The Face of Florence – I

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In the dark of 5:30 a.m., the city of Florence rises in memory, as if I’m hovering over her, not very high up, and viewing her features and moods, wiles and compensations. Yes, her face. What does it take to become enamored of a city? To know her almost better than if she were human, because, of course, she is human, but also shaped by landscape and weather and the occasional cry of birds.

I return every year, needing to inhabit her like a song. She centers me. I exit the train, walk to the busy concourse with the huge clock and low, shed-like ceiling, and turn left toward the door that leads to the buses. Once I am outside, the umbrella pines lining the bus and taxi lanes are conclusive: I am back. No other city I’ve ever known has such a beautiful line of green in the midst of traffic. I cross under them, miraculously, vehicles stop for the light, and I board the number 6 bus (though this year that’s changed, but let’s imagine all is as I’ve known it), which will wend its way past the Duomo, mobbed this early afternoon with tourists, down the street of rich shops, then a jog to the right and the piazza of San Marco greets me with its ring of elms. This year, the elms like the pines look healthier. There’s been enough rain.
The new trees, replacing those that died of Dutch elm disease, are flourishing in the early October sunshine.

To be truly home, I descend the bus by a secondary school beyond Piazza Annunciata. The school is a block long with a beautiful series of sightless ovals along its facade. I orient myself to the narrow street called Borgo Pinti, and begin pulling my suitcase along the irregular, narrow sidewalk, sometimes veering off to avoid other pedestrians. It’s two long blocks before I arrive at number 31. Cristina and Liana are expecting me. I ring their bell and the huge door within its Egyptian frame swings open. I take the blessedly new and functional “lift” to the top of the palazzo, and one of them greets me. The long shadowed hallway is exactly as I remember it. They’ve prepared the little single room in white and pink, across from the bath. I step up, leave the suitcase, and cross to the window. There is the huge walled garden, studded with linden, chestnut, ginko, and, close to the window, another umbrella pine whose soft fluttering needles and rough reddish arms pose against the red and tan dome of the Duomo. Sunday morning and evening, bells will ring through unnatural stillness, but now I’m in the presence of weekday paradise–the walled garden at the heart of this city I love.

Later I will begin the passages to reconnoiter favorite views. I’ll learn more about the origin of Borgo Pinti from a new garden recently donated to the city, where a custode and placards inform about this neighborhood’s history. But first I will rest, drink some coffee, close my eyes on the comfortable bed, recall the play of light on the walls, and settle into grateful arrival.

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