Excerpt: Authentically overwhelmed in Florence

»  Sometimes the stereotypes are accurate.

Florence in the morning.

In the days before I departed for Europe, Italy was all over the news, with common themes of discord, tumult, corruption, confrontation. Rome was drowning in traffic and street crime; Naples was drowning in garbage and organized crime; Venice was just plain drowning. This was the reality of modern life. The Italy of tourist daydreams was now located somewhere between Atlantis and Oz, a lost land of wistful fantasy.

 In Frommer’s day, apparently, the fantasy had been a reality. “A vast number of Americans saw ‘La Dolce Vita’ and have ached to get here ever since. They won’t be disappointed,” he says of Rome, and his chapters on Venice and Florence carry the same sentiment: Hollywood was right. Sun-dappled rolling hills! Renaissance statues in every piazza! Simple-but-wise peasants offering you wine and pasta!

 

 But I knew better. Those rolling hills would now be porcupined with cell phone towers, the piazzas crammed with cargo-shorted tourists pushing past buskers screeching dated pop songs, the statures usurped by fiberglass replicas (with missing limbs magically reattached), the charming peasants replaced by pickpockets and aggressive souvenir hawkers, the pasta tasting suspiciously like it had been prepared by Signore Spaghetti-O.

 

So what the heck was going on, I wondered, as I peered out the window of the bus from the Pisa airport to Florence and saw a place that was just . . . just . . . so freaking Italian. The people, the landscape, the architecture: everything matched the stereotypical representations of Hollywood, tourist brochures, wine bottle labels, and other purveyors of fantasies and half-truths. It was, as Frommer suggested, a “fantastic dream.”

 

 Those cute little houses in the Tuscan Villa style were actual, well, you know, Tuscan villas, in all their authentic, charmingly rustic, picturesquely crumbling glory. Outside each one, a wood-burning oven buffed quaint little plumes of smoke. Queues of handsomely gnarled olive trees marched insouciantly to the horizon. Old women with walking sticks hobbled regally by the side of the road. The famously manic Italian style of driving was on full display, with scooter drives zigzagging through traffic like so many Prada-clad mosquitoes. Even the sky seemed art directed: a dome of piercing cerulean perfectly complementing the deep of the green of the rolling hills and scattered with a handful of pert cotton-ball clouds. It was postcard-perfect, as though contrived by the local tourism board— “Giovanni, here they come! Go drive past them on your Vespa! Carmela, hide the satellite dish and put your delightfully scruffy goats out in the field! Quickly! Prego. Ciao.”

 

Frommer starts the Florence chapter by claiming “this is a city for reflection.” To which I say: nuh-uh. At least not at first. It turns out that my initial reaction to such stunning sights is not rumination but blissed-out gaping. To wit: here and there, I spotted the expected trappings of twenty-first-century life— anti-immigrant graffiti, dreary industrial sites, goat herders talking on cell phones, ads for American corporations—but my brain had already become so thoroughly re-wired, so taken with the soma of stereotypes fulfilled, that every time the trenchant, sarcastic internal monologue began, the giddy, altered-state tourist immediately drowned it out: “HOLY CRAP, LOOK AT THAT ADORABLE LITTLE OLD MAN IN THAT ABSURDLY LUSH VINEYARD—WHERE’S MY CAMERA?!”

 

When the bus rolled into Florence’s historic city center, the authenticity high turned into an enrapturing overdose at the up-close sight of the winding cobblestoned passageways encroached by the ineffable Old World architecture: arched doorways, elaborate cornices and corbels, massive shutters, and, on every wall, the perfect golden-hued, slightly cracking faux finish—er, wait, no, not faux. It brought to my mind every example of fake Tuscan architecture I’d seen before at the Olive Garden and other Italian restaurants, in interior design magazines in countless places.

 Except it was better. Vastly superior to even the most carefully crafted fake.

 

 Writing about themed environments such as Disneyland, the Italian writer Umberto Eco observes that “the pleasure of the imitation, as the ancients knew, is one of the most innate in the human spirit; but here we not only enjoy a perfect imitation, we also enjoy the conviction that the imitation has reached its apex and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it.” Yes I can’t help but wonder if Florence provided a corollary argument, that once an imitation has seemingly established the apex of perfection, any reality that exceeds it can’t help but appear fake itself. This was authenic-plus-one.

 Florence somehow conformed even to expectations and archetypes I had not previously formulated in my mind but which became manifest as soon as I saw them in from of me: the history-of-a-culture tableau of runway-worthy outfits drying on ornate wrought iron balcony railings; the precise carefree manner of the high-heeled, black-clad woman pedaling a rickety bicycle while talking on a tiny, sleek cell phone and smoking and gesturing wildly.

BY THE NUMBERS: Price of the gelato Frommer says you should eat as your final act in Rome: 9 euros ... My opinion of said gelato: low ... Price of small-ish serving of aforementioned two flavors at Gelateria del Teatro, which I ate immediately after the inferior gelato, in hopes of rebooting my palate and giving Rome a more appropriate final act: 2.50 euros ... Price of a typical medium gelato at a good stand in Rome: 3 euros

 

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