Merrill Joan Gerber Old Mother Little Cat


By Merrill Joan Gerber


All Florence and Fiesole

In the morning, the Italian sun brings us both to the windows. From the kitchen we see the promised Arno River (or rather we see the depression beyond the trees that would be the river) as well as the autostrada, whose entrance is directly across the road from our building. Beyond both the river and the highway are the graceful arcs of Florentine hills punctuated by stands of cypress trees. From the "small room with terrace" we can see the hills of Fiesole as well as the terraces of the neighbors who live in the surrounding apartment houses. Already, at this early hour, women on several of the terraces are hanging out clothes. They seem expert at this, shaking out workshirts and lining them up under colorful clothespins like an array of hanging men. When one of the women looks up and sees us, I smile, but she looks away quickly. I get a clear message that this is not a social arena; she's in her bathrobe, she's doing personal chores, she is not interested in a visit. One floor below an old man is on his terrace, talking to a canary in a cage. A dog is at his feet, tail swishing. The old man smells a flower in a pot, takes a pair of clippers from an outdoor storage cabinet and gently trims a few leaves from his plant.

Joe reminds me we have a washing machine in the apartment. We do? He says it's the small white object with a glass window next to the refrigerator. In my dazed state of the night before I had not even seen such a machine. Now I rush to the kitchen to check, and instead find that I am in the living room. There's something about the geography of these four small rooms that confuses me--perhaps it has something to do with the red spiral staircase that stands just inside the front door, giving the appearance of a spinning top from all the rooms around it.

"Let's climb up the staircase," I beg Joe who has come in from the terrace. I go first up the twisting flight, holding onto the rails. There's a tinny clanking sound as I reach to the darkness at the top. "There's a door here, but the doorknob doesn't turn," I report.

"Here, let me try." I move back to let him squeeze past me, hear him manipulating metal against metal, hear the turn of a key, and suddenly our faces are flooded with light. The roof terrace is dazzled with sunlight; before us is a white expanse of pebbled asphalt as large as the apartment beneath, with a breathtaking, circular view of the city of Florence. I step into the light and there in the distance is the dome of the Duomo, as majestic from afar as it was from the edge of Ponte alle Grazie. Below us is the hidden river, the autostrada, the cypress trees, while behind us are the hills of Fiesole. I spin on my heel in the dizzying beauty of it all. I understand that this view is mine, or mine for the next three months, which for now seems almost as good as forever.


Food is the next requirement. Where are these "good shops and supermarkets" we were promised? We will have to find them ourselves. There is only one way to walk, away from the river (unless we wish to cross the autostrada bridge that goes over the Arno and heads south), so we carefully lock the door of our flat, take our many keys with us, and set out to explore.
Rounding the corner, we see that a Fiat body shop is situated just below our bedroom windows. (How strange that in the midst of a densely populated residential area there should be a car repair business. Even as we pass it by, we hear the sound of a pneumatic drill loud enough to rattle the windows.)

A pasticceria is on the corner, its windows resplendent with tortes, cream puffs, lemon tarts, and delicacies whose names I don't know yet. Though bread is number one on my shopping list, there is no bread in the shop. We walk on, and pass the local bar--several men are standing up at the counter, drinking coffee from tiny white cups. Next are the macelleria where meat is sold, then the fruttivendolo--where a great variety of fruits and vegetables are displayed outside the store.

I think I could manage to ask for "due banane" or "tre pomodori"--but more than that could be beyond my skills. What are the Italian words for garlic, for onion, for celery? I should have studied more of the language, I should have practiced.

But across the street I discover there is a supermarket. "Conad" says the sign above the door, and below are grocery carts, lined up and inviting us to take one. Crossing the street to get there is no easy matter--a line of motor scooters is roaring along the road. Joe and I pause, waiting for them to pass; several are driven by young women wearing dress suits, heels, jewelry, with leather purses down on the floorboards by their feet. Their faces express a certain aloof dignity, even as they accelerate and zoom past us. I think of my own daughters riding such vehicles, bodies vulnerable and open to accident and injury. But I see no Italian mothers wringing their hands in the street. In fact, there are a few women my age blithely zipping along on their motor scooters, as well.

In the parking lot, I find that I can't take a grocery cart; each one is chained to the next.

"I think you have to pay," Joe says. "There's a slot for money."

The only coin I have is the change I got from my 1,000 lire note in the ladies' room on the autostrada--I try it in the slot and the cart comes free. With our rented cart, we pass a young black man selling cigarette lighters, socks and other items on a blanket he's spread out near the entrance. Once in the store, we hear, coming over the PA system, the voice of Cher singing "Babe, I got you Babe..."

We encounter surprises at every step. Before I can select fruits and vegetables, apparently I must--for hygienic reasons-- put on plastic gloves. Only then am I permitted to squeeze and poke the tomatoes to my satisfaction. Once selected and dropped in a plastic bag, the fruit must be weighed on a scale. This is done by pressing the drawing that best corresponds to my purchase. I push the "tomato" button and out comes a sticker, displaying the name of the product, the price per kilogram, the actual weight of my tomatoes, and the price I am to pay. This bag is 1430 lire. Almost a dollar, using Mrs. Pedrini's scale of exchange. Joe is ahead of me now at the meat counter. The chickens come in two versions, with and without heads and feet. An Italian chicken costs four times as much as a California chicken. I choose one minus its head, then pick up speed and select other items we need to begin our cooking life: eggs and juice and milk (milk comes fresh in a carton, or unrefrigerated, sealed in a box), yogurt and margarine and olive oil, boxes of pasta, jars of tomato sauce, cans of olives.

Because we have been advised to drink bottled water, I buy two litres of acqua minerale sorgente--whatever "sorgente" means, and add a couple of bottles of Chianti Classico as well.

When we check out at the counter (they do have bar codes in Italy, the process is swift) I open my pink wallet filled with lire notes and explain to the checker the first rendition of what I know I will have to say every day in Italy: "Non parlo Italiano, sono Americana." I trust the young woman to choose the bills she needs while Joe stands by watching. She gives me back a handful of bills and change, asking if I want to buy "sacchetti" (she holds up a plastic bag). Apparently I do-- since what will we carry the food in otherwise? She takes some additional coins from my hand to pay for the bags. Then she turns to the next customer, our indication that her job is done, that the persons who buy the food are the persons who have to bag it. Joe and I load our purchases into six bags--and then realize, with another little shock, that the persons who bag the food have to carry it home in their bare hands.



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