Saturday, October 01, 2005

Centro della Citta e molto interessante problema

This weekend I've been in my head a lot; too much thinking in English.

Last night when I was walking back from my day at the Boboli Gardens I did something silly. I deliberately went and found a not-so-great gelateria in tourist territory between Piazza della Signoria and the Duomo and bought a two euro cone of two scoops of half-decent, thin and sugary gelato. My motivation: I was craving gelato but was tired of the truly fabulous gelato at Vivoli by Santa Croce. I know it sounds ridiculous (and it was) but I needed to eat bad gelato to make me want to eat the better stuff again--and lo-and-behold, it worked! After seeing the two small scoops and tasting it, I was thrilled once again of the idea to eat some of the best gelato in Firenze!

One of the beautiful things about being in a foreign country is hearing the language all around me; it's different from what I think in, but is purely natural. To hear the sound of a country in its native voice is not foreign. But, if you go to the center of the city, towards where all those gelato shops are, whether on the main side with the Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi and the Duomo, or the far side with Palazzo Piti and the Boboli Gardens, if you're in the center and walking through throngs of crowds, the jumble of sounds is closer to tedesco, giaponese, inglese, with a dash of spagnolo, olandese, svedese, francese, and a pinwheel of other lingue del mondo. Am I in Italy or just something that sure as hell looks like it? (The same question that Forester's book "Room With a View" begins with...)

The shape of italiano does appear, don't get me wrong! Yet usually comes either as a passing glance or very slowly from the Americano tourist asking for "cioc-co-la-to gel-a-to, gra-zi... per fa-vor-e?" The stunning Italian ragazza with an apathetic brow and perfect dark features and smiling, romantic eyes responds to his words, "what would you like?" and "three-fifty, please... thank you." This can sometimes be avoided if the day-tripping, bus-travelling, camera-swinging tourist manages his or her sounds correctly, and is able to put on a show--whether thinking he or she is convincing, or actually pulling off the magic--of looking and talking a bit more like what one came to find.

But the gelati, in my opinion, generally are overpriced for what you get if you go to places with bright florescent lights declaring themselves a "festival" or "very good!" (in english, you see it?). Vivoli, so far rated the best, in contrast, is a nice experience to find: go towards Santa Croce, it's somewhat hiding. (There is supposed to be another benissimo gelateria that’s new, but I haven’t found it yet.) Look for the circular road that's actually the foundation of the ancient Roman coliseum. The longevity of streets and infrastructure remains. Read the city through its streets...

The center of the city, in fact, the most touristy part, was actually the Roman city. If you look on a map you can see the square boarder with cut-corners, where the streets inside are composed of a tight grid. When you are inside the city fabric, and leave the grid, you can feel the difference: beyond the border streets diverge and converge at different angles, remnants of roads bend away from the city, future urban grids, and organic (in other words, not really planned) development evolve. Roman cities all followed the square-grid pattern; it was to allow Romans to easily make themselves at home while abroad (literally). Inside the city walls it was deemed to be part of Rome, outside was elsewhere. In fact, part of the ceremony of colonization was to take some Roman soil and plant it inside the new city. The Piazza della Repubblica was where the old Roman forum was, and it still contains the feeling!

You do hear Italian in the center, it's true; but in the heat of mid-day at the awe-inspiring hot-spots and their connecting streets it has thinned out, it's functionality becoming less efficient from the streets.

The center of Firenze, in many ways, has been hollowed out. What one sees in passing is a shell--a shell on the inside of the city--carved for a popoli del stranieri. I've become increasing fascinated by this phenomenon, and its resultant form and effect. The center of Firenze is a virtual space within a real, physical landscape. In fact, the image of Firenze has been preserved--from the planning codes that dictate the color of window shutters, to the type of stone used in paving, to the arguments made for pointlessly lengthening processes for inserting necessary modern communication wiring, to the placement of replica statues--to match that view so desired by the foreign imagination. ...a romantic city of beauty, art, architecture, dining, gardens, Tuscan air, and festive, glamorous Italian life!! Firenze actually is all this, but it really is quite a lot more, too. What the tourist sees is a lacquered image of plasticity held in place by its own vanity. The center of Firenze is much like Oscar Wilde's story of Dorian Grey... he fell in love with his painted image so much that he turned into its ageless visage, his painted-self aging away instead. The center of Firenze is preserved in the image of its past; a controlled picture replayed daily for the passing glance and determined stare.

Maybe the Roman obsession with control and conquering places (the Empire did it with war; the Papacy did it with religion) is part of the reason why the center of Firenze finds itself so comfortable catering to a love of its own face? Lingering architect ghosts appearing through the grid-weave of streets? Tourists captured in the contained spaces of piazzas... conquered into buying Gucci and Prada, postcards and leather totes... Of course, the center is also where some of the really hot, hot-spots are (that are most definitely worth visiting), where the guidebooks say you should go, and where the day-tripping, bus-traveling, camera-swinging tourist is led by the upheld umbrella... but maybe the center's virtuality is also generated from the structure of its urban history... in the streets, its fabric, its history, its purpose, its business. Florence is a mercantile town, you know!

The center of Firenze might sometimes be likened to Disneyland. I've heard it referred to as Disneyland in two different contexts. The second time I heard it was from a professor I was discussing the city with. We agreed that its virtuality is much like a Disneyland, an image-conscious place, controlled for the context-hungry traveler hoping to escape his or her adult elsewhere for a fun time of innocent, romantic, fantasy. The first time I heard the word Disneyland used with Firenze was from a police officer. Despite its theme-parkification, the center of Firenze is still part of a real city. Unlike the real Disneyland whose environment is made safe and managed (and whose entirety is closed for cleaning a few hours every day), the police officer in our program's orientation took care to warn us that Florence's fantasy image doesn't prevent real urban and human consequences. The only reported rapes in Florence last year happened to drunk American women.

But remember that what the tourist sees is literal... And I haven't yet said anything about the city's periphery, hill-towns, the parts farther away from the center... or for that matter what happens when really interesting cultural events happen in the city's center... there is also a pride in tourism, in being a place of such desire can be good to share culture and business, too!

[Author's note: It was brought to my attention that the last sentence of the second to last paragraph can be seen to contain an extra meaning that was not intended: that it was the American woman's fault these rapes occured--this is never the case. Due to the nature of this subject, I would like to take this opportunity to explain that the problem and danger for women drinking at night in Firenze stems principally from dangerous Italian men that prowl the streets looking for American women as easy targets. (American women are perceived as easy because of assumptions about American cultural norms for drinking and social behavior that are different from those in Italy.) Unfortunately these individuals do exist, and therefore Firenze (as most cities) can be less safe than at first assumed to be. This is why the police officer told us the above mentioned statistic, to advise against an activity that may heighten a danger. --16-10-2005]

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