Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lessons of via Faentina, part 1

The street where I live becomes my miscreant muse:
the first installment in a series about quality-of-life issues
in the cradle of the Renaissance.

Dear Readers,

Indulge me while I imagine its idyllic past—when, perhaps, ox-carts bearing great sloshing demijohns traveled its lazy contours, meandering bucolically from Florence to Faenza, returning in the soft dusk laden with the glazed earthenware pottery for which that city is renown. Alas, the via Faentina today bears no resemblance to this figment of yours, truly. It is, instead--at least within Florence city limits--a grim corridor of relentless traffic which bolts cars, buses and trucks toward Florence's center in the morning, and projectile vomits them back out during the evening rush hour.

For us here in Fiesole's haughty shadow, the via Faentina is our jugular vein--the only thoroughfare leading south to Piazza delle Cure and downtown, and it is along this narrow, busy artery that we residents must mince along cautiously, watching our step lest we fall prey to the insatiable beast of traffic. I have lived on via Faentina for the past ten years, and almost without realizing it, have become a reluctant, recalcitrant student of the lessons it insists on teaching me.

Lesson number one: cars rule the road like despots

Typical morning rush hour

Traffic cops arriving too late to be much help--
occasionally they show up to assist school children in crossing the street

Rush hour in via Faentina is nightmarish: a great snake of bumper-to-bumper vehicles slithers its way to or from the city center, their occupants often oblivious to things such as crosswalks or red lights. A car or bus can take 15 to 20 minutes to reach Piazza delle Cure from the neighborhood--a trip that would take a mere 10-15 minutes on foot. The air is so thick with exhaust it feels like wading through some kind of toxic pappa col pomodoro. As a committed pedestrian and cyclist who fights this malevolent serpent on almost a daily basis, I can't help but view my relationship with the city as adversarial.

Whatever else our cherub-cheeked, milk-fed Mayor Renzi would have you believe, Florence is not very pedestrian-friendly, unless you confine your perambulations to the city's historic center, and even then you must dodge marauding taxis or risk becoming a human frittata. Public transportation is notoriously unreliable--if I had a euro for every time I waited for a bus that never came, I could solve Italy's debt crisis single-handedly. With the lack of viable options and the ferocious traffic, getting around town remains about as enjoyable as getting one's gallstones removed--though unfortunately not as quick.

Lesson number two: pedestrians count for little

My kids and I walk the via Faentina every day to get to and from their elementary school. In one stretch the sidewalk measures 33 inches (84 cm) wide--which leaves only a few inches between us and monstrous semi-trucks or city buses. (I've been swiped by side-view mirrors too many times to count). Every day I pray to my various gods that we make it safely, that we don't stumble on the uneven, broken pavement and fall under the wheels of a passing car.

33 inches of sidewalk + heavy, fast-moving traffic = death trap

While other parts of the city have seen speed tables installed (flatter and gentler than rounded speed bumps), for most of via Faentina--notwithstanding the narrow sidewalks and the densely residential character of the area--vehicles are allowed to race along with impunity, as if it were a Formula One speedway. Often cars are parked up on the sidewalks or block the crosswalks entirely. Perhaps most disturbing, however, is how the lines between sidewalk and street are consistently--and dangerously--blurred.

A truck graciously descends from the near-nonexistent sidewalk
so that we may continue on our way

For pedestrians the options are: backtrack, hug the wall, say a fervent Hail Mary,
or resolve to meet your Maker

Walking sucks

Lesson number three: there are two Florences

One of the things I've come to terms with over the past decade is that the Florence of art and beauty and charm--the one that makes all the tourists go gaga (and is largely confined to the historic center)--has an evil, ugly twin: the Florence that is choked by traffic, bureaucracy and a rampantly provincial mentality; the Florence that was this year named the most polluted city in Italy; the Florence that makes walking your children to school as pleasurable as having oral surgery without anesthetic, and as foolhardy as playing a game of "catch me if you can!" with the Grim Reaper.



Sunday, November 27, 2011

When the frosting hits the fan: an article for The Florentine

Who knew that serving cupcakes was an act of cultural sedition?

Click here to go to article

(I wrote a post on a similar theme, but the results were--ahem--somewhat different)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Let me give thanks

Dear Readers,

Since tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in my sometimes hapless homeland, and since it seems to be as de rigueur as the ginormous fowl itself, I've been thinking of the things I'm grateful for.

I adore my two puckish children, regardless of the fact that for nigh on ten years they still feel the need to burst into the bathroom and watch me pee.

I love my husband--if for no other reason than he's the only man with whom I could ever envision adventuring into the great golden maw of the American Frontier in a covered wagon. I'm serious.

I have many dear and wonderful friends--and an awesome brother--who, despite knowing me, choose to admit it.

I have all my teeth. And most of my senses.

But perhaps the thing I am most thankful for is that I am not, nor will I ever be--so help me God--this woman:

No, it's not a narrow-minded, gossip-mongering garden gnome
or a steerage passenger on the Lusitania--
it's the MIL

Nor will I, thankfully, ever don footwear like this (even on my deathbed in the midst of a nuclear holocaust when the only thing that'd save me would be clonking the heels of my immigrant-issue men's clodhoppers together while croaking, "There's no place like home"):

Jimmy Choo, hardly

So to all you Turkey Day revelers out there and others with plenty to be thankful for, I wish you a wonderful holiday. Now get thee to a monstrous mound of mashed potatoes, pronto!



Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The land of literary Muggles

Dear Readers,

According to ISTAT (the Italian National Institute for Statistics), in 2010 only 46.8% of Italians said they read at least one book during the year. Of these, 44.4% read up to three books a year (because it takes the average Italian in this group four months to read a novel). Only 15.1% of the population read twelve books or more, and 9.6% (that's 2,338,000 families) say they don't even own one book.

Once, when I was at my doctor's office and had settled down for the interminable wait with Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, an old spotted toad in a grubby parka, reeking of cigarettes, sidled up to me and shouted, "My God! It would take me more than a year to finish a big book like that!" I saw no reason to doubt him.

Yesterday, I was at my neighborhood bookstore picking out a birthday gift for one of my son's classmates. I thought of buying L'Evoluzione di Capurnia (The Evolution of Capurnia Tate), but was horrified by this:

Sticker shock

Gulp. €16,80 for a children's paperback???!!! I soon left in disgust (and with an inexplicably much cheaper Roald Dahl book instead).

€16,80--that's $23.10 for a children's paperback. In America, that very same paperback (well, in English, of course) costs $7.99. In England, £7.99. On Amazon Italy they're offering a slight discount: €14,28 ($19.63). Perhaps I didn't examine the book closely enough and the pages were made out of camel skin or ancient Egyptian papyrus or something. But a quick look round the shop had me steeped in similar dismay: Harry Potter paperbacks were €16 a pop, Tolkien's Lo Hobbit cost €15 in paperback. Small paperback early readers were €6-9 each.

Here are some other disturbing statistics: only about 10% of Italians go on to higher education (the absolute lowest of the countries surveyed); reading literacy among 15 year-olds is ranked 20th out of 27; mathematical literacy ranks 23rd out of 27. Student attitudes in the form of dislike for school, however, have Italy ranking at the top--coming in at 2nd out of 17; those that find school boring come in 9th out of the 17 countries surveyed; and as for classroom disorder, Italy is Numero Uno.

Oh, and even Greece pays its teachers more than Italy does.

To this I'd add that the ever-deepening economic sinkhole Italy finds itself in has affected public schools--which were always pretty strapped and bare-bones, let's face it--in a way that is profoundly disturbing. There is no money for supplies--that is, things like paints and paper. There is no money for soap and toilet paper for the bathrooms. There is no money for class outings, for art and music instruction or for hiring English teachers (this last is no great loss--most of them stink anyway). Schools have had to ask the parents (many of whom have already tightened their belts to the point of asphyxiation) to supply these things or the money with which to buy them. My daughter's teachers buy toilet paper for the little second-graders out of their own pockets and on their puny salaries.

And publishers dare to charge €16,80 for a children's paperback.

Suddenly all the above statistics and experiences, taken as a whole, begin to make sense to me. Here in Italy, a premium is placed on Berlusconi-esque (let's call it "Berlesque") television, a bloated bureaucracy, and the excesses of a political elite abhorrently out of touch with the reality of most citizens--while reading and education are relegated to a status just below garbage collection. I begin to understand the depth of the ignorance of the masses that kept re-electing such a pancake-faced buffoon--they're the same ones who stare vacantly at his inane and tasteless variety shows rather than stick their noses in a good book.

An Italian tragedy is more like it.



*Statistics provided herein were sourced at ISTAT, and via UNESCO and OECD at www.nationmaster.com