Italy dweller Kamin Mohammadi visits Florence and finds its natives are relishing the absence of tourist throngs. And she hopes AirBnB has gone forever
It was my first foray into Florence since the Italian lockdown kept us all tethered to within 200m of our homes.
For me, who had decided to self-isolate after arriving back in Italy on 29th February, exactly ten days before the whole of Italy was placed under Europe’s strictest lockdown, it was also my first journey away from our rural home in the Tuscan countryside in nearly three months. Even though I am the doyenne of slow living – my last book Bella Figura tells the story of how I swapped an uber-busy life as a London magazine editor for the joys of the more leisurely pace of Florentine life 12 years ago – I had noticed in those strange weeks of lockdown that my internal clock had reset such that when I went for walks in the hills, I could almost feel the grass growing, the butterflies flapping their wings, the bees suspended in mid-air.
And now, all of a sudden, our restrictions had been lifted. We were allowed out without the self certification that had become law, and I had headed straight to Florence.
I had wanted to visit Florence during the lockdown, to experience the absolute emptiness of her streets, to feel the eerie sense of living in a giant sculpture, as Florentine friends had described it. But it had not been possible and now, I was practically panting with anticipation behind my rose-pink mask. As I drove into San Niccolo, the neighbourhood which had been my home in Florence, the shock of traffic and cars triple parked on every corner nearly made me flee back to the country. I felt my heartbeat start to race, the stress rise up in my body. But I persevered and finally found a spot, parked the car and headed to the Ponte Vecchio and the centro storico.
Cars thinned out as I entered the centre, and, for the first time in as long as I can remember I could walk undisturbed, not having to step out into the street to avoid the crowds that loitered on the narrow pavements. There were people, but they were few and we all caught each other’s eyes over our masks and nodded, exaggeratedly crinkling the corners of our eyes to denote the smile hidden under the mask, all while giving each other a wide birth. On the street instead of taxis and people carriers, golf carts chugging tourists around as if Florence was just a giant resort, there were bicycles, families of four calmly riding together.
On the Ponte Vecchio, its shops all closed, I stopped and spread out my arms. There were a handful of other people gleefully strolling along, the cyclists weaving through us, young kids wobbling on their first bikes encouraged by mums and dads. There was a sense of ebullience, of shared joy – we all knew how the other was feeling: delighted to be out.
I paused on the famous arches to look out over the river when I noticed a young man, sitting leaning against the wall on one arch, quietly reading a book as the Arno flowed under him, the water babbling, the soft breeze carrying the scent of jasmine. I could feel the utter relaxation of his whole being, and I thought – this is what the city is for. For idling through, for pausing and enjoying a beautiful moment, the golden (pollution-free) light, the sound of the water, the perfumed air. He looked up and our eyes met and crinkled in mutual relish.
My walk through the centre offered up a myriad moments as magic as this one. Families riding their bikes together around the Duomo – for once not flanked by trinket sellers and cartoonists and horse-drawn carts. Florentines queued to enter their cathedral, newly opened, patiently submitting to their temperatures being taken. Everywhere young mothers pushed prams, and dogs played as their owners paused to chat, to laugh, to say (for the first time in my hearing ever): ‘Oh mustn’t complain!’
On the corner of what is usually one of the busiest streets in the historic centre, I saw a woman sitting on the wide stone bench built into a vast palazzo. There were no cars to spew fumes into her face, no tour groups to tread on her toes. She just sat there, leaning back, her eyes closed, her face turned up to the sun. She was like a sunflower, newly released from months in a dark tiny flat, absorbing the sun and just being. It almost moved me to tears. As did the sight of a mother and daughter sitting back to back on a bench in front of the basilica of Santa Croce – normally carpeted with people – both absorbed in what they were reading: a newspaper for mum, a comic book for the girl. In front of them two dogs chased each other in the middle of the square while a lone jogger huffed around and around the gorgeous square.
The locals had taken back their town, so long conceded to thronging mass tourism, chased out of city-centre apartments by the colonisation of AirB&B.
I stayed a few days in Florence, dawdling in its splendid piazzas, drinking aperitivo on the river as the sun set, walking serenely in formal gardens normally trampled under so many feet. I hung out with other locals watching as the sun set in a blaze of glory behind the Ponte Vecchio, chatting with strangers about our hopes for a more sustainable Florence and fears of the near future as regional borders reopened, perhaps bringing the virus back to the city. More than ever, these random encounters which make up so much of the fabric of Florentine street life, felt like meeting friends. After all, we had all watched the worst horrors of the pandemic as it swept through Italy, we had all hung rainbows from our windows, sung with gusto every evening, wept as we saw army trucks carry away dead bodies in the night from Bergamo because there was no more room to bury them. We are all touched by grief and tragedy and ebullience and hope and we are all enjoying the gift of slowness that Phase Two has given us. And we are all happy to be flaneurs in Florence.
On my last morning in the city I woke up at dawn. I headed up to Piazzale Michelangelo to watch the golden light sweep over the city. There was no one there and I wished I could pirouette and jetté my way across the space, the city at my feet. And then I saw him. Standing where the railings give away to a ramp down to the street, a very young man in ballet tights doing exactly that, the glorious Renaissance city laid out behind him, his father holding a camera, a phone emitting music. And the boy danced, and he leapt and he pliéd with perfection, and I thought my heart might burst. A boy and his city, this place that has inspired such great art, and whose heart can be heard beating again now the deafening noise of commercialism has gone, able once again to inspire its citizens to create, to dance, to read, to soak up the sun. To just be.
By the time you read this, the moment will have already passed. We will be in another phase of the city’s response to the pandemic – we have already shifted from #ripartiamo to #rinascita, the debate as to how to midwife the city’s rebirth, and, with regional and EU borders opening up on 3rd June, we will once again be sharing our city with visitors. But the uncontrollable crowds won’t be back for some time and until then, we can enjoy the rare treat of being able to idle through the city. And each of us will be experiencing this to some extent in our own cities, and I hope that the slower pace will encourage us all to embrace the joys of idling, of being and, if the mood takes us, of dancing in a deserted square at dawn.
Kamin Mohammadi is the author of Bella Figura: How to Live, Love and Eat the Italian Way and The Cypress Tree. She was born in Iran, grew up and worked in London and now lives in Italy. Kamin’s online course with the Idler Academy is on sale at half price till Monday 8 June.
Kamin also joins a A Drink with the Idler, our Thursday evening Zoom event on 4 June at 6pm. She is joined by forager Roger Phillips, philosopher Mark Vernon and Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson. Click here to register. It’s free.