SiteBitsCitiesFlorenceDispatches ⇒ Take Man, Add Renaissance

Take Man, Add Renaissance

Dispatch from Florence sent by Slava Borisov | Published : 19/May/2016 23:00

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a Renaissance man. You know, the guy who can do many things well: speak foreign languages, play musical instruments, dazzle his conversation partners with obscure bits of science trivia, and light up dinner parties with tales of his travel adventures – all with the verve and panache of someone who knows what life is all about.

Over the years, I’ve made significant inroads toward this goal. Having been born a man was a good start. Though the foreign languages took some work (even after a downward revision of the target number of tongues) and my musical talents have occasionally been called into question (another post, perhaps), by and large, things have been moving in the right direction. Except one thing – unfortunately, rather central to the whole concept.

My dabbling in the visual arts ended, peacefully, in high school. The efforts were crowned with a large artwork entitled “Make Love Not War.” One didn’t need to read the label to know this was the title: the hippie-era slogan was printed in huge letters right across the grey canvas. For extra visual effect, there were some clouds in the background. The painting decorated the wall above my bed (which, I feel obligated to mention, had hardly ever been the site of either of the themes evoked by the artist) until I went off to college.

Following up this breakthrough proved to be tough and my enthusiasm about any active participation in the visual arts scene cooled. Nevertheless, I kept the “art lover” charade going for years by insisting on visiting a museum or two in every city I traveled to. It was only recently that I realized how little those pilgrimages meant to me: I tried, and failed, to remember anything at all about any of the artworks I’d had the pleasure of contemplating over the previous decade and a half. With a single exception, there was nothing that I could call up to memory. The exception was Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre and the things I could remember about it were exactly two: first, how small it was compared to what I had imagined, and second, how many Chinese and Japanese tourists were standing between myself and the masterpiece. I couldn’t even get a good look at the thing.

Faced with the slightly uncomfortable – if still putative – diagnosis of my visual philistinism, I tried repeatedly to come up with some sort of spur to reinvigorate my nearly-extinguished interest in the fine arts, but nothing suitable would come to mind. Until recently. My mother and I were discussing taking a short vacation together, for the first time in years. It would be a spring break of sorts – if spring breaks existed for retired teachers accompanied by their adult, visibly balding children. Immediately, I thought: what about Florence? Why not take the man-child in question and literally smother him in Renaissance? (Well, not literally). What would happen? Would he finally turn into a fully-developed Renaissance man? I reckoned it was worth a try and was unlikely to hurt anyone. Besides, neither of us has been to Florence. My mother went along with the plan.

On approach, the Air France pilot took an unusual step of warning our flight’s passengers – in two (or was it three?) languages – about the slightly aggressive character of the braking maneuver he was contemplating. His warning came a good ten minutes before the landing and elicited no reaction whatsoever: the passengers, especially the assorted Americans and Canadians lounging in the seats around me, appeared nonchalant. It is also possible they did not understand the pilot’s accent and assumed he was nagging them about not littering, smoking, or tampering with the smoke detectors. Drawing on the unfair advantage of having heard – and understood – the message twice (or was it thrice?), I discreetly double-checked the buckle on my seatbelt.

The landing was indeed rough: on touchdown, the plane jolted and the force of the braking made the design purpose of seatbelts quite obvious to everybody on board. Someone on the plane squealed. Many passengers clutched the top of the seat in front of them with both their hands – mostly to avoid catching it with their faces. The North Americans around me were no longer nonchalant.

“You even know how to fly this thing?” – yelled a middle-aged passenger across the isle to my left, ostensibly addressing the pilot who, I am assuming, could not have heard him (also, technically, the plane was no longer flying). “Jeez!” he turned to his travel companion, seeking to elaborate his critique. “That was baaad!”

After this gentle reminder of our mortality, our transfer to the city seemed uneventful except for some almost-anticipated minor dickery from the cab driver who, once our two suitcases were lodged in the trunk of his cab, immediately dialed in a five-euro supplement on the meter – on top of the flat-rate twenty-euro charge. Florentine cabbies are supposed to add a one-euro supplement per bag. But which bag? Why, “one placed in the trunk of the vehicle with the driver’s help, naturally,” I read out from my imaginary book of municipal rules and regulations. I did not expect the cabbie to count the shoulder-bags we took in the cab with us, since he didn’t even have to touch those. And certainly not my mother’s purse, which he had better not touched. But he counted everything. And since I had no idea what the actual, non-imaginary rules were, I limited my protest to pouting silently in the back seat for the fifteen minutes or so that it took the cab to reach the center of the city.

Our rented accommodation was located on the last floor of an old building right in the center of Florence, a few minutes’ walk to the Piazza del Duomo. The Piazza functions as the city’s main pedestrian hub. From there, streets radiate in all directions, some of them wider, some narrower, and a couple semi-pedestrianized. Whatever their width, orientation, and mode of use, all central streets are usually filled with a dense, roughly uniformly-distributed mass of strolling folks, some of them Italian.

The apartment had everything we needed and was a miracle of ingenuity in terms of the efficiency of its layout. The beds were put up on a raised loft-like platform, leaving an area of about one open suitcase in size underneath to function as our living room. Standing in that spot, we could peer out of the kitchen window and observe the roofs and terraces of the locals’ apartments (we assume our neighbors were locals because, unlike the foreigners at street level, they all appeared to be hiding).

The bathroom contained neither a tub nor a shower stall; instead, the whole space functioned as a combination of both. Water came out of the shower head mounted directly in the ceiling and, having splashed over the things you had brought with you, disappeared down the drain hole in the tiled floor. If you insisted on keeping a thing or two dry while showering (three would be a stretch due to the lack of space), they had to be pushed out of the shower flow’s way, onto a tiny soapbox-sized shelf in the far upper corner. I found it neat and just a touch bohemian.

Our program for the six-day vacation was simple, if a little vague. The main goals were to relax, walk around Florence, and avoid spending too much money. We were visiting in early March – a season when the crowds still tend to be manageable (the real craziness starts in April and goes on until October). Soon after our arrival in the city, however, we began to appreciate that the crowds’ preference might not be so irrational after all: except for the initial twenty-four-hour period, it rained every single day, often for hours on end. Still, on our first full day in Florence, the weather, although cloudy, was not so bad: at least it was dry. We set out around noon, and after grabbing a quick cappuccino near the Piazza di San Firenze, crossed the Ponte Vecchio to the other bank of the Arno.

The Boboli Garden (Giardino di Boboli), located behind the massive Palazzo Pitti (built in several stages starting from the mid-15th century), is a short walk away from the riverbank. Access to the garden is paid, though having been lightly traumatized by the crossing of the Ponte Vecchio minutes before, I found ten euros to be an almost bargain price for a chance to hide from the mobs of selfie-stick-wielding tourists we’d just seen on the bridge. Once inside, we could walk the premises in a select company of at most two or three dozen sightseers dispersed throughout the mighty big garden. I concluded that the Boboli might be the best place in Florence to take pictures of your travel companions (or yourself) without strangers clouding your shot.

The garden reminded me of the Lower (Nizhny / Нижний) Park in Peterhof, a suburb of St. Petersburg in which I grew up, minus all of Nizhny’s extraneous opulence: the gilded statues, the Grand Cascade, the Samson fountain, and so on. The Boboli is a smaller, more peaceful version of all that. Of course, if I wanted to nitpick, I could point out that the Porcelain Museum (Museo delle Porcellane) was closed on the day (or perhaps, year) of our visit – “for technical reasons” – and that the rose garden at the hilltop in early March was little more than a patch of mud studded with sticks, but I am not nitpicking: the Giardino is simply great! And it’s not just me saying this: plenty of literary heavyweights concur. It was in the Boboli that Rainer Maria Rilke ran, completely unexpectedly, into the fellow poet Stefan George in 1898, while both were vacationing in the city. Andre Gide, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and many others came here too, soaking up the garden’s tranquility and getting inspiration for their work. (Naturally, this was long before EasyJet started a regular flight service to a nearby Tuscan airport.)

By lunchtime, we had emerged from the side gate of the Palazzo Pitti with a major “to do” box on our itinerary ticked off. In truth, I am tempted to say that it was the only box deliberately placed on our itinerary. I had arrived in Florence as I usually arrive in cities – having done no research whatsoever – and my mother’s list of things to see consisted almost entirely of piazzas and open-air landmarks, all located within walking distance from our temporary headquarters.

In the days that followed, with the weather mostly uncooperative, we explored the city in small increments by taking short walks around the center, peeking out from underneath our umbrellas’ canopies to gander at some historical monument or the other, and biding our time in cafés when the rain intensified. In between these activities, we would often cook simple meals in our small and chilly – but centrally located – apartment. Actually, it was my mother who was doing the cooking: I was busy catching up on my reading while trying not to stray too far from the portable heater.

One highlight of this unhurried week of slow-travel tourism was a visit to the famous La Giostra restaurant, which had been recommended to me by several friends. In no small part, the appeal that the restaurant held for us was due to its being run by two scions of the Habsburg family. As any school kid will inform you, the Habsburgs had for centuries ruled much of Europe. Today, to Europeans’ delight, the family found a new outlet for their management skills, albeit to somewhat more modest ends. Rumor had it that Soldano, one of the two twin sons of Prince Dimitri Kunz d'Asburgo Loreno, would often come out of the kitchen during meals to chat with the guests. Who would say no to a chance for tipping a royal offspring? Not me!

To get this chance, however, I first had to put some minor effort into securing a reservation, which required sending an email and then, having heard nothing for about a day, stopping by in person in order to confirm that my email had been received. This slight inconvenience didn’t strike me as too onerous and further convinced me that the aristocratically-themed place was worth it.

The restaurant’s walls were decorated with photos of the late Prince Dimitri in kitchen attire, accompanied by smiling, visibly satisfied customers. I did not recognize any of them, although I am sure they deserved to be put up on the wall in a frame, much like the family patriarch. Our meal was very good and the quantity of food such that I had to abandon the complicated rules of royal etiquette and apologetically ask our waitress to give us one of the dishes “to go”: there was simply no way to finish everything we ordered on the spot.

However, it was not the food but the restaurant’s clientele that left the deepest impression on me. It skewed heavily American and, as far as I could tell, was just about 100% foreign. Nary a duke or duchess in sight – the 40-is-the-new-30 crowd seemed to be composed of people one would most expect to see in a corporate meeting. Who were they, I wondered, getting sated and increasingly lost in reverie. Middle managers taking their loved ones on a company-paid European junket (and leaving their spouses at home)? Tort lawyers celebrating a juicy settlement? Social media experts taking a break from “liking” stuff (or whatever those guys do)? There was no easy way for me to tell, short of asking them directly. Still, I could hear a few things: English was the language used by most everyone when ordering and talking, so while my efforts to communicate with the waitstaff in Italian were respectfully appreciated, they were also clearly unnecessary.

When the time came to leave our table to the next reservation, I spotted Soldano, the owner-manager and one of Prince Dimitri’s sons, chatting with a group of financial types (just guessing here) three tables over. I considered walking over to greet him, but on reflection dismissed the impulse as a pointless exercise in minor celebrity worship.

In the end, though we had a perfectly satisfying meal at La Giostra, I left with a nagging suspicion that Florentines – assuming some of them were still living in this city – must have known of even better places if they had ceded the famous restaurant to tourists so completely. Well, that.. and a caprese salad “to go”.

On our last full day in town, the weather was just as dreadful as the day before. I checked the forecast: sunshine and above-shivering temperatures were just around the corner. Seeing as it was the conclusion of our Renaissance-themed trip, we decided to make one final bucket-listy gesture and go to a museum. To be honest, I was far from convinced that the five days we had spent soaking up the Renaissance capital’s clammy atmosphere had been quite enough time to turn me into an art buff. Still, there was little doubt that museums were a wonderful refuge from inclement weather.

As we were moving toward it, the line for the Galleria Uffizi looked long but manageable. One hour? Maybe ninety minutes, tops? I didn’t have so much as a moment for working out a good estimate since we were immediately approached by an attractive young woman. She did not look even remotely Italian, but carried some papers on a clipboard. This item of office supply lent her a certain gravitas.

“Do you have reservations for your visit?” she asked us in lightly accented English, affecting the stern look of the hostess of an in-vogue Tribeca restaurant.

I confessed that we did not. Her countenance grew a bit more compassionate.

“This..” – she gestured toward to the snaking line behind her – “will take at least three hours. At least! But… if you want, our company organizes group tours.”

She tilted the clipboard toward us so we could read what’s on offer.

“There’s a separate line for groups,” – she explained. “And we should have an English-speaking one ready in about forty minutes.”

There were indeed a few people loitering some distance away from the main line. I glanced at the sheet she was holding out for our perusal. One spot in the group would cost forty five euros. To me. And only five to my mother – in celebration of the International Women’s Day. The way I understood it, the deal we were being offered essentially amounted to paying fifty euros for cutting in line – along with a small pack of other impatient art aficionados. I hesitated, trying to place the morality of this practice in my universe of values. One additional factor to bear in mind was a non-negligible possibility that the whole arrangement was an outright scam designed to bilk the most obvious foreign idiots out of fifty euros.

We took a minute to consider our options. Was our time in line worth the premium? Were we being played for goddamn fools? Did the regular line really take quite so long? And if so, did we really want to see the Uffizi quite that badly? In the end, it was that last question that proved to be crucial in helping us make up our minds. Forgoing a unique opportunity to find out whether this was a real scam or merely a questionable practice, we decided to say no to everything: to the comely girl, to the tempting offer, and to the Galleria Uffizi.

Instead, we walked three blocks north and entered the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. A former prison and headquarters of the police, housed in one of the oldest Florentine buildings (its construction began in the mid-1200s), the Bargello was a place where countless people throughout the centuries were tortured and in whose courtyard more than a few were executed. Today, like so much else in Florence, the building is stocked up with Renaissance art. I was almost excited to see all of it.

The metal detector at the entrance announced my arrival by ringing furiously, but the security guard just waved me in. He was discussing something interesting with a co-worker and was in no mood to interrupt the conversation for a completely unnecessary pat-down. I was starting to warm up to Italians. Admission to the museum cost only four euros (to me; to my mother, it was free – once again, in celebration of the International Women’s Day) and there was no lineup at the ticket booth. I was finally starting to warm up to Renaissance art.

The Bargello is famous mostly for its sculptures: the works of Donatello, Michelangelo, Cellini, and others of their ilk are distributed throughout the museum’s first two floors and courtyard. I duly walked by a bunch of their masterpieces, stopping near each, contemplating it for the requisite fifteen seconds (enough time to take in the beauty, I reckoned), pretending to read the labels, and moving on. Even though I kind of sussed out from the get-go that the statues would be unlikely to knock me off my feet, even figuratively, I was determined to at least survey the inventory and try to remember a thing or two about what I saw. Perhaps one day I’ll have kids and I’ll brag to them about that one time when I was taking their grandmother to a museum in Florence. (Would the little bastards do the same for me?).

It was the sight of the bull’s-eye glass panes in the window of one of the museum’s rooms that awoke me from my paternal daydreams. Why did it feel like I had just seen this stuff somewhere? Actually, it felt like that because I had just read about it somewhere. This type of glass-making, also known as “crown glass,” was mentioned in Bill Bryson’s book “At Home,” which I had brought with me on the trip. The distinctive circles marked the spots where the blower’s pontil had been attached. This ostensibly flawed kind of glass not only was cheaper, but also allowed 18th-century English homeowners to escape the “window & glass tax.” The frugal-minded English loved it, if only for that reason. Apparently, so did the frugal-minded Florentines.

From there, our visit got a little more compelling, at least for one philistine. It turned out that the museum also contains numerous decorative art pieces: silk weavings, woodwork, ivory carvings, Renaissance dinnerware, tapestries, and various metal objects whose purpose or function could not be easily guessed by non-initiates. Before long, I left my mother behind to marvel at the statues and tagged after a small English-speaking tour group. An Italian guide was showing five female students, probably art history majors in their first or second year of college, around the decorative arts section. Not being creepy at all, I discreetly followed them around, listening to the stories of various objects on display while also studying those nearby, reading their labels, and fighting the urge to shift my gaze from the antique knickknacks to the perfectly modern jeans barely an arm’s reach away.

At one point, the group and I happened upon a display case with an unbelievably modern-looking – despite its age – portable keyboard instrument. It had an attaché case-sized body and tiny ivory keys that looked to be even smaller than those on today’s miniature MIDI keyboards. The all-female art history gang sailed right past the table and soldiered on. I guess this sort of intricate, technical beauty – unlike the fabrics, chains, key purses, and similar stuff – held no special interest for them. I stayed behind and admired the instrument, finding it difficult to believe that something that looks like a limited-edition analogue synth in a rich hipster’s bedroom could have been built (most likely, in Northern Italy or the South of France) long before electricity became the musician’s best friend. Suddenly, it was closing time already and I had to find my mother, who was somewhere downstairs – probably still in the thrall of the muscular marble heroes and anti-heroes of the classical world.

This museum visit, followed up with a cup of tea and a buckwheat crêpe at a nearby café, pretty much concluded our trip to Florence. There was only one thing to do at the very end: get to the airport the following morning.

That didn’t promise to be overly complicated. During the week’s walks, I scoped out not one, not two, but three taxi stands nearby: one just east of the Duomo, one a block or two west, and a third – the biggest one – about ten minutes walk north, in the Piazza San Marco. I also researched ways to call a cab and even got a number – all seven digits of it – though I no idea how to dial it from my (foreign) cell phone and the taxi company’s web site did not explain it. Wikipedia further confused me with an article claiming that Italian phone numbers rarely have fewer than nine digits. The taxi company advertised exactly seven. Switching tactics, I tried to install Uber on my new, allegedly smart, phone but for some reason the app seemed to have blocked my number, email, or both. I could not log in or reset my password, no matter how many times I asked to be sent a link to reset it.

But these setbacks didn’t really bother me: after all, those were merely our backup options. Of course, my mother was worried, as she tends to be about pretty much everything, but I reassured her. Cabs should not be difficult to come by. Otherwise, how would all the tourists get back to the airport?

After completing our tour of the Bargello, we walked by the Duomo stand. A bored taxi driver was reading a newspaper in a parked vehicle.

“Ask him if he’s going to be here in the morning!”– said my mother worriedly. I scoffed at her suggestion.

“What kind of a stupid question is that? What’s he going to say? ‘No, signore, I don’t work in the mornings. Someone else will be working.’”

Walking right past the cabbie, I shook my head in exasperation. On occasion, I can get impatient with my mother. If she was in charge, I’d be going around asking pointless questions all day!

Our plane was leaving shortly after seven in the morning. To give ourselves ample time for the flight registration and other formalities, I thought that we should leave our apartment around five and aim to be at the airport by six. We woke up early, had a bite of breakfast, packed our bags, and hit the road with only a slight delay, around 5:15 am. Luckily, the closest taxi stand was only a short walk away.

Outside, the street was dark, fresh, and drizzly. The sound of our suitcases being rolled on the pavement stones was softened somewhat by the white noise of the rain, but still echoed around the street. For a moment I worried about bothering the sleeping residents, but then realized that most of those so-called residents were probably Americans on vacation who’d be waking up someone else when they leave – perhaps even tomorrow – and I stopped worrying.

When we got the piazza near the Duomo, the acoustics changed: there was no more echo, since we were now walking through the empty square. Yes, the Piazza del Duomo with no people at all: a rare sight indeed! Also, no taxis – neither parked at the stand nor in motion, anywhere in sight. I turned around and smiled at my mother, but she wasn’t sharing my good mood.

“I’ll skip ahead just a little bit and you take your time,” – I said, trying to sound confident. My new plan was to run to the option-B stand as fast as possible, grab a taxi before anyone else could beat me to it, and wait for my mother inside the vehicle, slowly drying up and no longer nervous.

In truth, I needn’t have worried so much about possible competitors: the Piazza was really empty, save for one early-bird jogger who was getting her morning fix of a runner’s high and was manifestly not interested in automotive transportation of any kind. Unfortunately, the second taxi stand was also empty, just like the first. Moreover, I was irked by the sight of a “civilian” vehicle parked right under the taxi sign. This suggested a disturbing possibility that the stand was not even in use at this hour (though I am still convinced it was illegal to park there overnight).

I made a U-turn and hurried back to meet my mother, who was now reaching the Battisterio di San Giovani. It did not take her very long to guess why I was rushing back toward her. She gave me a (fully justified) hateful look.

“Ok!” I said, coming closer. “Ok… let’s go to the San Marco! There must be somebody there!”

We started walking briskly toward the square: me in front, anxious to confirm the existence of a standful of taxis lined up and waiting for passengers, and my aging mother behind, at a slowly increasing distance. Within a block or so, having spotted a hotel, I had a different idea: I’ll just go to the lobby and ask the concierge to call a cab for us! Of course! I should have thought of it right away.

But the hotel’s glass door was closed shut and there was nobody behind it that I could see from the outside. I stood and peered in for half a minute, then felt just a tiny bit more desperate.

My mother caught up with me to share her assessment of the situation:

“We’re definitely going to miss the flight now,” she said in a voice communicating both resignation and anger. She could have added “because of you,” but the ellipsis worked just as well here: the unspoken part was understood by both parties present. I also understood something else: specifically, that under such a scenario, she was also going to miss her connecting (and far more expensive) onward flight. Seeking to prove her wrong as quickly as possible, I grabbed both of our suitcases and practically ran the remaining two blocks to the Piazza San Marco. My mother struggled to keep up.

Of course, there was no one waiting for anyone at the San Marco taxi stand either. Actually – wait, not so fast – there was one person staggering around the square! It was a bum who decided that 5:30 am was the perfect time of the day to check whether somebody might have forgotten a coin or two in the pay phone near the empty taxi stand. My mother charged at him like an offensive tackle, scaring him stiff.

“Where can we get a taxi here, do you know?” – she yelled out in English, skipping the customary good-morning pleasantries. The bum stood there mute and slightly confused, though having overcome the first shock and seemingly reasoned that we’re not as dangerous as we had first appeared, he was now looking at us with interest. Evidently, he did not speak any English.

I brushed him aside with a polite “Scusi!” and reached for the pay-phone whose coin return slot he had just examined for change. Another brilliant idea had just come to me: I’ll call a cab from the Piazza. Why don’t I think of such things quicker? The seven-digit number dialed from a local pay-phone was probably going to go through just fine, no extra digits needed.

I tried dialing the number a couple of times and got the same recorded message before realizing that there was a small nuance at play. There is a reason why these retro-looking boxes of metal, wires, and plastic are called “pay phones” rather than “free phones”: no matter what number of digits a phone number contains, some coins must be inserted to initiate the call. I fumbled around in my jeans’ coin pocket and found nothing but a few useless euro-cents. I remembered now that all my other coins had been spent the night before on a postage stamp: I was mailing a postcard to a friend in Barcelona.

I turned to the bum and prepared to inquire about something. To his credit, he quickly grokked which question would be most likely to come from the lips of someone in my predicament. (That question would surely go along the lines of: “Would the gentleman in rags have, by any chance, some small change to spare, for a phone call?”). Anticipating such a turn of events, the bum took a couple of steps back, looking distracted. I felt bad and decided not to ask the correctly anticipated question. Instead, I improvised one more scheme which was even smarter than all the previous ones: I’ll ask him how to dial the number from my mobile phone. I took my phone out and unlocked the screen. First step? Dial Italy!

Scusi, signore,” – I said slowly and in my best accent, “Sa qual’è il prefisso telefonico internazionale d’Italia?

Do you know what Italy’s international dialing code is? This very short question demonstrated, in equal parts, my passable knowledge of conversational Italian and my profound ignorance of everything else that had to do with this wonderful country, starting with its country code. They don’t teach you that in your Italian class, do they?

The bum hesitated.

Uhm…. Deve essere… uuuuhm…

He hesitated some more, then started counting on his fingers. I knew enough to understand it was not a good sign. It was definitely thirty-something, I just couldn’t remember if it was 34, 35, or 30-something-else (note: it is 39). More and more, it looked like we were really screwed.

That’s when the unexpected happened. My mother spotted a lone white vehicle with extinguished roof lights driving slowly down the Via Camillo Cavour. At once, she took off running toward it, leaving her suitcase behind.

Ecco la polizia!” said the bum almost wistfully, but in such a convincing tone that I immediately believed him. For a moment I thought about going to the police car myself – to see if maybe the cops could tell me how to dial the damn number.

But it wasn’t the police. It was, miraculously, a cab, which my mother stopped by waving maniacally and then jumping in front of it. Even more miraculously, having stopped and listened to her, the driver agreed to turn around and in a few seconds was pulling in at the empty taxi stand. I couldn’t believe our luck. I was almost ready to hug the bum. Well, almost. Instead, I said “Grazie mille, signore!” (even though, frankly, he was not all that helpful). We got inside the car. Unlike our first Florentine cabbie, this fellow keyed in a surcharge of exactly two euros, as per my previously imagined book of rules and regulations.

We drove off. As the cab was making its way through the increasingly peripheral streets, the driver made a short call to the dispatcher’s office to inform them that he could not, after all, pick up the passenger that he had previously agreed to pick up.

Porca miseria, Giuseppe! What happened?” said the operator testily through the two-way radio.

“Try to find somebody else!” barked the driver in response, adding some language which I did not understand. “And call me back!”

My mother was catching her breath on the seat next to me, blissfully unaware of the contents of this conversation, but I spent the next two or three minutes in absolute terrified certainty that the operator was going to call back and tell Giuseppe there was not one driver available in the whole city and then insist that he honor his pledge or risk being fired on the spot. We would then be thrown out of the cab – only this time, we would really find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, with no chance of making the flight.

To my astonishment, however, the operator did just the opposite, calling back with a confirmation that Giuseppe was now completely free of his prior obligation.

Va bene, Mario!” said Giuseppe. “Ciao e grazie! Buona notte!” It sounded like it was the end of the shift for at least one of them. –“..o buona mattina!” he self-corrected with a chuckle after a pause.

For a second time in 24 hours, I felt that I was warming up to Florence and to the Italians in general. Too bad we didn’t get to know any of them. And too bad we were already leaving.