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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Week Two: Pointe a Poppi, Heat Wave, Fiesole, Raphael Gualazzi, Ciao Marcello

July 10 – Pointe a Poppi

Yesterday the SRISA summer instructors were invited to the home of the founder of the art school, printmaker Dennis Olsen and his wife Meredith Dean, a painter. I went as Barbra’s guest. It was a 2.5 hour trip from Florence to Pointe a Poppi, then a short trip by car to their hilltop. Thirty years ago Dennis discovered the abandoned medieval village of seven homes and a chapel. He purchased one home and since then other artists and academics have bought, restored, updated and live part-time in the stone homes. Dennis originally came to Italy on a Fulbright scholarship to study printmaking in 1969, stayed and opened the school. In recent years, he and Meredith split time between Texas and Italy.

We were greeted with cool drinks and platters of bruschetta (sliced dry bread topped with tomato, basil, cheeses, and olive mixtures).  After a short walk on their private hillside we enjoyed brunch on the loggia overlooking the valley below. Fresh pasta with pesto and tomatoes, salad nicoise (vegetables on lettuce with tuna and anchovy), bread and fresh fruit were set out like a photo buffet; desserts of delicate pastries, macedonia (chopped fruit) with a douse of lemoncello (lemon liqueur), and espresso finished off the perfect midday meal.

The positioning of the home, its windows and doors, allowed the breeze to sweep through with amazing accuracy to cool the space between the foot thick stone walls. The 360 degree view was that of a landowner of his kingdom. Everything in sight felt like it belonged to the top of the hill and their little village was the crown jewel. Visiting an enclave of art thinkers and doers living in a medieval village on a hilltop in Tuscany is one dream that was never on my wish list – perhaps because prior to this trip, it was beyond the realm of my imagination.

July 11 - Heat Wave
We hit what the Italian's call “a heat wave” in Florence. It was 96 degrees yesterday. We coined it “blazing hot.” We name the heat of each day as if it were art. Today, so far, it’s 99 at 3pm. We call today’s heat “ungodly hot.”  Heat with personality and a title is part of living the authentic experience downtown here in the hood. Our home is just two blocks from the Medici Palace and in a former life, we would have met at the corner café for espresso and a pastry. Of huge curiosity to me is understanding how the elite Florentine women got into those weighty layered dresses we see in paintings when their skin was overall sticky as mine is today; what did the artists wear as they painted the frescos, high off the ground in the suffocatingly hot, still air; and, what was the trick to making nightly pasta without heating up the entire house? 
We have three electric fans and put frozen bottles of water in front of the fans to chill the air as it circulates. We wear water drenched handkerchiefs around our necks and spritz our faces with chilled water from small pump bottles. We drink gallons of frizzante water – water with “gas” bubbles or mineral water that makes us feel like we’re supplying our bodies with healthy liquid. We have become quickly proficient in hand washing clothes and drying them outside the hall window. It is a simple life here in Florence and we are mastering the art of hanging the clothes on the line without dropping too many clothes pins to the rooftop below.

July 12 – Opening Windows
The days are long because it is very hot. The 96 degree temperature today feels cool compared to the blazing 99 degree heat wave of a few days ago. We rise between 6 – 8am and go to bed between 10pm and 2am. We have a system of opening and closing windows, letting the air circulate in the evening and then again early in the morning. We also keep the lights turned off, which often causes me to write in the dark from 11am until I leave for my 3pm class. Even a crack of light through the shutters of the 8’ windows heats the great room. We often work at the kitchen table wearing unshapen sleeveless dresses like the stereotype Italian Mama wears in movies.
My work space at the big table is facing the street with the stove hood light and exhaust fan turned on behind me. With the shutters closed, the room feels like a womb; it is almost completely dark and the warmth wraps my body in constant sweat; it is quiet, except for the low throbbing of the fan as it struggles to suck the stale air, while the faint hood light probably wonders why no one is cooking.  
The coolest room in the house is the bedroom with two twin beds and a tall window, just under our upstairs neighbor’s outdoor clothes line, cracked open to the shaft. This afternoon the oscillating fan, cool shaft air, and diffused light from the sky make this the perfect location to lie back on the bed, while our sheets spin in the wash, and we watch clips from My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Around 8pm we’ll open up all the windows and hope the bat that flew in last night does not return.

July 13 – Fiesole
The picturesque hilltop town of Fiesole offers a spectacular overlook of Florence, a 20 minute bus ride away. The town has a cathedral, was home to artists and aristocrats alike, and is famous for its Roman ruins. A museum is built over some of the ruins so you can see details of the architectural site, including a grave and pottery, from inside weather protected museum.
The showpiece of the grounds is a 3,000 seat amphitheater where concerts are still performed – English rock band, Pink Floyd was there recently and jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd will be there next week. We had the thrill of watching and listening to Raphael Gualazzi, Italian singer and pianist practice shirtless on the stage for his jazz performance that night.

A seat at a sidewalk café was the front row ticket to a picture perfect sunset and activities that take place when the heat of the day subsides. The main square is a transition area between the bus stop, cafes, and roads to residences. Men and women walk arm and arm, young lovers kiss, and everyone stops for a gelato, birra, or vino. 

Our ring side seats offered an unexpected close-up view of as an automobile procession passed through the town. There were more than 40 classic sports cars with drivers enjoying our shouts of recognition - Fiat, Porsche, Jaguar, MGTD and even a Morgan, the first car I ever owned. If my eyes did not deceive me, Francis Ford Coppola was driving one of the classics. 

July 14 – The Shaft

The apartment building is configured with a central spiral staircase made of stone and polished with age. The long entry hall from the street to the stair well is a large abstract marble mosaic.  This treatment is also used on the landings of the four apartment levels. There are empty shafts in the building which I’m sure have an architectural name I do not know. I have seen three so guess there are four for structural purposes.
There are tall windows in the stair well that open on to one of the shafts and tall windows from some apartments open into the stair well. There are tiny ventilation windows, covered with iron grating, connected to the less desirable bedrooms of the apartment. The more desirable bedrooms have 8’ windows opening out onto the shaft. Looking down, our shaft seems to start on the ceiling of the floor below and is open to the sky above. It is the Italian version of the back steps in I Love Lucy where neighbors converse without being in each other’s immediate presence.
We hang our laundry on an accordion contraption attached to the exterior wall with four clothes lines each three feet long. Our upstairs neighbors have four clothes lines each twelve feet long on pulleys and an orange and pink vented plastic basket, which I guess contains delicate items. Their brightly colored kitchen towels have been hanging out since we arrived and I’m wondering if they were left there because they cannot see them since they are on the line closest to their wall. Last night the man of the house leaned out the window and watched me pin a dripping ruffled blouse to our clothes line. He was about fifty with thinning hair with a paunchy stomach beneath his undershirt, but you could tell he was a stallion in his youth. “Bona sera,” he said.

I knew that meant good evening so replied, “Bona sera” as I nodded my head politely. Had I been more daring I would have shaken my fist upward and said, “Ciao Marcello, Sophia lefta the kitchen towels outa fora two weeks, whada youa doin up there if youra nota cooking anda eating?” And then I would have cocked by head, raised my eyebrows, grinned, laughed, and turned away as old lovers do.


  1. Makes me sweat just reading it. That kind of head is miserable, especially with no air-con. Great photos...feels like I'm there (sweating).

  2. Your dodging the sunlight is similar to what we do here in the desert only we have A/C..I'm enjoying your blog Ingrid, and remembering my own trip to Italy as a student. BTW, My 'Big fat Gypsy Wedding' is on TLC and is amazing in a train wreck sort of way. A guilty pleasure for sure.