Poetry Porch: Prose

I Am Very Decorous Here 
by Caroline Finkelstein

 
Florence, Italy

The most interesting person I have met here is Roberto, the architect, my landlord and very erstwhile friend, meaning we donít have sex but we might as well, it is that intense. Roberto is a short, powerful man who played rugby at the University. "What university?" I asked. "The University of Florence" was the answer in a tone that suggested I had asked "what planet"?

He has thick white hair and thick black eyebrows and green eyes and he dresses like a fifties Yalie except for the little Continental touches like handkerchiefs in breast pockets. His shoes have tassels. He is most charming, very social, probably quite rich, from an old family. His father died in the Second World War in prison apparently on the wrong side. His motherís name was Lavinia. I live in her apartment.

The family was/are very Catholic in the ritualized, social way some Wasps are Wasps, some Jews are Jews, although probably Lavinia was devout; there are signs in the house that this was so: holy water fonts, Madonna statuettes. I like their Catholicism and I cannot say why; so much of Catholicism is ruinous. Religion hasnít much clout in Italy anymore, especially here in the north, and especially with people under forty. There are talismans: men and women wear medals and crosses under their clothes. Sometimes. Roberto is hardly representative of either current or past religious behavior.

Roberto is difficult.

Here is an example: yesterday the floor man came to finish tiling the kitchen floor where there had obviously been some disaster, a rent or burn. He realized he didnít have enough tiles. On the telephone I told Roberto the man was short three tiles. Roberto exploded. It was as if I had just told him I burnt up half the apartment, free-basing. There was an accusation in his voice: there were a hundred tiles, meaning, obviously, I had sailed tiles out the kitchen window like frisbees. And screaming?

Today he will be accusing me of trading in slaves.

He has done hundreds of nice things for me.

***

This apartment is across from the Duomo, fifty yards. Itís huge, all black and white marble floors. It has two terraces that view Florence and the hills beyond. There are leaks. The kitchen is a disaster. Roberto has me rent here so his brother-in-law canít sell the place.

***

Italy palls. Its politics are so wretched. Thereís a code of pragmatism which stands in for moral thinking, ethical behavior.

***

***

I went to Bologna. I thought I hated Bologna. I kind of did; it is an ugly city. I went to a museum entirely dedicated to the medieval that had such a beautiful and unusual things in it, I thought I was in heaven. Some of my favorite things: small, handbag-sized scrolls from China, from the trade routes of Marco Polo, exquisitely painted and unlike anything from Asia Iíve ever seen; a Roman column turned upside down so that the capital was turned into the base---the top was then sculpted with a very early Christian scene; a cape from twelfth century England, hand-embroidered with scenes of the life of Christ, unbelievable work, in silk, stitched by women. The Pope wore it once. It is perfectly preserved. My last favorite thing was an iron and wood gilded statue of Boniface, another Pope.

Dante put Boniface in Hell.

Bologna is north of Florence, over some of the Apennines. The conquest by the Lombards is very apparent in many of the treasures. There are columns inscribed with the same kind of design as in The Book of Kells. There are very early gold Celtic crosses. I really loved this museum. It was like seeing a retrospective of one artist, but instead of one artist, it was one time. It makes the Cloisters look sucky.

***

Anyway, one thing, America has dogs that are real dogs! That gambol and romp and love their masters. Here there are rat dogs or horrible big, sad mongrels. Europe gave up on animals, when? I never even got to see the wild pigs that are supposed to be all over Tuscany. Gerry Sternís sweetheart cardinals? Nada.

***

Paperback books sometimes cost up to thirty dollars, the ones in English. Tomatoes are very cheap. Pears taste like heaven on earth; they drip; they reek of pearness.

***

I had a lawyer, an intelligent man, a poor-boy-from-Naples made-good-in-Bologna, sit across from me on the train returning from Milan and tell me that fantasy and reality are the same thing. Men here really do half believe this.

A governing leaning, a strong pull to hierarchical rather than parallel power, are two of the dominant chords in the Italian music that is the street I walk on today and the café I enter and the cleaner I go to and the taxi I ride in and the men. There is no movement that in some way is not codified.

But this is Italy. This is grace and art and the artistic and golden Renaissance foment. This is the large (though sly) gesture. This is an emotive world. Sunny Italy.

***

I admire parts of the Catholic church. I admire the early medieval church that gave so many seemingly peripheral people succor and place. I admire St. Francis. I admire the fantastic art, the keeping alive of myth, even the greed for souls. I admire the devotion and the lunacy.

***

I am salvaged by the art here. "Why did I pick Florence" people from other cities ask me with consternation, Florence being a really difficult place of the boring, snotty bourgeois. "For the art," I say. There is so much here, so many absolute masterpieces, so many casual masterpieces . . . .

***

I still want the goofy things, like heartbreak and ecstasy and the humility of thanks.

***

The painter who paints Apollo in full frontal nudity with legs spread apart and the very large, though not erect, penis, is Pontormo, who is sixteenth century and the beginning of mannerism. It is a beautiful fresco.

***

Here is something: people believe in the evil eye! Malocchio. They believe that clerics are the vectors of the evil eye. Just for fun the other day I asked a scientist if he believed in malocchio; I thought heíd laugh at me but, instead, he said "I donít like the sisters."

I am reading Goethe and starting to hate him. The Germans, they are heavy.

***

I miss movies, sit-coms, hysterical laughing, Chinese food, Asian food, Mexican food, driving my car, my ex-dog, my friends, poetry readings, hysterical laughter . . . .
***

I am very decorous here.

***

Then I found yet another way back to Strada-in-Chianti. I really donít understand how the roads work but I understand that Florence is north from Strada and Strada is south from Florence. I aim the car on this principle.

***

It is summer. A state of mind.

***

In Tuscany it is so hot, so hot. But a beautiful place, with views, with trees, with shade, with flowers, with the immense blue swimming pool, big black bees, and, in the distance, the sound of a tractor on a far hill where they are making a new vineyard. The land rolls, is measured off, rolls. At night, due north, you can see a few lights of Florence and beyond, to Fiesole.

It is a combination of Vermont and Virginia although it is cultivated in patchworks and not wooded like Vermont and the earth is grey, not red like Virginia. The grey is volcanic earth. There are no white steeples; there are castles with crenellations.

***

Dear Roberto,

So I am to be the impetuous and you the grave, sitting at a long table working on the great puzzle of the Chinese boxes?

When I had journeyed half of our lifeís way

I found I needed straight lines, A to B, in every part of my being where I was prompted, or prompted myself, to act. The convoluted could only make a stasis and a silence. Wanting to move and wanting to speak, I move from A to B. I fear you fear this.

Before I leave for Boston, Massachusetts, I would like to employ you. To pack my computer again?

See how little I ask of you?

***
(Copyright © 1999 by Caroline Finkelstein.)
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