By Joel Campbell
I breathed a little more easy as the plane glided down to the runway. The trip had been scenic. The Alps, islands and coast of Italy provoked thoughts I had collected from history books. As the tires touched down Frank Sinatra cued up in my head. Years of Italian tropes from Olive Garden to the Godfather allegedly prepared me for this segment of our trip.
The illusions quickly evaporated from my mind in a blistering heat wave. Togas made more sense. We hailed a cab to take us to our hostel. The rush of cold air was a welcome relief. I had never considered how many times our plight played out beneath the bus terminal we had left. I started to understand as our driver zipped through the narrow streets. People running in and out of American retail stores and leather boutiques. Another buying frenzy in Firenze.
I was excited to see the graffiti. The only writing on the walls I saw was “Duty-free shopping” painted on storefronts. I settled back in my seat as the cab turned down an empty street. We were there. After checking in, the hostel clerks brought us a bottle of prosecco and glasses. We toasted our journey to visit with the locals. None of us noticed that they had left the room to work behind the front desk.
We settled in and waited for the sun to sink a little lower. I read The Sun Also Rises as my companions readied themselves for our first night out. We went for an early dinner in the plaza beside our hostel. After checking a few places for libations, we settled on a restaurant. It was only after one of our group asked the waitress where the locals liked to go that an unpleasant thought crossed my mind. She suggested that we try the other side of the river and left to get our bill. The last sip from my glass carried away my thought and any other mental mischief in a red torrent.
We regrouped in our hostel and headed to the bridge. The sound of metal inlay shoes on the cobblestone road reminded me of Roman legionaries following Julius Caesar. To add to their assumed ferocity, they would insert castanet-like contraptions to sound as though there were more of them. That line of thought, however, was too heavy to shoulder as we crossed the river and hoped that my mind would find something lighter.
There was a bar above the river and we stopped for drinks. Although I was presently a fan of the all-English menu, it would not sit well by the time we reached the riverside. Over drinks and under stars we discussed the lack of Italian in the air. From the taxi driver to the bartender, and everyone in between, it had been lacking. English was far more prevalent. It seemed as though tourism ran the city. While some may claim cosmopolitanism as the reason for such pervasiveness of English in the Italian lexicon, neither we or our respective countries, England and America, reciprocate. My unpleasant thought was wading through the liquid reinforcements. Not wanting to move the conversation to a darker place, I quietly agreed with their assessment and knew that it was not the full extent. English infusion is not only found in language it rears its head in Italian politics as well. Italian self-determination is less than preferable to the United States and its partner. A more business-friendly atmosphere is preferred. Duty-free, as it were.
The walk home was a bit of a blur and the next day found us still asleep in the early afternoon. The basic necessities drove us from our muggy room and into the hot street. We sought refuge in a shaded alley and sat on a stone bench jutting from the wall. It ended by an underground entrance. I thought that perhaps that was where all the locals were. Regardless, we once again discussed our inability to find any local culture. Not wanting to search too much in temperatures reaching over the hundred-degrees Fahrenheit mark, we settled on Museo Galileo. Science would save us. I dragged my cigarette across the stone, leaving a trail of dying fire and ash in the perforated bench. It was a faint reminder of where I had been.
On our way to the museum we passed through the Piazza della Signoria. Two Carabinieri officers watched as swarms of tourists made their way to David. It made little difference to the officers, or the servers throughout the city, why any of us were here. Between 13 and 16 million people visit the city annually. Intentions always matter little in such a system. It became more clear as we stumbled into an outdoor leather goods and typical tourist shit. The museum was no different. One exhibit was comprised of three empty bottles. Its placard simply read “Bottles.” There was a date, but I stopped reading before then.
The walk back was more somber. I left the group for some solitude. For years I had read and studied Italy. From the Kingdom of the Seven Hills to the present. The military, politics and culture intrigued me and now, wandering through the alleyways of Florence, I was starting to get closer to the remnants of the city’s culture.
If you want to see art, go to Florence. Not for the venerated museums and protected plazas, search elsewhere. There won’t be placards or tour guides, just your feet and mind. Italy’s history runs deeper than luxury goods and plastic figurines. In his history of the Roman civil wars, Appian suggests that it was graffiti that taunted Brutus the Younger into joining in on Caesar’s assassination. The legacy of street art and graffiti for both political and non-political reasons is alive, even in a city overflowing with tourists.
Posted, plastered and painted on the walls around me were alternative depictions of the world. Some were more artistic in nature. Others vied for the viewer’s attention to suggest a different politic world would be better. I was pleasantly surprised to see a familiar face among them.
I had never seen or met him. He existed in communities across America and throughout the world. The stain of the Red Scares removed him and others from mainstream discourse. He lingers on in old memories, long before America purged itself of the supposed evils of communism, socialism and anarchism. Though my Grandmother tends to vote Republican, she was the one that first mentioned him to me.
Growing up in mid-Michigan in the 1930s and 1940s, one of her neighbors, “A card-carrying member of the Communist Party,” she said, would bike up and down her rural road distributing pamphlets, newspapers and registering members. Though I doubt he was ever hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he likely received their message. Although I was finally glad to attach a face to her story, I disappointed that I had to travel all this way. As I walked down the Borgo Allegri it became clear that a biking communist was mild. Dissent was alive in the underground.
I returned to the hostel and we headed out for dinner. My mind was reeling from what I had seen: anti-war, anarchist, and anti-European Union messages floated in my head. The night was cooler and the streets were relatively empty. The sound of my shoes clicking against the stone made me think less of the ancient world and more of contemporary history. The metallic sound reverberated through the winding stone veins. Our idea of finding Florence’s heart, its local culture, seemed futile. The tourist industry had seemingly supplanted what we craved. It should come as no surprise though. To set the pace of a society is an alluring power. Not too long ago Communist partisans and Mussolini’s Fascist forces fought for the heart of Italy.
The marks of that war, and the pervasive American influence after, have changed bullet holes and powder burns to cigarette butts and ash. The signage declares commerce to be the victor by painting “Duty-free Shopping” on impeccably clean glass windows. Out of view, the remnants of that war, fought between Capitalist and Communist, Fascist and Anarchist, smolder. The embers of an alternative world fade on Florence’s walls.
I rose early the next morning. The grey overcast dawn slowly broke as I walked down the stairs to the street. I had only take a few steps from out hostel’s door when I noticed some graffiti written on the tourist bureau’s sign. It read “Yankee Go Home.” Someone had tried to deface it with little success. Beneath, someone else had written a retort, “Rembare Yanks liberated Italia WWII! Also $.” What disturbed me the most, especially as a Yankee, was the dollar sign. Converting dollars into euros still feeds the tourist machine.
The street sweeper passed as I crossed the plaza. They were clearing the stage of glass and trash for another cast rotation in this tragic Italian play. I returned to the hostel and waited for the taxi. The sweltering heat of the bus terminal drove us to a quintessentially American prop, McDonald’s. For all our intentions, we were the villains here.