who has just been to Florence and it reminded me of my time there.
In April 1976 I went to Florence for a fortnight with my mother’s husband, Zbyszek. The year before he had come out to Spain to visit me on my year abroad and had enjoyed himself so much that he decided to repeat the experience. My mother was thrilled we were going together – (with hindsight, it must have given her a fortnight off to do exactly as she pleased in London) – and I was excited because I was going somewhere beautiful and interesting – and I enjoyed my stepfather’s company. He was extremely knowledgeable and generous, and I felt comfortable with him – most of the time.
We arrived at the airport terminal in Gloucester Road (I wish it was still there) on the designated morning with our large suitcases packed and copious amounts of reading matter in our hand luggage. It was after all a two-hour flight to Milan! Everyone had to go through customs on the way out then, but usually we were just waved through. Not this time. Zbyszek’s bags were searched more thoroughly than I have ever seen before or since. Politely. Discreetly. Courteously. But extremely thoroughly. To no avail. All he had were shirts and underpants and handkerchiefs. Large ones. He was a large person. Oh, and a collection of bow ties.
After he had repacked I asked him why? Why him? He looked round and ponderously said, “I think I must look slightly different from the other travellers.” As indeed he did. On a warm spring day when most of the travellers were actually young Italians dressed in gaudy casual wear, he was dressed in a dark suit, pristine white shirt and a bow tie. His travelling clothes. He stood out like a proverbial Mafioso.
We got to Milan without mishap and then we boarded a train for Florence. The train was full of young people who were all every jolly and noisy and friendly. Zbyszek loved the guitar playing and the singing, but he absolutely drew the line at any communication with me. He made it quite obvious to everyone – just by glaring – that he would not tolerate any flirtation with me. I wasn’t too bothered by that – I had left a boyfriend behind after all – but a wee chat from time to time might have been nice. But it was not to be. We were going to Florence to explore and sightsee and marvel – not to make friends! (Very different from travels with my real father who never lost an opportunity to make conversation – in any language!)
So, that is what we did. We stayed at the Hotel Magenta not far from the river Arno (it still exists – the hotel, and the river!!) and every morning after breakfast we would take our guide book and decide on the route for the day. Uffizi, Pitti, the churches, the David etc, etc. We saw it all. We’d get up at about eight and by 9 we were on our way. The weather was cool but sunny, – I remember having a lot of denim clothes with me – must have been the only time in my life, and a cardigan – so it couldn’t have been cold.
On about the third or fourth day we went on the Ponte Vecchio which was full of little shops. Beautiful shops full of delightful leather goods and jewellery and cameos and lovely, lovely stationery. I’m still salivating at the memory of the beautiful painted parchments. But Zbyszek had eyes only for the cameos. He was determined to buy an original cameo brooch set in gold for the love of his life, my mother. My heart sank a bit when I saw what he was doing – the year before in Salamanca he had chosen a beautiful ring for her, lapis lazuli set in a turban of gold, paid for it and then realised he had very little money left to live on. He had a Diner’s Club card, but that did not take you very far in Spain or Italy in those days. He had had to get my mother to transfer funds to the bank and that was a time-consuming process.
Yet – the inevitable happened. The cameo was chosen and bought, together with a beautiful moroccoed box to house it, and the money ran out.
I had no money of my own, and Zbyszek was too embarrassed to ask my mother to send more.
So, we began to economise. We must still have had enough for entrance fees and local fares because we managed to go to Siena and Fiesole over the next ten days or so. But we saved on food. And it was actually great fun: during the day, we found a worker’s canteen which served the most delicious fresh food with a ¼ bottle of wine each, for a pittance. And in the evenings, we would go for calamari and yet more cheap wine to various bars with music and we had a great time.
By nine o’clock in the evening we would both be so tired that we’d just go back to the hotel and crash out. Day in – day out. I remember being so tired that I only managed to read one book the entire fortnight. My boyfriend had lent me Mr God This is Anna and I just managed to finish it on the way back!
I don’t think I have been anywhere where I have rubbernecked so thoroughly. And so pleasantly. One day we took a bus to the hills of Fiesole, to the great Acton Estate. As we were wandering around the gardens there was an elderly gentleman being read to by his wife from an ancient (even then) Baedeker. “Do you know who that is?” stage whispered my stepfather to me? Of course I didn’t, I never recognise anybody, let alone some political figure last seen on the political stage in the 60s. It was, however, Rab Butler, the education minister who oversaw the educational reforms of the forties. She was reading very slowly and clearly, and he was listening very intently, asking lots of questions in quite a booming voice. Very English, very arrogant, I suppose, with no thought about disturbing the peace of the other visitors. Not that there were many.
Fiesole itself was astoundingly beautiful. I am sure I took some photos but I have no idea where to start looking for them.
That holiday had a profound effect on me altogether. Hence began my lifelong love of Italy: I had been several times before with my father as generally a grumpy teenager, and therefore most unappreciative.
So, by the time I went with Zbyszek I had grown up a bit. I was ready to see and learn and enjoy. We went for the day to Siena and explored it maximally. It was very fuggy that day. We went to the Cathedral which I don’t remember very well, but I do recall seeing the steps which had a memorial carved out in them to the place where the saint lost her front teeth after tripping whilst being pursued and persecuted. Now I have just tried to verify this by googling St Catherine and teeth, and of course could find nothing of the sort. But I did find out what an independent and feisty woman she was. She knew how to get her own way. And of course, my first born is named after her!!
On our last day we had our biggest, most random adventure. we were going back from a local airport and we hired a taxi to get us there. except that it wasn’t a taxi which came for us but a little van – with no seats at the back. Zbyszek being the perfect if rather portly gentleman curled up in the back with the luggage. and off we went. When we arrived, it turned out it was the wrong airport. So back again and this time the journey was hair-raising, as the driver tried to show us just how fast we could get there. terrifying – but true. But all’s well that ends well. we made it, bruised and battered, but safe.
We came back to London, exhausted, more cultured than ever, and my stepfather could hardly contain his excitement when anticipating my mother’s face when she saw her beautiful cameo. I am glad to say that she rose to the occasion when expressing her gratitude, but I don’t think I ever saw her actually wear it. I have it now, in its beautiful little box and would really like to wear it myself. But it’s not an easy item unless you are an ancient Italian dowager. Which I’m not!