February 26, 2013
Today it’s snowing in Paris, there are blizzards in Phoenix, and it’s not very warm here in Lisbon, Portugal, where Tim and I landed over the week end. We were at sea for eighteen days on a repositioning cruise from Miami to Venice, which had been dusted with SNOW the night before we arrived! It seems a perfect time to catch up and tell you about being in Florence last summer, when it was so hot that we abandoned that exquisite city two weeks early, seeking refuge in France.
As always, we began our stay in a new city by looking for food. The day after we arrived, our friend Martha kindly took us to Essalunga, a major supermarket, and as Europeans do, she used landmarks to help us remember the route. “See that clump of cypress at the end of the median,” she said, as she veered to avoid a Vespa carrying an Italian family of four, “ That’s where you go around the circle so you can turn left up that street. “And look,” she continued, merrily waving one hand at a long terra cotta building with a tile roof, “At the end of this building, when you see that very large pine tree, you’ll turn right.”
Let me tell you that there are probably five thousand pine trees and six thousand cypress clumps in every neighborhood of Florence. Also, every building is some shade of terra cotta with a tile roof. Martha did her best to teach us, but we were poor students, and for a long time, the location of Essalunga remained as mysterious and elusive as Big Foot. We knew that each time we struck out for a shopping expedition we would get lost at least once, sometimes more.
We managed to find it on our the next day so we could set up our kitchen. Shopping at Essalunga is a contact sport. Florentines are always in a hurry and they do not have time for dawdlers! They are especially impatient in the produce department, where acquiring tomatoes and apples can be a test of skill and determination. Here’s the drill: a machine in the middle of the area dispenses plastic gloves and bags.
The shopper puts on a little plastic glove, grabs several plastic bags, and then makes his or her choices. Squeezing is not allowed. You must look, make your choices, and plop them in the bag using your gloved hand only. After choosing the produce, the shopper gets into a haphazard line in front of the weighing station. Then the purchases are plunked on a scale and the buyer punches the picture button which matches the item on the machine. If the product’s picture is not featured on a button, one must type in its product number, which is displayed in microscopic letters on the price card in the bin. If you do not remember that number, you must give up your spot in line, go back to the bin, retrieve the number, and start all over. I usually stuck to buying produce that had a picture because I could never remember the numbers. Our meals a little dull because of my unwillingness to run back and forth in the produce section!
Finally, the machine spits out a sticky label, which is supposed to adhere to the bag, but usually grabs the glove too. It seemed that there was always some tiny elderly Italian widow in a floral dress breathing on my neck as I made a fool of myself, caught three ways in a sticky loop. At this point, my mate, who watched the action from a spot safe for his claustrophobia, would snort with laughter. It took some time for me to see the humor in it.
Tim managed to pilot us home without making contact with another car or a hapless Vespa driver, and after we’d put away our prized groceries, we beat it upstairs to the pool. Each day was becoming warmer and we soon discovered that errands or sightseeing not accomplished by 2 p.m. were simply not possible. We’d managed to be present for Florence’s hottest summer in 200 years.
The sparkling pool was our haven on those hot afternoons. It was at a higher elevation than our apartment, and the view was even more spectacular. We would take drinks, snacks, and our books and computers and while away our afternoon under the trees. We read and chatted and wrote with cicadas providing the perfect summer sound track, and then we’d dip in the pool now and then to stay cool. Each day the celebrated Tuscan light would change the hills and the city into a glowing golden work of art.
We found all kinds of ways to beat the heat. One morning as I sipped my coffee, determined to enjoy the majestic view of Florence, the garden hose next to my feet jerked so violently that I jumped up and sent my cup flying. Tim was standing at the far corner of the terrace ready to begin our daily plant watering ritual. He had yanked the hose to make it long enough to hold over his head and he stood there chuckling and smiling, pleased with this new idea. Water cascaded over his head and down his entire body. I giggled and joined him in our private wet t-shirt contest.
We found our way into the city with our trusty GPS. Veronica speaks in a fluty English accent, but her pronunciation in foreign languages leaves a lot to be desired. Her Turkish was terrible and her French made us laugh, but her Italian was truly abysmal. Each time she wanted us to turn on Bolognese, the main artery near the villa, she would instruct us to turn left of Veeeeya Boll-og-Knees. I became adept at interpreting her strange language, and eventually we developed the skill to get around the city with a minimum of shouting and blue language from the frustrated driver. It’s a very tricky city and Italian drivers are notoriously aggressive, but we noticed early on that they seemed particularly piqued with us. When we mentioned the problem to Martha one afternoon at the pool, she solved the mystery: “Oh, it’s just because you have French license plates,” she said. The blue “F” on our license plate made us a target for every Italian driver, but at least we knew not to take it personally!
I have more of Florence to share with you, plus a visit to Martha’s castle, Porciano, and trips to Venice, Verona and Trieste, but right now Tim and I are going out for an exploratory look at Lisbon. I can’t wait to see how Veronica’s Portuguese sounds!