Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Firenze: Go in October – You’ll love it.

If I could only count the number of people who told us that Italy in October would be just like San Francisco. Our favorite ironic refrain nowadays has become, “Go in October, they all said. You’ll love it. The weather will be great.”

That was before the polar wind swept through Italy bringing along icy rain as a bonus. We will have a whole new wardrobe – albeit an Italian one—before this trip is finished.

We’re not the only ones however. Everywhere we go, we seem to be running into people from America, and more specifically connected to California. “You’re, like, the twentieth people from California we’ve met,” said a visitor from Virginia, in between huffs and puffs as we scaled the Duomo together. At dinner, we run into a former dancer from San Francisco Ballet, who now directs a company in Oregon. At the Mercato Centrale, we stop for truffle butter at the Conti stand and I happen to mention that we’re from San Francisco, and the woman behind the register proffers a business card and says they’ll be opening a place on Union street early next year.

I notice that we start to introduce ourselves as coming from San Francisco a lot, unless it’s a wine-related transaction, in which case, my Omnivore places us closer to Napa. Anyway, I have the sense that people here are quite used to seeing a lot of us underdressed West Coasties shivering in unison.

In fact, w
e already knew that Ms. Five-and-a-Half and Mr. Thirteen are in the area, staying in Tuscany at Le Miccine. We have plans to meet up with them on Thursday, but run into them while we’re on the line for the Uffizi.

“We’re here for a lunch recommendation,” Mr. Thirteen says with a laugh. It took them exactly two minutes to locate us in line, he says. “I knew exactly where you’d be. We already did this.”

By “this” he means the Uffizi Shuffle—not to be confused with the livelier and faster Accademia Two-Step.

Who in the name of all that is holy, thought this system up?

Now bear in mind, we have a reservation—for 1 pm—but whereas you might imagine that a reservation for 1 pm would mean that you arrive at the door of the Uffizi at the appointed hour, buy your ticket and go in, a reservation actually means that you may begin your ride on “Adventures in Queuing” at 1 pm.

Stay with me here. Everyone—you in the back—stay with the group.

12:40 pm: Clutching your tiny shred of paper with a precious number on it, struggle down the Vasari loggia to Door Number One. Read the sign that says those “without reservation, this-a-way” (ugly long line that stretches to the river), those “with reservation, proceed to Door Number Three to pick up your tickets.” Ask lots of people where Door Number Three is in this many-doored corridor. Proceed briskly across the courtyard to the other loggia to Door Number Three with many other people clutching tiny shreds of paper. Be informed by the guard at Door Number Three that it is not yet 1 pm and you will have to wait before you can even get in the line for Door Number Three.

12:45 pm: Wait, sitting on a cold stone bench for several minutes. If you’re lucky, something entertaining like a Japanese couple getting married will pass by.

12:50 pm: Decide that given the length of Door Number Three’s line, it’s going to take at least the additional ten minutes to get in.

12:51 pm: Join line.

1:10 pm: Get impatient. Foment rebellion among other tourists, and push to the front of the line to wave hands and say, “Prenotazione per uno!”

1:12 pm: Guard gives in. “Anyone with reservation for 1 pm, prego.” About a dozen others shake their shreds of paper and we all move forward in the line past the 1:15ers. “Good work, sending her up to the front,” murmurs the woman behind us to my Omnivore.

1:15 pm: Shove tiny shred of paper at woman in ticket booth, who lazily types in a number. “This is for Accademia for yesterday,” she says dismissively, with an understood “You moron,” as she gives a “NEXT!” kind of glance behind us.

In no mood for this, I take the shred of paper—which does have our Accademia reservation… written one line above the reservation that says “Uffizi”—and start to go ugly American. I shove a finger at the word “Uffizi” and say in my most uncharacteristically sarcastic voice, “Ecco. Uffizi,” with an understood, “You moron,” appended to it.

1:16 pm: Emerge from Door Number Three, proceed to Door Number One—or rather, join the end of what you assume to be the line for Door Number One.

1:17 pm: Check that you are in the right line, which you are.

1:18 pm: Enjoy the neon signs for the other, non-reservation line, which say things like “Wait time 3 hours, 20 minutes.”

1:19 pm: Speculate on how there can be this many people interested in Renaissance art in shoulder season in a cold, wet city.

1:22 pm: Explain to many confused American tourists clutching tiny shreds of paper, what the procedure is and where Door Number Three is. “Good luck!”

1:23 pm: Finally make it inside the door of the building. Security check. Like at the airport, only, thank god, they don’t want to x-ray our soggy, smelly shoes.

Welcome to the pinnacle of the Art of Western Civilization.

Curiously, as we waited in the line for Door Number One, a tall man with a shock of fuzzy white hair barreled up to the guard. Clutching a brightly colored brollie in one hand and what looked like the same ticket we had in the other, he scooted past everyone else and ducked into Door Number One without a question.

We all looked at each other and shrugged. “10:00 am reservation?”

Once inside on the security line, I saw him again, still clutching his brollie. He leaned over to the guard watching the x-ray machine’s screen, and handed her another ticket and then, most curiously, she turned around to a bank of cubbies behind her, pulled a silver butter knife out of one of them, handed it to him, and he rushed off, still clutching that brollie.

My Omnivore and I looked at each other with the “Wh-a-a?” look on our faces.

Closer examination of the cubbies revealed that each one had a piece of tableware in it. If anyone knows what this transaction signifies, will you please share it with me? I can decode Flemish iconography, I can identify saints by attributes, I can even tell you the many secret names of the Virgin Mary, but I have no idea what all that was about.

Anyway. Uffizi. Art of the Western World. Incredible, incredible place. But no longer is it even imaginable to do what I’d really like to do, which is spend a leisurely hour or so each day for a week strolling through the different galleries and enjoying the art that made the Italian Renaissance, getting to know the Baroque masters, and contemplating the development of Mannerism. It’s an amusement park ride now, a dizzying rollercoaster through gallery after gallery, as you try to absorb the transitions, the drama of subtle human interaction, and the vast display of history all at once. They’ve made it into an experience like no other, and that’s not a good thing. After three hours, you tumble down the last steps, through about eight different gifts shops, and are spit out onto the streets of Florence behind the gallery like so much flotsam.

Thanks for visiting. Come again.

I shudder to think what the Vatican Museums are going to be like now.

Contrast this with the experience we had just around the corner at the Museum of the History of Science. No one comes to Florence to see this museum, although they should, because in its way, it is as much the story of the Renaissance mind as the Uffizi collections.

Here you stroll in blessed quiet through galleries with, oh, say a half a dozen other people in the whole place. Maybe, you might have an Italian school group too, but that will be about it. But you see the astrolabes, the quadrants and compasses that made navigation and trade with other lands possible.

You see, too, the tools, the calipers and rules that made possible the brilliant architecture of this city. You see Galileo’s telescope, and the ramp on which he conducted his gravitational experiments, discovering and confirming so much about what we know and take for granted about the natural world today. It’s a fantastic place, and you are just steps away from the melee at the Uffizi—the stress and the frustration, the sore aching feet, and the brain overloaded by more paintings than you could shake a brush at.

So you might think, after all this walking, that the last place we’d hit would be a stand up sandwich stand for lunch. But we have no other options. After the Uffizi excursion, all the trattorias are shut until dinner, but we’re desperate for something to eat. Thus did we wind up at I Fratellini (via dei Cimatori 38/r, 055-239-6096), the terrific little place set into a six by four foot storefront space across the street from Orsanmichele. The guys behind the counter are chatty and funny, which makes it, understandably, a popular spot for all those Florentines you see spilling out onto Via dei Cimatori.

Order a little glass of Chianti for 1 or 2 Euros and a ham and truffle paste sandwich for another 3 Euros, and lean against a wall. It’ll be one of the best lunches in Florence that you can imagine.

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