Florence is an anthill. Swarming with tourists, especially Americans, it can be difficult to get out of but the last time I was there, I wasn’t the only person showing some exasperation. A tall American father was pulling his little son along past the Duomo and the kid was singing or chanting something – something very repetitive, I guess – and the American dad looked down at him and pleaded, “For Christ’s sake, will you knock it off!”
That last time, on a waiting train at Santa Maria Novella, my head and torso melting after a hot Florentine afternoon, I was giving out about a young prick from Portugal or Brazil taking up three seats with three cases. His two nearby buddies removed theirs but, just then, we got seats behind him, directed by a cooling suggestion from three Italian women seated together in the carriage. Later I enjoyed seeing him bang his head off the overhead rack, blinded by his baseball cap and shades.
On 24 June 2013, the bus tour in contrast hadn’t even taken an hour in the fresh air. It sped around a shorter, darkening route, minus Santa Croce, but at least it was over before the deluge. The omission of Santa Croce was due to the annual Calcio storico ‘sporting’ free-for-all, which the impending thunderstorm also rained off inside the hour.
The banks of the Arno are the part of the city I like to look at most. The river holds the story I remember most. In 1304, the arts of Florence included a forerunner of reality TV. A staged performance of Hell had been advertised to take place by the Carraia bridge in a theatre that was set up on boats in the river. There were fires, naked souls screaming for mercy, master demons and henchmen devils wielding pitchforks. Overloaded with spectators who had crowded onto it, the bridge collapsed. All who fell in were drowned, apparently. It was said afterwards that those who’d gone to see Hell had got exactly what they were looking for.
As we got off the open-top bus, my father asked for chips, having developed a taste for the McDonalds variety in his eighties. The rain started during a shared quarter-pounder meal beside Santa Maria Novella, where I took the burger. At the table my mother rustled in her bag and produced a baby Bacardi and put it into the Coke. Then she revealed he had expressed to her a wish to see the Duomo.
Outside, the rain was getting heavier by the minute. She rustled in her bag again. They donned plastic macs and I got the umbrella, which was broken. A few hundred yards away, the piazza was by then a pond, ankle-deep under thunder and lightning. The authorities had shut the door of the Duomo. I told my father to go back to the door of the Baptistery, where she had ducked into the doorway. A young man there with a clipboard told her she couldn’t stay because there was a christening on but then he let her be after she used the one phrase of the English-speaking nations that is understood by all others.
By then my father was holding another broken umbrella, after a failed investment by my mother. An African hawker tried to sell him a third one but had to laugh when my father asked him a question. Is it as good as this one?
By the time we made it back to the station the elements had eased off. At first I couldn’t find a ticket validating machine on our platform. I asked two inspectors who were talking at the far end. One of them just waved me away with words that included “schermo” and “binario” but where was the schermo on the binario? That was what I wanted to know.
It turned out to be half-concealed at the entrance to the platform but then another train delay invalidated all the urgency. On the train I asked a glamorous, dark young woman across the aisle in order to make doubly sure it really was the one for Viareggio. When she learned we were Irish and I was the minder, she looked at my father and said something that made him say, “Eh, she doesn’t like me”, but she’d only offered her impression that he looked a bit Italian.
The inspector with the wave showed up with his Germanic eyes and his short beard, a spaghetti western type, a dodgy Franco Nero or Gian Maria Volonte. His first move in the carriage was to eject an African hawker (“Scende da quà”). After punching our tickets he gave a sinister smile and politely said “Grazie” but then my mother told me to ask him if there was a toilet because she was feeling a little bit off. He only grasped why I was asking when I explained it wasn’t for me. Then he indicated a choice, front and back. I didn’t mention anything to either about tippling in McDonalds.