Saturday, March 22, 2014

Renzi Book Presentation at Palazzo Vecchio

Last night, thanks to a Tweet from Palazzo Vecchio, I received an announcement that the Comune di Firenze, in collaboration with La Nazione, would host a press conference this evening in la Sala d'Arme, presenting the hot-off-the-press book "Renzi", the story of Matteo Renzi's life from school boy to Presidente del Consiglio, from the perspective of the press through writings of journalists over the years. 

Presentation to be executed by Director of "La Nazione" Gabriele Cane', our new mayor Dario Nardella, and attended by political celebrities, international press and various Florentine die-hard Renziani.

Arriving well in advance, I was delighted to meet and converse with the elegant Marta Taddei, a pure-bred Florentine with whom I shared conversation until the conference began, and then, sitting together for the presentation, she whispered to me, explaining various double-entendres and Florentinisms that were thrown around on the dais.  It is intriguing to have the opportunity to interact with age-old Florentines who reveal to me and share precious perspectives and tidbits of Florentine history that I would not otherwise have the opportunity to learn.  Carina e preciosa!

My life as a dual citizen who only 5 years ago made Italy my home has been exponentially enriched by becoming involved in the very core of the community. Fortuitously indeed. Part of which includes attending important yet intimate events such as this, which are so passionately attended by an audience of seriously dedicated Florentines.  I've learned more from these community forums and through volunteer organizations such as "Angeli del Bello" than from any other source, book or school. In this city, brimming with tourists and overwhelmed by a large transient community, it can be a challenge to keep attached to the city's true roots as it is so easy to become diverted by the glamour and drama of the city's constant array of well-publicizied and sometimes bombastic cultural events.  

The conference was attended by 200 people or so, clearly all of which were long-term Florentine devotees, which gave me the opportunity to mingle among fellow Florentines in this "little big" city, both before and after, and to rub shoulders with the likes of Dario Nardella.  

As a souvenir of the occasion, "La Nazione" distributed a first page of the first-ever published issue of the first national newspaper in Italy,  printed on July 19, 1859.  The Renzi book was distributed in small quantity only to distinguished political guests, (I was defeated in my attempt to grab one) but today I am bound for La Fetrinelli to buy my personal copy. 

What a stroke of divine luck to have settled in Italy during an era of dramatic political change, and to have experienced my first opportunity to vote as a citizen in the primaries last year. It's been exciting to experience Italian politics first-hand through my exposure to local politics and the rise of Renzi as a mayor who was so involved in our community, who rode his bicycle around town and who sprinted ahead to become the rising star and "man of the moment" in Italian politics...the person who the world is betting on to help pull Italy out of its deeply rooted problems.  I'm going to miss him here in Florence.  He may not have been liked by all, but he certainly had a strong omnipresence in our community and possessed a unique ability to make us feel connected and proud of our Florence.

I hope he does the same for Italy.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Italians Discover Calories

You would never have seen this 5 years ago.  No doubt the Italian pasta industry is suffering as it reluctantly gets dragged into the calorie-counting era after 30 years of living in denial. Here's how we save our ass. Bravo.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Opera in Florence

When I read that Leo Nucci was playing the role of Nabucco in this season's performance at Teatro Comunale, I beelined to the box office and landed the perfect pair of seats. It was a special treat to see Leo Nucci perform in Florence.  I had twice seen him at the Met in the roles of Rigoletto and Falstaff. Given he is past the prime of his career, I knew this would probably be the last I would see him and thus was excited.

I've always been very fond of Teatro Comunale.  It is a humble neighborhood opera house and epitomizes the Florentine culture in many ways, which I described a few years ago in my post:  The End of a Musical Era.  When I entered the opera house for today's matinee,  I noticed the 80 year-old poster (see above) advertising the first time that Nabucco was performed here in 1933.  This opera house is a landmark of Florentine musical history. 

The performance was much to my liking, the new production pure and realistic, the conductor spirited and precise, and the singers quite good.  Nucci carried himself strongly but without the same presence and force that he used to command. I was hoping the performance to be emotionally riveting, but it lacked the drama of La Forza del Destino and Un Ballo in Maschera, but nevertheless I fully enjoyed it. This, the third opera of Verdi is one which Italians even today identify with through the familiar choral piece Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate / believed by some critics to have been the anthem for Italian patriots during the Risorgimento.

Teatro Comunale is home to Zubin Mehta's Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, which produces excellent opera...thanks to its maestro who stands among the best of recent decades. Teatro Comunale isn't the Met. Its humble walls are not worthy of Zubin's grandeur.  Despite these issues, there is something I appreciate so much more about this small homespun opera house in spite of its acoustical defects and production limitations. The theater is perfect for the Florentines and Florence, the match is perfectly in-tuned with their habits and tastes.  It doesn't, however, suit the great Zubin, who should probably be conducting in a more prestigiously recognized opera hub.  Lucky that we still have him, he's excelled and brought us great opera when he could have chosen a city and opera house much more fitting for his status.  But he loves Florence, and I do not complain.  Having seen him countless times over the years in countless cities, it sure feels good to know that he hangs here in Florence like I do. After all, he can be wherever he wants.

The audience tonight was pure unsophisticated down-to-earth Florentine, not a single tourist at this time of year, and the theater felt as always, more like a piazza, a local gathering, an extension of my home. 

Teatro Comunale has gratified the Florentine community for 150 years, having played host to some of the world's greatest musical geniuses including Callas, Abbado, Strauss, Muti and Mascagni.  A Florentine landmark, it is rich in history, having been originally built as an open-air amphitheater in 1862, since then having been thrice reinvented after surviving devastating fires, WWII bombings and the great flood of 1966.

Rumor has it that Teatro Comunale has found a buyer to help it fund the unfathomed expenses required to complete the Teatro Nuovo, which has so far been an economic and cultural failure of poor planning, designed by over-zealous politicians and architects. Sadly, Teatro Nuovo will be the new home of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, which other than being a tribute and gift to Zubin himself,  means we pay more to travel further to an ugly, cold modern building that lacks history and parking spaces.  But its protagonists insist that it will allow the opera house to offer world-class opera and expand its repetoire by 40%.  Somehow I just do not see it.  If I were Zubin and if I loved my homeland, I would build the Taj Mahal Opera House in India and conduct my guts out among my people.  I remain content with what we have now and don't forsee Florence as a destination for world-class opera from both economic, demographic and market demand perspectives.

So, every time I go, I go with a bittersweet feeling of appreciation, knowing that this might be my last time, before the opera house becomes victim to the political dreamers who insist upon something more grand, at any cost.  The rest of the 2014 opera repertoire will continue to be performed here, but this is likely to be the last season.  Tickets are still available for subsequent performances of Nabucco.  Stand-by for Madame Butterfly next month.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

My Palazzo Vecchio

Palazzo Vecchio is a sacred place in my personal world. The epicenter of Florentine life for  700 years, it remains the political and cultural hub of the city.  Beneath its grounds lie the ruins of Roman Florence, its amphitheater and evidence of life dating back to the Stone Age.

The first time I beheld Palazzo Vecchio I was 15 years old.  At the time, I was only beginning to understand its historical significance. I can remember the Piazza being empty and eerily silent, not the active tourist destination it is today.  Little did I know that many years later it would be the community center of my life and that within its walls I would one day be awarded my dual citizenship. Fate knew it.

I have been spiritually drawn to this place, not just over the years, but continuously, in my daily life.  When taking a walk, even before I enter the piazza, I become taken with feelings of energy, strength, awe, tranquility, wholeness and roots.

I have read about the concept of a "vortex", and this perhaps describes the energy that grabs me in this spot, filling me with a spiritual lightness.  Could it be the earth's kinetic energy that oozes from below?  Is it the result of centuries of life, death, grandeur and history that emanate from its ramparts? Or is it the result of the voyage I have taken
to find a sacred, natural spot where I encounter an energy so much larger than myself?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

5 Years in Florence

One year ago, after 5 years of living in Italy I realized that my perspective was changing.

I had reached a turning point in my life in Italy. I had overcome the major challenges of cultural adaptation, none of which I hadn't anticipated.  I got slaughtered, battered and beaten by the bureaucratic gods and survived Italian boot camp with flying colors which included plenty of black-and-blue marks.

I had lost the desire to visit the States, even to stock up on my annual hoard of American vitamin pills and Vicks VapoRub.  I had my church and my macellaio, my shoemaker, my favorite market vendors, bars, lampredotto stands and cycling destinations.

I voted in the primary elections and acquired a general grasp of the (no adjectives here) political scene. I understood the good and the bad and had met Americans who made it here and those who threw in the towel. There were no more surprises, or at least nothing that would shock me. I learned how to navigate the health care system.  I had a bicycle team, an adopted family, a dream retirement job guiding bicycle tours in the hills of Chianti.  And I had recently negotiated an 8-year contract to live in an elegant renaissance palace that I don't ever want to leave....ever.  I was ready for the next big bang.

In 2013 I broke through many barriers. It was the year in which I stopped feeling like a newbie in transition and started gaining an identity in the community. It was the year in which my grasp of the language really started kicking in and gained exponential momentum.  So very satisfying to have arrived at this point.

I finally felt integrated enough to join a local volunteer organization, the Angeli del Bello, a group of Florentines who dedicate their time to maintaining the splendor of Florence.  For me, it meant removing graffiti from the walls of our buildings and monuments and then restoring the surface.  Not only did this give me the opportunity to mix with born and bred Florentines who share my passion for this stupendous city, but it led to a great friendship with a fellow volunteer. Not to mention that I love to dedicate my time to make Florence even more beautiful than it is, if that is possible!

I was blessed last year to find four new girlfriends, all exceptional women. They are Florentine, Sicilian and Pugliese who don't speak English.  They love and accept me despite my cultural deficiencies and notwithstanding that they cannot imagine my pre-life in the U.S.  They judge me not on my status or title, but for who I am now, who I am on the inside and the passion and energy that I exude on the outside.

To have conquered the language well enough to develop such intimate relationships is about as good as it gets for me.  After this, everything else is icing on the cake. And what a cake.

In 2013 I turned a corner and started for earnest, planting my soul into the culture, diversifying my interests, studying Italian politics, learning more profoundly Renaissance art and renouncing to a great extent the social network scene because outside my door lies the greatest city, the greatest social network that I can possibly ask for.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

I Am an Angel !!!

I am an Angel!

When I came to Florence four years ago, I arrived in heaven, and this month I actually become an angel.

Florence, like every city, has its share of urban decay issues…graffiti, garbage irreverently deposited on the sidewalks, cigarette butts and even broken bottles strewn around by students. We who love our city get outraged to know that someone is deliberately destroying our treasure. Residents and tourists alike complain that something should be done about it. I’ve always wished that I could personally do something about it. And I just did. Today I officially became an “Angelo del Bello”.

The “Angeli del Bello” is a volunteer organization comprised of Florentine residents who have banded together to fight urban deterioration and to restore and preserve the beauty of our city. These people share one hell of a powerful passion for our city of Florence.

The organization is the result of a collaboration between the city of Florence and several private associations, organized by Mayor Renzi in 2010 in response to his “call-to-arms” to its residents, to join together to fight the battle of the beauty and glory of Florence. The idea was born from the success of the “Angeli del Fango”, known as the volunteers who came from all over the world to unbury Florence from the flood of ’66 and to restore its art, buildings and libraries. The Angeli del Bello is its sequel. Our motive is to defend the city against urban decay. We “Angels” give our time and our love towards physically removing graffiti and stickers from palazzo walls, piazzas and gardens.

After having spent several days working on the streets with the angels stripping posters from palace walls, scraping and painting over graffiti, I’ve learned that this group is not just about graffiti and garbage. It’s so much more than that. It’s about personal involvement and dedication to the love of our city. It’s anything that we want it to be. It’s about personal passion.

I discovered this organization by accident. Recently while participating in a week-long conference at Palazzo Vecchio, I attended a presentation given by Florence’s urban planning committee and learned about the “Angeli del Bello”. I was surprised to learn that the operations “boss” was a man that I worked with in the tour business here in Florence. We connected, and two days later I was messing around with paints and learning what kind of solvents to use to scrape graffiti off the walls of our beautiful palazzi. I subsequently received my official orange angel vest. Over the past few weeks I’ve been donating my time, but most of all, my love, to combat. I feel like I’m one of the Mod Squad.

The work is fun and extremely rewarding. The organization is comprised of passionate Florentines from every walk of life. There’s no set schedule, I can just show up when I have time to spare, and the weekly planned locations are posted on their website, so I can choose those buildings that are right near my house. Mayor Renzi gave us an “Angelmobile”, which is an electric minivan that we use to jump from one location to another, where we store all the paints, solvents and supplies.

My day is spent making friends with the other volunteers, mixing, integrating and learning Florentine vernacular, watching and learning the steps involved in removing graffiti and mixing paint colors to match the palazzo walls.

I’m finding the work to be very fulfilling in many ways. First of all my pride and adoration of Florence is pretty intense. I so appreciate the history and the beauty of the buildings, monuments and streets, that I want to see them shine and not be blemished by urban decay. It feels good to see the city getting better and better every day and to know that I helped it happen. Every time I walk past the walls that I worked on, I feel proud. I’m getting to know the architecture of the city and the history of the palazzi and churches I am working on. When I look at a building laden with graffiti and then clean it up, I’m rewarded with a great sense of bonding with my city. People stop by and with big smiles they watch what we are doing and they thank us and cheer us on, for cleaning up our neighborhood. The merchants usually treat us to free lunch and coffee when we work on their walls.

Being a part of this group, working and sweating together to preserve the glory of this magnificent city gives me a sense of pride and makes me feel more and more now that this is truly my city.