Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Soft Spot for Florence

I love Florence, kind of like I love my grumbly great grandmother. She’s never liked me much, but she’s very old, so I have a soft spot in my heart for her anyway.

The old town of Florence is essentially an ugly, run-down sprawl of buildings that haven’t been painted since the Medicis wouldn’t have crossed the Arno for a gelato. And what an ugly river the Arno is. The broad, twentieth-century street that runs along the city’s famous river is more like a parking lot than a promenade. You’ll want to park there of course, as close to the Ponte Vecchio as possible where you’ll have quick access to the Uffizi museum and the major tourist attractions. Inside the old town, a drab maze littered with trash and tourists, get that gelato you’ve been craving since you parked your car in the blazing sun and head for the center, Piazza della Signoria. But whatever you do, don’t eat at one of the tourist-torture restaurants on the square.

The city lost its enthusiasm for hospitality a long time ago. In 1994, I visited Florence for the first time. At that time I managed a fusion cuisine restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, so I was more interested in food than frescoes. Maybe I should have eaten a fresco rather than the Menu Turistico, but at that time I wasn’t aware of the contempt Florence (and most other Italian tourist meccas) has for tourists. The tourist menu is just the beginning of Itay’s cruel joke—of which the humble tourist is the brunt.

I was sitting in a trattoria, poring over the menu. I didn’t know how to go about ordering, so I took the easy—stupid—way out and ordered the Menu Stupido. It was a three-course dinner including a glass of “wine” for around ten dollars. I thought, “Hey, you’re in Italy. The food is always good here. They invented food, right?”

My food was a bland, unimaginative rendition of what I would call “Italian-esque food my mother might try to make.” The pasta was obviously from the supermarket and so was the tomato sauce on top. Can you call a few chopped up tomatoes a sauce? No herbs, not even pepper. Just diced tomatoes. The main course was a flat piece of meat—veal?—the size of my palm served on a plate. No use looking for the rest of it. That was it. Dessert was one scoop of gelato.

Needless to say, after this meal, I was peckish. During my feast I kept seeing the waiter take plates of grilled squid and antipasti and tiramisu to the Italians in the dining room. On one of his jaunts through the room, I grabbed his arm—I know that’s rude, but just try to stop me when I’m hungry—and said, “I’ll have that,” and pointed at the ragu in his hand.


“Don’t try to stop me.”

I got what I wanted . . . and more. I grabbed his arm so many times that he started showing me the dishes before he took them to other tables. I ate well that evening after all and learned my first Italian lesson: if you don’t say what you want, you’re not going to get it.

Tourist hotels are even worse. Your room will certainly be on a busy street. All Italians have vespas, and they all have somewhere to go at three in the morning. Make sure you get a room that faces the courtyard so that you can listen to the Italians in the next apartment building fighting all night instead. It’s quieter.

Breakfast at your hotel will be sparing but loud. Italians eat only a pastry with an espresso for breakfast, but they still take about an hour to get settled at their breakfast table. First, they'll all have a look at the "buffet" before they find a table. The wife will get back to her seat with one packet of sugar, sit down, then remember that she needs a spoon. She’ll get the spoon, sit down, then remember that she wants yogurt. Her husband will start yelling at her, then get up to get the bread himself. When he sits down, she'll ask him to get something for her. This boisterous up-and-down will go on for quite a long time.

You, on the other hand, will peruse the meager offerings—frozen pastries, yogurt, two iffy apples, plastic-wrapped bread, fruit-colored juices and Italy’s claim to fame, coffee, and take your seat in silence. And here’s the saddest part. Here, in the heart of espresso country, the coffee you’ll get will probably be instant or something spelled “Kawfee.” You’ll have to get it out of a machine yourself. But stop! Don’t do this. If you look around, you’ll find a perfectly operable cappuccino machine. Ask for one. Or ask for an espresso doppio. The waiter will make you one just like he’s been making them for the Italians at the hotel. When you’ve finished your espresso doppio, order another one. Do it for me.

A few years ago, I was staying in a two-star travellers' hotel. The breakfast was a prepackaged product that a server unfroze for the guests who’d ordered breakfast (although it was included in the price of the room). After poking my nuclear-war-safe pastry and sniffing my “Kawfee,” I headed to the front desk to have a talk with the owner.

“I’d like to cancel breakfast for tomorrow.”

“No problem,” she said and smiled broadly.

“But I would also like it taken off my bill.”

“No can do.”

“But why? It’s awful,” I replied in a voice that sounded remarkably like Bill Bryson.

“Try to understand,” she said, smiling. “If you don’t eat the breakfast, I make more money.” And I will never see you again, so what do I care?

“Ah, now I understand,” I said. “You know, I’ve changed my mind. I’d like breakfast tomorrow morning after all.”


The next morning, I stabbed the pastry beyond reusability, opened all the packages of jam-like sugar substance and margarine, and got four refills on my “Kawfee,” which I poured in the trash. There was another packet of something called “morning spread.” I was afraid of it, so I left it alone.

I love Florence. I love the museums, the markets, the nightlife. I love the fact that I meet someone new every time I go there. There is something special about the place despite her aversion to guests, her dirty streets, her crumbling architecture, her pickpockets, and her boring food.

You simply have to tell her what you want. I wonder if that would work for my great grandmother and the family fortune?
I must be off,