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Preface & Reader Response

While the rest of America wrestled with a presidential election that would eventually lead to the Watergate scandal, I immersed my whole being in the wonders of Italy.


This feature is chapter one of a series that may have dozens of chapters. There are introductory essays for the series; they are marked with lowercase Roman numerals (e.g., i and ii). All parts of the series are accessible from the menu that appears under the title of each segment.


Phases of Astonishment


A More Lively Order Than the Best Day in America

Chapters: i | ii | iii | I | II | III | IV

by Jerry Murley

While the rest of America wrestled with a presidential election that would eventually lead to the Watergate scandal, I immersed my whole being in the wonders of Italy. The closest I got to heated politics was a raucous, over-amplified Communist Party rally that I wandered into on the Piazza di Santa Croce – and the sudden, periodic anarchist actions that took place that summer. When the Florentine bus drivers went on strike, they didn't shut down the buses and inconvenience everyone else. No, they did it the Italian way: they allowed everyone to ride the buses free that day. On the buses, the atmosphere was festive, with everyone laughing and in full support of the strikers. Everything about Italy that summer in 1972 had a similar world upside-down made-right air about it.

Otherwise, there were cerebral, anything-goes, civil debates about topics new and ancient, such as forced busing, as we sat in the cool, tile-floored kitchen of our apartment, double doors opening out onto a small, walled garden with an aged grapevine in the middle. On special occasions, as we cooked in the quiet of a late afternoon, we poured a glass of Chianti and listened to an old phonograph recording of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. For the first time in my life, the big wide world, which had been but an abstraction in political theory, history and literature, was fully present to me. Thus I became myself.

With a friend of a friend from Memphis, I established a base in a villa apartment on the road to Sienna on the outskirts of Florence. Don and I had not met prior to traveling to Italy that spring. We met for the first time in Florence in Boboli Gardens, having arranged the time and place through notes left at the American Express office. So the extended residence in Florence had the added benefit of being the development of a new friendship with an Italian-American from my hometown.

The kitchen was the heart of the apartment where we experimented with pizza dough recipes. Preparing meals from fresh produce and staples procured from neighborhood shops, and from the villa's gardener in exchange for labor, was equal in pleasure to the discussions at the table. There were two other memorable places in the apartment. One was an old armchair in the small parlor, near a casement window opening on the courtyard. From that chair I ventured into a book by William Godwin. Exploring an ordered theory of anarchy by an Englishman seemed most appropriate for that summer in Florence. The other place was a folding canvas beach chair out on the patio looking into the kitchen doors. There I spent a portion of every day sunning as I studied Italian grammar, read a few pages of a pocket English dictionary, and read about Italian history and culture. Fiction reading may have played some slight role, but who needed fiction – I was living the most fascinating fiction I could imagine.

We often had guests at the villa: a Greek that we met selling shoes in the city outdoor market, neighbors, and friends and relatives traveling through Florence. To our surprise, one day in the middle of the summer, a smartly dressed, blonde, Austrian opera lover moved into the apartment. Though about our age, she was much better seasoned in the conventional ways of society. She worked in Florence and had an older male friend, from north of Italy, who was often in town; he took her out often for evenings and weekends. Whereas in a U.S. neighborhood eyebrows would have been raised disapproving of our living arrangement, such was not overtly the way of Europe.

It was not unlike the Signora to squeeze every lira out of her property. In secret the neighbors referred to the Signora derisively, without knowing her personally, because they thought her tight with her resources, particularly her orchard produce. She had control over who lived in the master bedroom in our apartment. We had bargained for only what we needed and got it; now we paid for it by sharing our space, including the long front hallway, the bathroom and the kitchen, with an attractive stranger, who in fact turned out to be quiet, polite, unobtrusive, and mostly aloof.

Our new apartment mate didn't cramp our style at all, which was also surprising. We had long become used to the idea that neighborhood eyes and ears were attuned to the goings-on of others nearby, that appearances were important, and that there was the ever-present expectation and speculation that something juicy was going on – or should be going on. Our style was to bow in deference to appearances cherished in Italy (but this did not necessarily include our traveling wardrobe). In addition, Don and I both had younger sisters at home; we could coexist with our new house partner. I faintly recall our teasing her a bit like a sister as we got to used to her and she to us.

On the Fourth of July, we decided to throw an American celebration and invited our Italian bachelor neighbors to the party. On our menu were pizza, which we had only recently learned to make well, chocolate pudding (that was the American concession), and Chianti. In the early afternoon of the appointed day, Don made what was supposed to be a quick trip into Florence, in part expecting to meet others who might also be our guests at the party. As luck, and irony, would have it, Don was inconveniently detained by authorities in Florence because of mistaken identity. More to the point, he blended so well into the local populous that he was taken for a local without the proper credentials to prove otherwise. He returned home just in time to help finish preparations for the evening. The dinner party went on without a hitch – and without fireworks.

However, the experience of our Fourth of July figured pivotally in an upcoming trip to Rome that followed a day at the beach near Grossetto with our neighbors. Don's encounter with government officials over identity, and the tiny germ of my habitual vigilance while traveling, worked wildly in the petri dish of my Italian-stimulated imagination. Daylight of my first day in Rome turned the page on a journey that was part earnest quest and part sleep-deprived fantasy. Someone, some thing, was lost and found in Rome – just as my person was permanently altered by the bounty of Italy.

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