Sunday, February 27, 2011

Aria di Rinuccio

An aria that I learned to love as a little girl....
Never knowing the meaning it would have to me today

Aria di Rinuccio
from Gianni Schicchi
Giacomo Puccini

"Florence is like a flowering tree which grows in the Piazza Signoria,
But its roots draw new strength from the fertile valleys.
Florence blossoms, and strong palaces and slender towers rise to the stars.
The Arno sings as it kisses the Piazza Santa Croce,
before hurrying to its mouth.
Its song is so sweet that all the streams join in as a chorous.
So let those versed in arts and sciences join in making Florence richer.
Welcome Arnolfo from the Val d'Esa to build his beautiful tower.
Welcome Giotto from the Mugello woods, and Medici the bold merchant.
Enough of these mean petty prejudices. Long live the newcomers, Gianni Schicchi!"


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Today's Discovery: A Rare Book

One of the distinctive cultural characteristcs of Italy, and I think in particular of Florence, is the overwhelming plethora of bookstores that thrive not only in the center of town but throughout even the most remote little neighborhoods on the periphery. There are more book shops here than churches, if you can imagine that. Most of them are located in tiny storefront spaces among 15th century buildings, with books stacked in no special order, from floor to ceiling. Some are sold by vendors in the street out of portable outdoor stalls. When I first moved here, I was bewildered by the fact that so many little mom-and-pop book shops could survive so harmoniously side-by-side. Many of these, if not most of them, sell old and used books. Each little store is unique and specializes in a different genre or topic in which the owner is often an expert. The buying, swapping, trading and selling of used books is a passion here.

Discussing and debating new and old books is a natural passtime in Florence. Public presentations of new books and authors is commonplace not only in the booktores, but in libraries all over town. People pack in to see them and there is seldom standing room if you don't arrive early. Structured presentations of new books by their authors and advocates is a common diversion.
Because Florence plays host to a huge international student population, it is no wonder that there are so many book shops. But upon closer inspection, I have noticed that the customers of the numerous mom-and-pop shops are overwhelmingly local Italian non-students, as the students tend to keep to the libraries and larger bookstores near the big piazzas. The customers are simply the people. They browse and read with a reverence that you only see in church. They caress the pages and browse through them like they are handling a precious manuscript. Something will surely be lost the day that Italy accepts the Amazon Kindle into their culture.

Today while walking home from the market, I wandered into the bookstore pictured to the left. Before I knew it, two hours had passed while fascinating myself browsing among books mostly of Italian Risorgimento and WWII history, art and culture during those years, many of which were more than 100 years old!

While suddenly, within a pile of old timeworn volumes, I spotted a book, the cover of which I immediately recognized. I had found a gem.

It was the 65 year-old original first edition (photo on top of page) of Carlo Levi's narrative "Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli" (Christ Stopped at Eboli), which he wrote while living across the street from Palazzo Pitti after being released from the Murate prison here in Florence after the fall of Mussolini. I had accidentally stumbled upon a buried treasure.

My personal experience with this book was in 2005 when I read it in English as preparatory material before embarking upon a 10 day cross-country bike tour (thanks to Ciclismo Classico) that took me through Matera and the wild backroads of Basilicata in southern Italy. There in Matera I visited Carlo Levi's museum, which houses the painting that you see at top, on the cover of the book. This mystical art portrays the story of the impoverished "Mezzogiorno", or southern Italy, during the reign of Mussolini, as accounted by this exiled anti-facist activist. The book formed an indelible impression upon me and was one of the precursor reading experiences that contributed to my ultimate destination in Florence.

Afraid to touch this sacred book any further, I held it in my hands with humble respect. I could not believe my eyes. This was the original, used hard cover book published in its first year, 1946, before it ever became politically and socially famous. God knows who it belonged to, how many people touched it. I was in awe.

I was afraid to ask the owner how much he was asking for it. He said 10 Euro. Did I hear that right? This is a collector's item. It is probably worth hundreds. But it's worth way more than money to me..."One man's garbage is another man's treasure". I trembled with excitement and awe as I handed over the 10 Euro. This will be a lifetime keepsake for me.

The church bells started to ring, signaling noon. A few minutes later, a friend of the owner came into the shop with lunch. He unwrapped a large piece of pecorino, a container of vegetables that he brought from home and a loaf of bread from Montespertoli. They insisted that I share in their lunch and wouldn't let me say no.

Thank you, Florence.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Another Good Encounter with Italian Healthcare

No, I did not come here to Piazza Santa Annunziata today to tour the museum of the Ospedale degli Innocenti or to see Ghirlandaio's Adoration of the Magi. Nor did I come here to stroll through its peaceful cloister or to observe Botticelli's Madonna and Child in its art gallery. Or to see the precious manuscripts and frescoes that adorn its walls. And no, I didn't come here today to gaze at Della Robbia's blue and white terracotta tondos, nor to admire Brunelleshi's renaissance porticos that flank the piazza.

Today I was not here for the art. In fact I did not even know that this is where I was headed when I left my apartment this morning. Today I discovered much to my surprise that the cloister (photo above) is also the home to the gynecological and oncological departments of Italy's national healthcare system in my quartiere (neighborhood) in Florence. An unexpected discovery.

Last month I received a letter from the Gynecology Department of the Servizio Sanitario Nazionale (Italian healthcare system) offering me an appointment to take a PAP test. Although this subject may be of feminine interest, it stands as a good example of the excellent experiences I have had so far within the structure of the Servizio Sanitario Nazionale.

As with all citizens of Italy, I am covered by the national healthcare service. However, as a new citizen, I have been learning the ropes on my own, with no guidance, or should I say it has been very limited. Thus, it has been somewhat frightful and mysterious. Although research helps, there is no substitute for experience.

As soon as I received this appointment letter, I started forming a vision of what to expect. I immediately imagined an ugly crowded facility of people standing in line, filling out forms endlessly waiting with impatience their turn, similar to the horrific nightmare of a visit to the New York City Department of Motor Vehicles. Then told by a nurse practicioner to strip, open your legs, get dressed and you will receive the results in the mail before the turn of the century.

Without further consideration, I filed the letter away and said "no way.” Such a private encounter warrants a private doctor. My standards are high even for an American, as I’ve always had executive healthcare coverage. I’ve never been to a clinic or an HMO, have had complete freedom-of-choice in the selection of doctors and facilities and have never had to wait for approvals for procedures or specialists. Could I really submit to the idea of socialized healthcare to the extent of standing in line with the masses to have someone treat my private parts like a number?

Yet, over the past 2 years since becoming a citizen and being covered by the Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, I have had only good experiences. From my family doctor Lucia Ventura, an always-available 50 something professional with impressive credentials and a compassionate maternal bedside manner, to the radiological facility that I visited in Piazza Independenza for a routine sonogram last year, to the availability and ease of getting medicine and prescriptions, I have to say that so far, it’s even better than what I had in America. And from Italian friends who have lived here all their lives, I have heard nothing but positive and in some cases rave reviews. How can you beat a system where your family doctor still makes house calls? Not in America.

So, to get back to my story (:), I’ve had one month to contemplate that letter. Last night I pulled the letter out again and saw that the appointment date was for the next morning at Piazza Santa Annunziata #12. How could I not want to go to Piazza Santa Annunziata for a doctor appointment? I go there for the art, the history, right? Yet I could not imagine where, within the piazza among the landmark buildings, museum, cloister, church, ospedale……where could there possibly be a public healthcare facility? And where else would I prefer to go? On a bus to the periphery? To a hospital? The piazza is a 5 minute walk from my house, in one of the 3 greatest historic piazzas of Florence. What more could I want?

Realizing that I had nothing to lose, I planned to be there the next morning, if only to increase my knowledge of the system.

As you have already guessed, it was a #10 experience. Hidden within a small corner of the quiet cloister was an unobtrusive door leading to the gynecology/oncology departments. I couldn’t believe it. I was here to see the Ghirlandaio exhibit only a month ago. Who would ever expect a public healthcare office to be embedded within the walls of this mecca of Florentine art? The same question I asked myself 2 years ago when I first visited my family doctor in her office at Piazza Santa Croce. I was dazzled and wanted to sing out loud. I walked into the office, where a small chatty lady sitting at a small desk welcomed me. It was quiet, just like you would expect of a cloister. I filled out a simple form and sat in a waiting room with 1 other woman. After a 15 minute wait, I was welcomed into the doctor’s office.

She was the vision of a 50+Grand Madonna herself. Big warm smile, energetic yet calm. Long grey hair, glasses, natural, beautifully wrinkled skin, professional looking but more than anything else……passionate, compassionate and maternal. An instant feeling of warmth and confidence overcame me. The rest of the details….it was the best Gyn visit that I ever had in my life. Besides the procedure which was superior in every way, the stand-out point that immediately won me over, was her genuine interest in me. We ended up chatting for 15 minutes after the procedure, unhurried, about my ventures as an American transplant, which fascinated her. We shared our perceptions of American and Italian values. She was fully, completely engrossed in our moment. It was kind of like we were just hanging out. She didn’t want me to leave. I was floored. We connected on a level very much the same as I did with Lucia Ventura, my family doctor here in Florence.

I still maintain a healthcare insurance policy in the United States. However, with my increasing confidence in the Italian system and the diminishing amount of time that I spend in the U.S., I am thinking of dropping my American policy and maybe buying some supplemental Italian private care, just in case. Giving up an American policy is a big thing, because once you lose it, try getting it back at my age. I am looking for guidance on this, and would like to hear from other ex-patriots and new citizens out there, what has been your experience?

I hope I am not being naiive, thinking that every future experience here will be as good as what I have experienced to date. But I have not heard any horror stories yet. I really appreciate hearing from any of you who have had less-than-stellar experiences, especially with inpatient services, a topic which…..well, I don’t want to go there, but need to know.

Thanks to all my new readers from the ex-pat community. And I am always looking to hear about your experiences on topics that are of mutual interest.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fiera del Cioccolato !!

Still adapting to Florence time after a delightful 2 weeks visiting family and friends in New York. So much to catch up on here in Florence....even in just 2 weeks there is so much new happening here. I am somewhat disconnected, disoriented with jet lag and I feel a little bit of withdrawal shock now being separated from family and friends in New York.

After 2 days unpacking and re-settling in Florence I took a walk around town, and stumbled upon the annual chocolate fair happening in Piazza Santa Croce. Italy always manages to welcome me back with new calories!