I can hear the constant scream, rubber grating against gravel and rutted blacktop, engines rattling in protest. Drivers announce their frustrations with two hands on the center of the wheel, producing a persistent chorus of shrill sounds, the neighborhood alarm clock if the trash truck two hours earlier failed to awaken the sleeping. And I wonder how such small machines can produce such a disturbing racket that seems to trump even the shrillest ambulance squeal.
And why? Because a large baby pink truck is parked across the intersection of Via Fra Angelico and Via Cimbue, its flashing emergency lights a mesmerizing trick that falls useless on the shaded eyes of annoyed morning commuters. And the truck driver is absent from his front seat perch; he’s disappeared into Panificio, the neighborhood bakery, for breakfast, oblivious to the uproar in his wake. From my balcony, I can see it all, angry faces and tired eyes with wrinkles of irritation that mirror the six-hour hand of the clock on the wall, and perhaps the expression on my face as well. I would still be encapsulated in sleep, wrapped in fleece blankets and hidden behind a wall of pillows, if not for this.
Closing the shutters of my first floor apartment does nothing to defend against the harsh clatter of noises outside, yet it seals the kitchen in a dark, warm morning haze of protection. The muted street commotion still finds its way through imperceptible gaps that even light cannot penetrate, yet its presence is somewhat comforting. It is the sound of home, of my neighborhood beyond the city center. It’s the daily hubbub of life, comforting in some strange manner, sounds that accompany my “too early” hot cup of coffee and a small pastry from the same bakery down the street.
Like the truck driver, I too have found a small reprieve from the responsibilities of life, abandoning the redundant route by temporarily leaving the keys in the ignition to pursue a more desirable path. In this case, the pastry, that leaves you one euro less but fills you with enough imaginary fuel to conquer the day.
And Panificio offers more than morning pastries. Its corner location is prime to advertise frosted Christmas cookies and miniature pizzas, targeting audiences such as myself, who stop midstride to gaze at the array of baked goods visible through the door. The atmosphere, as well, is as tantalizing as the treats. The owner, her short black hair a contrast to pale skin and perfect white teeth, is a presence of pure joy and humor, enough so, that even if bread is not a proper addition to the evening meal, I will stop and buy a loaf just to see her daily antics as the neighborhood comedian.
On one such visit, I was caught off guard by a new addition to the glass counter. A small stuffed parrot sat by the cash register. It looked like it had been sent through the washing machine on several occasions. Bright red, blue, and yellow synthetic fur lay tangled over beady black glass eyes as it stared vacantly out the door. But when I approached to convey my request for “pane con sale,” the bird came to life, its wings flapping up and down, its eyes flashing red, as it squawked a fierce tirade of “ciao, ciao, caio” at me. And the owner just laughed. Not a dull ‘ha ha,’ but a full-bellied laugh. She tossed her head back, mouth open wide, teeth gleaming under the florescent lights, her hand resting on her stomach, whilst the other shoppers joined her at my expense. And yet, I couldn’t help but laugh as well, more at the ridiculous notion that an electronic parrot had brought strangers together one Tuesday morning.
After I paid, she slipped a small biscotti to me, hidden beneath my receipt. Her eyes sparkled with joy, as though it was our little secret, this gift of familiarity a token of understanding and acceptance. And I left, smiling as well, my salted bread tucked under one arm, the bird deceivingly quiet. It is a need of the human soul to belong; her gift of a cookie is as memorable as my Italian papers of residency. Both respond to that irrepressible desire to fit into the Florentine culture and the community past the city center.
Some mornings, when my sleepy mind cannot handle the intricacies of the coffee percolator (as simple as it may be) and Panificio’s pastry selection holds no interest for me, I venture two blocks down to Café Gioberti, on the corner of Via Vincenzo Ghiberti and Via dell’Orcagna. It’s rare to find a place to sit down amidst the clutter of Florentine tourist traps. But here, in this corner café, cherry chairs and light pine tables are a gift at no cost. The walls are often plain, but occasionally I will arrive to find the café boasting an aspiring new artist, the white plaster adorned with sloppily framed works hanging precariously on unorganized nail holes. This too magnifies the sense of home; the pride of the community is in its people. Their aspirations and talents, no matter how amateur, are as important as the coffee, which is served in chipped white porcelain mugs.
It is the haphazard environment that attracts me; the culture of the café drums to a different beat, welcoming yet impersonal. Street vendors wander in from the cold, their presence an accepted annoyance as they stand at the edge of café tables, mutely extending small packages of tissues and garish gold necklaces over steaming cappuccinos. They are treated as invisible presences, waved away with a subtle flick of the wrist, a gesture that could be easily mistaken as a motion of emphasis in a conversation between friends. I have yet to perfect this dismissive wave. When a peddler reaches my sun-dusted table, I have no choice but to withstand his aggressive sales tactics, as gaudy items are brandished inches from my face. However, once frequenting every table, they leave silently, the coffee chatter in the café unchanging; the drum never misses a beat.
Dogs are as welcome as people; black Labradors lounge under tables, paws tangled in their owners feet, tails thumping across wet umbrellas, dusting the terracotta tile in a glittering mist. Their presence is normally discreet, except for the rare occasion when a small terrier walks past the front store windows.
It is at that moment when the comforting, homespun atmosphere is shattered. The elderly woman, who was once feasting on a cornetto, halts mid-bite in alarm, a smattering of powdered sugar suspended on her lip as she stares in horror at the dog’s antics. And the black Labrador, at first a picture of obedience and good breeding, is now in high pursuit of the smaller canine, his back legs scratching at the terracotta tiles, leaving a Pollock painting of moist nose smudges on the window.
Only the shop’s occupants, those in need of a cane or walker, respond in fright to the disruption. As loud as it may be, the barista and even the owner of the dog continue their coffee etiquette without pause; the deafening world of neighborhood gossip and busy mornings has arrested their complete attention.
A short two blocks walk down from Café Gioberti, just past Piazza Beccaria, on Via Cimabue, is the neighborhood gem, COOP. I have been blessed to live next to this thriving supermarket; however, with such convenience comes the self-imposed sacrifice of possessing a maroon grocery cart. On my weekly visits to restock empty shelves and a bare refrigerator, I pass by a sisterhood of proclaimed COOP shoppers, all dragging the same burgundy bag that proudly declares, while not explicitly, “I shop at COOP.” This might not seem like a negative membership, this accidental club a means of necessity and sustenance. Yet the member profile is a society of white hair and shuffling gaits to which I don’t yet belong.
And even so, they smile at me sweetly, offering mute suggestions for the best gelato (according to one, the individual servings of cherry), but bear their independence as boldly as their shopping carts. It would be a colossal mistake to consider their relaxed pace a handicap, for, in certain matters of importance, they are most assertive. I have witnessed it, watched them weave between focused shoppers at COOP in order to lay hands on the last wheel of Panforte. And indeed, anyone who can stomach the typical Tuscan chewy fruitcake is worthy of my respect.
Too often we mistake a wrinkled countenance as disability and subject these figures, wise and well-loved, to cafeteria food, hospital beds, and over-attentive care at the hands of strangers. But here, in this small neighborhood of Florence, beyond the city center, the elderly are instead hand in hand with daughters and sons, and frequent COOP with pride, their mauve badge of self-sufficiency ricocheting off the many facets of cobblestone behind them.
Laden with groceries, the walk home from COOP is suitably short. The neighborhood settles into a comfortable midday lull. However, the Tabacchi shop across the street is now the height of community bustle. Its daily activity is visible from my front porch. And, unfortunately, I can hear the nighttime traffic as well, as desperate addicts angrily accost the cigarette vending machine, rattling the metal garage door as they retrieve their change along with their purchases.
The Tabacchi is the neighborhood antagonist; the warmth of community doesn’t cross its threshold. The main cashier is dark and moody, a full beard matches his piercing stare, a daily expression I’m afraid. Normally, I avoid the Tabacchi at all costs, yet, when my stash of stamps dwindles, I am left with no other choice but to venture inside.
I falter over my words, asking for stamps to America. And he just stares back at me, his finger caught in the pages of his binder, the one with all the stamps. Briefly, it flies open, but then snaps shut with the same speed. And I could have sworn (to this day, I’m still not sure), that I saw the 85 cent international stamps, a whole page of them. But, gruff-voiced and grumpy, he declares that he is simply sold out. A suspicious grin spreads over his face as he presents to me another option: the euro stamp, first-class among delivery choices. Only fifteen cents more, he counters. Unfortunately I need five stamps. That extra 75 cents would purchase a more appetizing pastry from Panificio down the block, a better choice of calories than licking the back of a glue slathered euro stamp.
I backpedal out the door and retreat to my safe house across the street, my apartment, Via Fra Angelico 45. Every neighborhood has its quirks, the comedian baker and her stuffed parrot, the eclectic café with its smudged windows, the COOP cult of shopping bag owners, the mysterious Tabacchi cashier with an invisible Pinocchio nose. But in my apartment, I am once again safe; I am on the sidelines, watching the neighborhood drama unfold from my balcony.
And if another pink truck finds pleasure in blocking the six o’clock morning traffic, I can merely close the white shutters and seal myself off from the neighborhood beyond the city center to enjoy my coffee and pastry in peace.