Thursday, March 8, 2012

Back Where I Belong

It was a thrilling descent into Florence with tear-filled eyes as my plane landed at near midnight with a window view of the half-moon suspended like a jewel over the Duomo…. a spectacular homecoming gift from the sky. Weary from a long flight and an over-extended absence, I’ve been impatient to resume my life in Florence. As the plane hit ground, a sacred calm came over me. A feeling of complete catharsis. I couldn’t wait to turn the key to my apartment and to throw open the shutters of my living room window to take in the captivating view of the Duomo.  Happy to be back where I belong.

I woke up to the divine sounds of a new day…..the revitalizing echo of the Duomo bells and sparrows singing on the terracotta rooftops.  Although I was disoriented from jet lag, I was bursting with desire to get out and walk around my neighborhood, to surround myself with the powerful energy of Florence, to see my neighbors and local merchants and to buy some supplies.

Walking onto the street and entering my piazza was like walking onto a dance floor.  I was back in my own skin. I instantly felt different. I walked different, I acted different and smiled different. The verve of the city ignites me and provokes me to dance the same dance that everyone is dancing. There’s an omnipresent musical rhythm that pervades the atmosphere of Florence….something in the air, a buzz, a high, a connection between the people, a feeling of community and permanence that is very centering. You get the sense as you walk down the street that nobody is really “going” anywhere because they are already where they want to be.

I knew that athough I had a list of supplies to buy, I would probably never get any of it done. Which happens to me often because Florence has the power to hypnotize and distract me from what I’m supposed to be doing. It is part of her charm. The first thing I did was to stroll to my piazza to see if my bike was still there.  With the exception of a stolen bell and basket, it was intact.

Then I saw Carlo, the next-door artisan who buys and restores Italian antique furniture.  Like the other artisans and merchants on the block, the business has been in the family for generations. They are the very roots of the neighborhood.  He updated me on what’s been happening in the area since I’ve been gone and described the cold winter that I missed.  He also told me that he is closing shop and relocating to Via Tintori because he and 2 other artisans on the street can no longer afford the rent. I was saddened because they are the fabric of the neighborhood. This is an outcome of the distressed economy that has impacted all of  Florence. However, this is the first time that it’s actually affected my little part of town.  I am deeply saddened. It is really "hitting home".

It was so fulfilling to spiritually reconnect with my city, to hear the sounds of chatter, children, music, scooters and bikes, to hear the language around me again, to see the bright colors, to breathe the smells of food, coffee, lampredotto, and even to see the graffiti. I found myself taking photos of things that I never took photos of before.  I was so excited to be back.

As I headed for the market, Nicola called me and proposed a Sunday homecoming dinner at his home within the walls of San Casciano.  My mouth immediately started watering because every time I go, Nicoletta makes a seriously wonderful Tuscan meal and I get to play with and be entertained by their loveable children Cosimo and Costanza. They are like my own family.  Destiny brought us together on the very first day that I settled in Florence almost 4 years ago.  With them, I am truly at home.

Strolling further around my neighborhood, my florist Giovanni spotted me and presented me with a bunch of fragrant white stars.  Then I stopped in to see Antonio, my pizzichagnolo, who came from behind the counter and hugged me until we almost cried. I continued wandering around just to see who I would bump into next and I saw my next door neighbor Richard. We had a beer and chatted outside in the pizza when I saw Domenico, my favorite pizzaiouolo who works in the restaurant on the other side of the piazza.  So I stopped by to see him and he told me to come in for a dinner soon on the house.

I decided that I should get some things done, so I went to the market where I bumped into Luca, the owner of Florencetown, the company for which I guide bike tours.  He was buying food to prepare dinner for his girlfriend and explained the recipe for beef simmered in panna with capers, pepper and white wine. Italian men certainly know how to cook.  On my way back with some groceries, I stopped in to see my neighbor Samanta, for whom I brought a jar of Skippy peanut butter back from the U.S.  I also bumped into Patrizia and Sebastiano, other neighbors, although we didn't get the chance to talk.

Then I headed for my most sacred place, my sanctuary, a place that I first saw when I was 15 years old, never knowing that one day this would be my town hall.   This is the Palazzo Vecchio, where I received my Florentine residency after being bestowed my Italian citizenship 3 years ago. It feels like it is center of my world, a sacred place that exudes a powerful positive karma that enraptures my spirit. I was in complete peace.

Feeling this strong sense of tranquility, I was compelled to stop in my favorite little church, S. Maria Assunta, the oldest (circa 960A.D.) abbey in Florence.  I love it because it is small, quiet and always smells of incense, and I pass it so frequently that it has become a sort of spiritual watering hole for me. While I had my eyes closed in prayer, the monks and nuns started singing in 4 part harmony....I hadn't realized that I had arrived just in time for vespers, my most beloved of all church rituals in Florence.

After vespers I headed for the Arno on my bell-less and basket-less bike to feel the breeze of the Arno blowing through my hair, to see the moon rising above the river and to thank God for bringing me here. It has been a very successfulf 3 ½ years for me in Florence and I am only just beginning.

On Sunday, Cesare, a dear friend of the family who is also a widely acclaimed maestro and opera critic and perhaps the world's Mascagni authority, picked me up at my piazza and we drove to San Casciano for a wonderful bentornata feast at Nicola's and a very warm welcome back home. After dinner I accompanied Cesare to the piccolissimo borgo of Vicchio where a friend of his was the tenor playing Cavarodossi in the small local town production of Tosca.  It was a delightful conclusion to a very warm and happy homecoming.

It was a very long 2 months that I spent in the U.S.  It made me realize that I’ve become so deeply steeped in the Italian way of life that I feel a great sense of identity loss when I am in the U.S.  It is a strange feeling.  I don’t feel as comfortable there as I do in Italy, I don't feel like me.  I lose my energy and get a little depressed and lethargic when I'm there.  As much as I’ve stayed in touch with old friends who have been so close to me for so many years, over time the bond has diminished as my new life in Italy has replaced my whole lifetime in the U.S.  It appears that I have reached the point of no return.  It appears that there isn’t any “going back” anymore because that life, that space in time has faded too deeply into the past.  It is a bittersweet realization.