We've been in a unique position to observe the contrast between the real Florence and its fictional counterpart. Our accomodation here was arranged through the rather wonderful Airbnb, a service that allows people with spare rooms or houses find people that want to stay in them. The appeal to start was that it was cheaper and more fully-featured than most of the hostels and hotels in the city, with free Wi-Fi, breakfast, and laundry services.
What we've found, however, is that it has had many unforeseen benefits, foremost of which is Roberto, our host. His knowledge of the area has seen us dine at some of the best restaurants that are frequented by the locals themselves, not tourists. Plus, we've discovered the contrast between the Florence the city wants you to think it is, and the Florence that people here live with.
Today we wound our way past the Duomo and down to Ponte Vecchio, the old bridge that has spanned the Arno for nearly 900 years in one form or another, and is now home to jewellery shops. In doing so, you must navigate the tourist district, a nightmarish hellhole of walking tours, pickpockets, trinket salesmen and loud Americans. The streets are the classic tall and narrow shuttered buildings, but the stores offer waffles, Segways and Subway. It's a strange contrast between historic museums and the westernised subculture that has grown up around it.
We wandered down to the Palazzo Pitti, which is home to six different exhibitions including a modern art museum, huge garden, history of Italian fashion and historically accurate palace rooms. And there we found was a Japanese art display. It turns out that while everyone else was busy admiring the decor and design of the Tuscan artists, two hundred years ago those elite were fascinated by the land of the rising sun. It permeated their paintings, ornaments and culture. Apparently, every country shares being bored of itself; the search for the novel, again. For us that search amounted to over thirty kilometres of walking in the past two days alone.
We're based out of town, about a twenty minute walk from the train station depending on your degree of heatstroke, in the suburbs proper. In the past two days Suburban Florence has quite a different feel. It's blessedly quiet off the main streets, but that's probably because so much of the city is boarded up. The problems with the country's economy are well-known, but thanks to the influx of tourist dollars the heart of the city is still well-maintained. Stray out to the edges, though, and you encounter many construction sites with no workers, empty storefronts and a general run down look to the exteriors of most buildings.
And yet the people you encounter out here in the real world are actually friendlier than the ones in the city who must tolerate the general rudeness of the tourists. They have not given up hope. Both truths are exemplified by how Roberto, having already offered to cook us dinner tonight before the big Euro soccer match, is now listening to Country Strong by Gwyneth Paltrow on repeat.
"Cause I'm country strong/hard to break/like the ground I grew up on/You may fool me and I'll fall/But I won't stay down long/'cause I'm country strong."
If it wasn't for the fact that it was actually happening right now, I'd write something like this off as too cutesy to actually happen. But in between writing that sentence and this one, I just hung washing out the window of a four storey building over an asphalt carpark. It's like all my clichés are coming true at once. But listening to Roberto speak brings it all back down to Earth: he is retired, but living off of meagre savings. The government recently pushed back the pension age from 40 to 42 (insert gut reaction here), and he is in the limbo years. We've all joked about the Italian retirement age, but for his generation, who spent years expecting a particular level of support only to stumble into a shitstorm not of their making, it's all very real. And yet here he was, cooking us dinner, a smile on his face and an eye on the clock for the start of the football. While the city may be pretending to visitors that it's something it's not, there is no doubting the integrity of the people who inhabit it.