt laws. (Many cars don’t even have them.) There is no MOT. They are fond of blaming accidents and crashes on the slow drivers. Or better still, pedestrians. Florence, in particular, is the city where the joke about the driver who bombs through every red light and then slams his brakes on when he meets a green one (in case he hits his brother coming the other way) comes home to roost. Italian men are just boys. It’s their mothers who put the flowers at traffic lights where their boys meet their end.
The law has no logic but there is no such thing as an Italian principle; there are always exceptions. There are different limits for different days of the week, different places, different cars and different seasons. The bureaucracy is awesome. Many is the time I’ve been made to pay the supplemento rapido and an obligatory reservation for a seat on a half-empty train that’s hours late. Because only certain motorbike riders have to wear a helmet, less powerful bikes often cost more. They would rather have their haircuts unruffled when they arrive in hospital. Needless to say, I’m with them. The price of sealed and unsealed letters – small and large envelopes – differs, even if the weight’s the same. Stamps for postcards depend on how many words you write. No wonder a card from the next city can take five days. Count yourselves lucky.
Tourists in Florence are easy to spot. Tourists are the ones being unsuspectingly mown down by motorinos on the pavements. Only pigeons and tourists sit in the sun. They have straw hats, sore arms, bottles of water, silly shorts, whilst the locals have long coats and suits on. Anyone ugly is a tourist. Anyone scruffy or without shades. Anyone who looks poor. (Where the Florentines get their money from is one of modern man’s great mysteries, ranking just behind who buys Big Country’s records and why the British are stupid enough to buy shares in everything they already own.)
Every Easter and summer six thousand million tourists arrive in Piazza del Duomo. The Florentines quietly exit. Florentines treat tourists with anything between curt indifference and contempt; they see them as intrinsically inferior. I think the Florentines are too generous. I once heard an American tourist wonder aloud, “Why is The Madonna With Child always with a boy ?”
The tourists’ first task is a trip to the questura [the police) for a permit. It’s a cross between Kafka’s Trial and Dante’s Inferno, but not as pleasant. Shelley’s law would be that Americans and Germans who bring their own video crews would be the first to go. Only the gangs of gorgeous, groovy Japanese girls can remain. Nearby Siena has set an example, banning public displays of foreign languages – a response to the kind of Anglicising that creates words like ‘footing’ (used for ‘jogging’).
It’s hard work being a tourist in Florence. I’ve yet to muster the strength to face the graffiti-covered Uffizi gallery. The best way to arrive is by train at midnight, arriving at the 1930’s Avant Garde station, with its classical muzak, to the gentle strains of The Charge Of The Light Brigade. Like having your own movie soundtrack. One regular train announcer sounds as if he’s having a nervous breakdown, announcing in a hoarse scream: ‘Train ! Train ! Train arriving at platform seven !”
There are a million sights to see: Piazza Michelangelo, Forte Belvedere, Piazza Liberia, Palazzo Vecchio, the Court Building and Piazza Signoria, where recently excavated Bronze Age ruins have to be covered up before preparation for the I990 World Cup. (Paving stones from Piazza Signoria mysteriously found their way into various local villas.) Churches stuffed with finery, statues, crypts, paintings are everywhere. Certain churches survive even Florence’s church fatigue: the white marble of Santa Croce, where my friend Machiavelli is buried, San Lorenzo, Santo Spirito, Santa Maria Novella, San Miniato, San Marco and the Russian Church are stunning. The many banks that have frescoes and statues are a pleasure to be in.
Then there is the Duomo. Everywhere you go in Florence, you can see the Duomo – like a giant omnipresent breast. The council has just installed a video horoscope game in front of the Duomo. Not only tacky but surely blasphemous. Not much else from the 20th century enters Florence: the Henry Moore is stuck out in the Prato. (Capitalism and neurosis follow each other.) The Pontevecchio at sunset – like pop-up cardboard – the sepia-stained streets and ridiculous rooftop scenes are absurdly beautiful. No wonder the Florentines behave as if Florence is the world. Tuscany was God’s finest. Siena or San Gimigniano, where Welles could have made The Trial or The Third Man, are magical cities of shadows and secrecy. Smaller versions litter Tarkovsky’s favourite hills.
For a real glimpse of Florentine life go to the Food Market, where tiny dead birds lie in racks, rabbits hang in plastic bags to catch the blood dripping from their noses. They sell intestines, trotters, spleen, grumpy looking pig’s heads and whole pigs. The onions are like shot putts, the tomatoes like tennis balls, the melons like basketballs. The nuns squabble like penguins, the streets are victim to the parking-as-roadblock theory, the air resounds with classic Florentine swearing: “Porca miseria” [pig misery !] “Porco Dio” [Pig God !], “Madonna puttana” [Madonna whore !]. At San Lorenzo market, street-sellers chat up ageing tourists. (“’Ave a boochers at this.”) What with the tramps in their spring wear, there seems to be a lot of loonies here: maybe they just couldn’t handle all that beauty. (Italy legally abolished mental illness in I978.)
The English community are pompous monsters who launch into long tirades about birching football hooligans and the decline of the Home Counties, cricket or English tweed. They are the last dregs of Agatha Christie’s England – colonels and colonials, hurrahs and Harriets, prim fops named Toby, Sebastian and Jasper. The exiles and English teachers are losers, weirdoes and cases, disturbed outcasts too stiffly British to actually live there. There is fierce competition for English lessons, particularly given the proliferation of well-connected, brain-dead American baby-sitters and the fact that Florentines barter for blood.
I’ve found employment as an English teacher because I mumble and can drop my H’s and T’s at will (good practice for High Level students). Now my English is actually getting worse. I’ve started Italian-ising things – “The book, have you see it?” If English is the easiest language in the world, God help the rest of us. Try explaining the differences between ewe/you, sew/so/sow and saw/sore/soar. ‘Fear’ and ‘pear’ certainly look the same. ‘Tear’ looks like both but can be either. Add a consonant to ‘ought’ and you’ve got a lottery: bought, cough, tough, dough, brought, drought. ‘Through’ and ‘thorough’ inspire terror; ‘must’ and ‘get’ are a nightmare (‘’I will must”, “I have musted”, etc.). And what about the silent letters in words like ‘knee’, ‘wrist, ‘thumb’, ‘debt’, ‘receipt’ ? Who decided these things ?
As for rules like ‘i before e except after c’, did anyone consider ‘feign’ or ‘foreign’ ? The English themselves can’t even agree on how to pronounce ‘scone’ or ‘pronunciation’. Thus diplomacy becomes half the art of teaching. A small mistake – say, between passive and active – can often be fatal: “I had a lovely dinner. My mother was cooked [cooking].” As can a slight omission: “I’ll have your daughter [home] before midnight.” Or a near miss: “He eats a lot of vegetarians [vegetables].”
It’s no wonder a pupil once resorted to sheer panic: “Can, will, won’t, should, haven’t you go to the cinema tonight ?” Another, like a version of Private Eye’s John Cole column, has simply removed the problem of those tricky, little words by eliminating them altogether: “Yes, yes, car, road, bend, pensioner, lipstick, wall, brake, police, ambulance, bankruptcy, armadillo.” Mind you, it works both ways. None of the words: morbido, sensibile, controllare, simpatico, vocabulcirio, coincidenza means what it seems. As ‘adjectives’ becomes oggetivi, you might think ‘preservatives’ would be preservativi. But preservativi means ‘condoms’.
I’ve done lessons on the difference between ‘bonkers’ and ‘bonking’, taught a rather keen ‘hostess’ how to talk dirty in English and had many uncomfortable confessionals with wayward housewives. State English Education is so bad that two third-year, 17-year-old students would wave goodbye while saying “Hello”, but could recite — parrot-fashion – large passages about the Thames irrigation system, the battle of Waterloo or the history of Arsenal. Their extreme enthusiasm made this exceedingly depressing.
My favourite pupil is a waiter who greets English customers, not with “Good evening” but “Cheers, big ears”, because he heard it on holiday. He’ll walk up to friends of mine, grinning, and say, “Yes, my friend, you are a brick !!” Another had studied rather too many old textbooks, and would say things like: “Bid him come in” or “The movie was simply spiffing.” It seems a shame to correct him.
Exile is never easy, but at least the World Service makes you feel part of the world, not just England. Even when John Peel is playing Bogshed for someone in Managua, and thinking it’s a breakthrough, it’s better than the Voice Of America’s newsreaders going on about “sick militants in Pakistan” (perhaps they mean ‘sikh’). In exile, you get to listen to the Mexican stock market report and the Canadian badminton results. In exile you soon comprehend that the English are tainted for life. You never stop believing in the sanctity of The Queue, the daft belief that the English league is the hardest in the world (ha), and their poor, frigid, cold heartedness. British sexual scandals always look so inadequate. I miss the snooker, Sheila Grant, Frank Furillo, Morrissey, Dennis Skinner and Anchor butter. I miss my dog.
The consolations are innumerable, things like guzzling Riccadonna spumante like water, Baci chocolates with hidden couplets from Uncle Percy inside them (“In the sweet and soft eclipse/Where soul meets soul on lovers lips”), my manic, singing neighbour. Motorinos are dodgems for adults. No insurance, no licence, no number plate. You can do anything, go anywhere, up the pavements, up one-way streets. The coolest thing on earth is riding to the sea or down Via Cavour in the warm night, the superbly lit buildings against pink and blue skies, no helmet. It’s as big a thrill as you’re allowed in public, even if the cobbles do damage my cobblers. You’d have to be very strange to find a reason to leave. At night the beauty of the place is just fatal.
Believe me. Florence will make your heart stop.

ends